Sleeping in this bed, which R.S. sends from San Francisco, could have been Oscar Wilde, Max Beerbohm or Aubrey Beardsley. They would have dreamed in late 19th C. of artistic creations that did not preach to their audience in the style of the Victorian works, or moralize, or politicize. Indeed, they would dream that their next quotable quote, essay, parody, cartoon or illustration would be anything but welcomed by the status quo. They hated art or design which was practical or utilitarian. Those high-minded design principles were goals of The Aesthetics, a philosophically based art movement of the late 19th C.
This bed is an American (late Victoria period 1875-85) New York Aesthetic Movement carved bed. The important phrase in this description is “Aesthetic Movement,” which was a culture-wide movement proclaiming “art for art’s sake,” begun in England with men like Wilde and Beerbohm. Those two creative types were co-conspirators to upset the Victorian standards of the late 19th C., and they alternately loved and hated one another. Wilde wrote about the young Beerbohm: “The gods bestowed on Max the secret of perpetual old age.” All of us know someone like that: brilliant, cantankerous, scholarly, a little hunched over, and devastatingly cynical. Perfect qualities for the occupant of a bed like SR’s.
As Beerbohm’s “old age” was recognized by Wilde, so was the Middle Ages style recognized by the Aesthetes. The hankering for all things Gothic was a hallmark of Aesthetic Movement design, clearly seen in R.S.’s bed. R.S. sleeps in this bed while visiting his friend, and when he does, he dreams he’s in church. Yes, this Aesthetic furniture has an ecclesiastical feel to it, as well as something very Asian in its simple geometric joinery. The period in furniture design that slightly pre-dates and parallels Aesthetic Movement is Eastlake, having similar geometric lines as opposed to the curly-cues of late Victorian ornate and over-blown furniture. The proponent of that movement was a curmudgeon himself.
Sir Charles Locke Eastlake (1839-1906) was an English art director, collector, painter, architect and writer pursuing “reform” of Victorian gaudy design. His book Hints on Household Taste in Furniture, Upholstery, and other Details was published in 1872 in the US and became a designer’s bible. Eastlake insisted that good taste was HIS taste: a mixture of Old English and Gothic elements. So pared down did later generations find Eastlake Taste that his furniture today is known as Stick-Eastlake.
When it came to the Aesthetic Movement thought and design leaders, they decried anyone who suggested “taste” could belong to a style or a nation, as Eastlake did. Ironically, what the Aesthetic Movement did for art and design was to make ‘alternative’ taste a style, and the Aesthetes were lampooned for their snobbish Bohemianism. Yet the Aesthetic thought leaders loved to define taste: as Oscar Wilde said, “I always pass on good advice. It is the only thing to do with it. It is never of any use to oneself.”
I have a suspicion that R.S.’s friend’s bed is a design by one of the leading American furniture houses of Aesthetic Movement furniture, New York’s Herter Brothers, 1865-1907. The brothers Herter, Gustave and Christian, designed for forward thinking wealthy folks, because although their designs are not based on Victorian ponderousness, they were old world German finish carpenters who liked artistic flourishes: they added fine inlay, tile work, hand crafting rich designs. They made furniture for the most prominent New York families, the Vanderbilts, Goulds, and Morgans. Thus, like R.S.’s friend’s bed, the lines of their furniture were simple and Gothic in statement, but elegant in their detail and flourish, such as inlaid marquetry work. The Herter Brothers were known for creating whole SUITES of furniture for a room with themed designed characteristics, so R.S.’s bed would have been mated with two dressers, mirrors, nightstands and an armoire.
If I am right, and R.S.’s friend’s bed is a design by the Herter Brothers (I would need to check Herter’s design books at Winterthur Museum in Delaware) the bed would sell at auction for upwards of $4,000. If made by an unnamed craftsman, the bed would fetch $1,500 at auction. Yet this furniture as “Aesthetic” is a good investment because not many people collect this short-lived design. Those that do will pay top dollar. By the first quarter of the 20th C., just as Aesthetic era artists and designers were very old men, the design world leapt into modernism with the onset of World War I.
Certified appraiser for estates, inheritances and trusts.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart's column appears every week in the Salon & Style section of the Santa Barbara News Press. Email her your questions and high-resolution photos at ElizabethAppraisals @ gmail.com
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