Moving through the London literary scene during the fin de siècle was not a comfortable ride. Oscar Wilde is one of the most explosive examples but others who navigated those restrictive streets and who cloistered themselves in the gentleman’s clubs learned what a dicey trip rebellion can be. The lot of them, known as aesthetes and decadents, frequently show up in literature written during the era. In The Cantos of Ezra Pound, for instance, the poet quotes a conversation he had with Aubrey Beardsley, the caveat “beauty is difficult” showing up a number of times in his Pisan Cantos.
For Decadents Beauty is Difficult
I’d be hard-pressed to find a more subjective phrase than this one, an idiom that often pops into my mind as I cover design events and product introductions during which hundreds of manufacturers and tastemakers hope to make their mark on the industry. This snowballs as I approach happenings like High Point Market, which kicks off next week. Though this is only one of a handful of major design events I attend each year, it is one of the most taxing given the sheer volume of products debuting.
A gentler experience is the Decorative Fair, a venue for antiques that drew me to London last year. While there, I accomplished quite a bit of literary adventuring that included a trip to Horace Walpole’s estate Strawberry Hill with Pippa Roberts. It was such a luxurious day of experiencing the gothic splendor of the architecture Walpole painstakingly created that it has become one of my all-time favorite design jaunts.
Back in London, my sleuthing took me to the streets—hours spent tracking down the homes of some of my favorite British writers, including Mr. Walpole and Mr. Wilde. My home-base when I’m in London is the Chelsea Arts Club, an affiliate of The National Arts Club, my club in NYC. The location in Chelsea provides me with easy access to many of the parts of London where my literary heroes moved around when they were alive.
It’s also within walking distance of Sloane Square where one of my favorite bookstores, Potterton Books, is located. After visiting Tite Street, where I photographed the above shot of the placard noting the residence was the former home of Oscar Wilde last year, I trekked to the bookstore to see what treasures I might find on the shelves—allowing myself only one title, as the room in my suitcases was maxed out.
The choice I made that day has served me well, as it not only presents an exploration of the philosophies and writings of the aesthetes and decadents of the late 19th century, it also includes one of the best presentations of the development of London during their time that I’ve ever read.
A Decadent London
The book is Decadent London by Antony Clayton, and it explores the trajectory of events that made the 1890s the extraordinary decade it was. As I began reading it while having lunch at ColbertI was glad the author reminded me that by 1901 London was the most populous city in Europe, which meant it was undergoing an explosive uptick in growth. Clayton describes everything from smog (the term was coined in London during that decade) to the advent of luxury hotels and the literary scene that underwent dramatic changes during that decade.
“You will find magic and mystery in her fogs, as Whistler did,” Clayton writes in his prologue, quoting Frank Harris; “and in her gardens some June morning you will wake to find her temperate warmth of desire more enchanting than any tropic heat…” I’ll leave the smog and the fever hospitals mentioned in the book to the historians, as my aim is to concentrate on the way shopping for furnishings and a growing brazenness of the artistic and literary set paralleled.
Clayton quotes Lady Jeune, who wrote an article for the Fortnightly Review, to describe how retailers were changing their tactics at the time. It’s as if our current mode of the big box store was coming into being because she notes how clothing, millinery, groceries and furniture—“all the necessities of life” as she called them—came together under one roof for the first time.
Clayton explains that shopping was a full-fledged leisure activity by this time and within that dynamic, the store Liberty was swallowing up all of the surrounding shops. The author dubbed it “the principal destination for any aesthetic shopper,” describing the store’s influence on contemporary taste as immense, especially where Japanese accessories were concerned.
“It’s furnishing department was regarded as a trendsetter,” he added. “Liberty helped furnish the Moorish music room in the Marquess of Aberdeen’s House in Grosvenor Square. Supplying fabrics by William Morris, silver, pewter, jewelry and wallpapers, along with Oriental goods of all kinds, Liberty could count among its customers such important artistic figures as Ruskin, Alma-Tadema, Burne-Jones, Rossetti and Whistler.”
The culture in London was changing in other ways. The introduction of the bicycle made Battersea Park, where the Decorative Fair is held, and Hyde Park popular places to peddle. H.G. Wells became such an enthusiastic proponent of cycling that he wrote The Wheels of Chance: a Cycling Holiday Adventure in 1896. For his research, he spent many hours cycling around the lanes of Surrey and the streets of West London!
The BBC has released a preview of a new episode of Future Tense that takes a look at how Wells, the literary “father” of time travel, took inspiration for his science fiction from a sleepy corner of England. The narrative celebrates the author’s 150th birthday a few weeks ago on September 21.
Wells was one of the writers and artists of the era who frequented the gentleman’s clubs. The long list of these male escapes included the Carlton, the Athenaeum, the Garrick, the Marlborough, the Guards, the Army and Navy, the Reform, the Hogarth, the Cocoa Tree, the Pilgrims’ and the Beefsteak (among others).
Wells was a member of The Reform Club, founded in 1836, which also attracted Henry James to its quarters. The latter could often be found writing letters to pals like Edith Wharton from that address on the Club’s stationery, such as was the case with the letter below. He also wrote to her on the Anthenaeum’s stationery from time to time, which shows the popularity of these “havens of escape and relaxation” and “convivial meeting places for like-minded men,” as Clayton describes them.
Aubrey Beardsley belonged to the Hogarth, and Sir Richard Burton and Bram Stoker called the Beefsteak Club a home-away-from-home. The Albemarle Club was a favorite of Oscar Wilde’s. He dined with Lord Alfred Douglas and Herbert Beerbohm Tree there following the triumphal first night of his staged play An Ideal Husband on January 3, 1895.
Luxury hotels sprang up during this decade—Wilde frequenting The Berkeley and The Savoy, which claimed to offer “the perfection of luxury and comfort”—the hotelier’s takes on these twin attributes likely quite different than Wilde’s given his penchant for shock value. Another pantheon of luxury, Claridges, was rebuilt between 1895 and 1898; and the Hotel Cecil was completed in 1896, the grand ballroom that extended over one-hundred feet was forty-six-feet high.
It could hold over 500 guests and was described as a room of great splendor. “Throughout its interior many-colored and costly marble and polished granite are used in profusion,” wrote A.H. Beaven. “Corridors are lined with hand-wrought tapestry and decorated in Pompeian style.”
But perhaps the hotel of the era with the most avant-garde fame was the Cadogan where Wilde was arrested for committing indecent acts on April 5, 1895. I truly enjoyed how Clayton set the scene with the above survey of London’s infrastructural and cultural development before he launched into the “flowering” of the decadents who wrote and painted some of the decade’s most important works of art. They were tops on my list during my walking excursions to identify where their creative activities had blossomed.
Walking Through the World of the
Aesthetes and Decadents
Given its proximity to the Chelsea Arts Club, I spent quite a bit of time hunting down former residences of my literary heroes on Cheyne Walk. The long list of literati who once called the lovely street along the Thames home includes James Whistler, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Algernon Charles Swinburne, Henry James, Bernard Berenson, George Eliot, and Bertrand Russell. The above image is of a fountain in a sliver of a park bisecting the street, which is dedicated to Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Notice of his former address is one of many bright blue plaques on the façades of buildings along the street.
Rossetti was one of the most influential Pre-Raphaelite artists to inspire the avant-garde group feverishly attempting to change the rules by bending them to the breaking point during the 1890s. Algernon Swinburne’s poetry, Walter Pater’s writing and the battle cry “art for art’s sake” further fueled the decadent flames that were burning along London’s streets. Clayton notes that these incendiary personalities were not products of England but of a cosmopolitan London.
French poet Charles Baudelaire is also touted as an influence. As proof, Clayton quoted his declaration that he was a flâneur, or “a detached metropolitan figure wandering through the complex network of streets, casually observing humanity in all its myriad manifestations.” The author deemed this a potent call to action because writers like Arthur Symons and Lionel Johnson undertook long walks across the city in hopes of finding inspiration from the variety and energy of London. I call my walks literary adventures as I follow in their footsteps and I’m grateful I have the freedom to do so without inciting suspicion in our contemporary times.
The next time I’m in London, which I believe will be January, I will return to Potterton Books and I will also make a pilgrimage to Hatchards, which was a favorite bookshop of many of the decadents including Wilde. Rudyard Kipling shopped there as well. The Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese on Fleet Street is another spot I’ll visit, its footprint dating back to 1538, though it was rebuilt after the great fire of 1667.
Decadents Symons and WB Yeats frequented the watering hole, which was home to the Rhymers’ Club that used it as a venue for gatherings during the early nineties. It’s even purported that Charles Dickens raised a pint there! But there is a great deal of territory to cover before then, and first up is High Point beginning for me a week from Friday.
The Modern Salonnière and For Aesthetes and Decadents Beauty Is Difficult © Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. Saxon is an author, poet and strategist whose books include Anywhere But Here, Stranded on the Road to Promise and Four Florida Moderns.
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