Garlands of Victoriana: Teasing the Nose and Eye

OH, bother the flowers that bloom in the Spring!'' bursts out one of the comic characters in Gilbert and Sullivan's ``Mikado.'' It's the exasperated voice of a man baffled by the unrealistic fantasies of romance in a dull old world. It's a note sounded to the amusement and relief of the side of us that finds all such flowery nonsense as forget-me-nots and daisies - all such fancies as elves and fairies with names like ``Cobweb'' or ``Pease-blossom'' - just too much to take. G&S poked mischievous fun at all that - the buxom dame in ``H.M.S. Pinafore'' who is called ``little buttercup'' but could ``never tell why''; the chorus of unlikely fairies in ``Iolanthe'' causing midsummer-night's-dreamish havoc in the Houses of Parliament; and, best of all, the aesthetes - the drooping, lily-bearing poets and their adoring, artistically draped, melancholic ladies - in ``Patience'' (1881):

Twenty love-sick maidens we,

Love-sick all against our will.

This comic opera poked specific, and devastatingly witty, fun at the Aesthetic Movement and its attendant attitudes and characters, real or imagined - at ``sentimental passion of a vegetable fashion'' expected to ``excite your languid spleen'' or at the ``pure young man'' who ``walked down Piccadilly with a poppy or a lily'' in his ``medieval hand.''

Broadly, the Aesthetic Movement was a tendency among artists and writers in Britain and America in the period from 1855 to the mid-1880s which aimed to instill contemporary taste with a higher sense of the beautiful in both art and life. It is often summed up - too simply - as a philosophy of ``art for art's sake.'' The painter James McNeill Whistler and the poet/tastemaker/lecturer Oscar Wilde were among the admired figures linked with the movement. So was William Morris, the social reformer, poet, and craftsman. Morris was also a prime figure in the Arts and Crafts Movement, with its emphasis on craftsmanship and education.

The actual earnestness of Aestheticism's aims has, perhaps, been rather obscured by the satirical laughter it attracted at the time. The dandyism of Whistler and Wilde can't have helped entirely. Nor can the devotion to the decorative possibilities and symbolism of flowers - particularly the sunflower and the lily; to a neo-medievalism; to the newly appreciated elegance and strangeness of things Japanese. All these aspects of the Aesthetic Movement were somewhat vulnerable to mockery.

Aestheticism did, however, bring about a genuine change in popular taste. It fostered an awakened distaste for the grotesque excesses of some aspects of fussy and suffocating Victorian design. It also fostered a renewed respect for the individual designer, for his originality, and his craftsmanship.

In the 19th century, a designer like Walter Crane (1845-1915) does not seem to have found it difficult to adapt his carefully considered - and distinctly Aesthetic - design philosophy to the needs and limits of industry. He designed wallpapers, tiles, and ceiling ornaments, that were machine-made and found their way into many homes. Above all, he illustrated and designed books, particularly books for children.

With Kate Greenaway and Randolph Caldecott, he came to be considered one of the well-known triumvirate of Victorian children's book illustrators. His six-penny ``toy books,'' boldly illustrated with elaborately colored woodblock illustrations, owing something to medieval manuscripts and something to Japanese prints, were very popular. As a biographer of Crane, P.G. Konody, was to put it in 1902, ``art forced its way into the nursery'' by means of these books.

Such books were definitely not limited-edition, handcrafted affairs: They were cheap and available (though they have become ``collectible'' by our day). On the other hand, they were seen - even by the youngest inhabitants of the nursery - to be in ``good taste.''

Crane illustrated a large number of books for children. He also illustrated adult literature. And he made a number of books which - in the tradition of the children's classic - proved equally popular with young and old.

``Flora's Feast,'' first published in 1889, ``had its origin,'' Crane himself recorded, ``in some rough sketches done to amuse a little girl.'' But its appeal to grown-ups - particularly flower-lovers who appreciated Crane's understanding of the character of flowers, was just as strong.

Crane was no stranger to flowers as essential ingredients of ornamental design; and he was very much part of the period in his affection for the fairy folk who, it was fancied, lived in the meadows and woods. Intermingled, these two loves became personified flowers - the subject of ``Flora's Feast.''

If the tradition is true that Crane had refused to submit designs for Gilbert and Sullivan's ``Patience'' because he didn't want to contribute to this ridiculing of his aesthetic beliefs, he nevertheless shows in ``Flora's Feast'' that he would have designed wonderful and funny stage cos- tumes. He treats the book form as if it were, in its progress from picture to picture, a kind of dramatic pageant. And he displays considerable visual wit.

Some of this wit takes off from the names of the flowers. ``Oxeye'' daisies literally become an ox's eyes, and the maiden (such pink maidens everywhere) in attendance gazes intently across the page divide at the ``scarlet poppies'' opposite, strutting black toy soldiers in delightful 18th-century uniform, with poppy-flower grenadier helmets. The poppy's seed case is ingeniously transformed into a marching drum for the drummer boy.

With the daffodils of early spring, Crane makes great use of their prominent yellow trumpets, pink children blowing them loudly as they go hunting. Daffodil leaves form the costumes and other flowers the hats; a hunting dog with a lolling yellow-petal tongue leaps forward out of another trumpet. Unopened buds become spears. The design moves energetically to the left, and so also do the pink-red anemones - caught in a brisk spring breeze - on the opposite page. The bending of stem and flower in wind is finely observed. With the anemones, the visual punning is on the common name for them - ``wind-flowers.'' The rather slightly clad pink maidens hug their leafy tatters and shiver.

Through a procession of 40 such graceful and gently colored lithograph illustrations in ``Flora's Feast,'' Crane lets his fantasy range happily. ``Cowslips'' become the actual lips of a cow; ``Tiger Lilies'' turn into real tigers; the ``Evening Primrose'' becomes a lamp in the process of being lit, as the moon rises, by a classically garbed young lady. The woodland flowers called ``Lords and Ladies'' naturally become a comic lord and lady of mock medieval type, walking in the forest.

Crane was very aware of the placing of illustrations on the pages of a book; he was, in fact, something of a pioneer in this respect, though he also owed much to the earlier example of William Blake, who showed him how to integrate words and images imaginatively.

For all its fun and simple charm, the designing of this book is a remarkable piece of work. And looked at seriously, it can be seen to epitomize, with a light touch, much that the Aesthetic Movement, or Crane's own variation on it, stood for.

Crane himself wrote a number of books about design. In them he makes it clear that he considered beauty to be, at root, a social question. His attitude toward dress - and ``Flora's Feast'' has a great deal visually to say about fantasy dress - was that of a reformer. He summed it up this way: ``If we lived simple, useful, and beautiful lives, we could not help being picturesque in the highest sense.''

Of the human body - and ``Flora's Feast,'' however unsolemnly, shows how skilled he was in treating the figure as both ornamental and expressive - he wrote: ``Now, a study of the human figure teaches us to respect it. It does not induce a wish to ignore its lines in clothing it, to contradict its proportions, or to misrepresent its character.''

Of ornament - which so frequently used flower forms at that time - Crane wrote: ``We sought to trace back ornament to its organic source in constructive necessity.'' With the gentlest touch he demonstrates this again in ``Flora's Feast'': the character of the flower forms, their constructive essence, their ``function,'' is touched on again and again as he moves from one flower to the next. He can treat a peony or a wild rose to personification and fantasy, but always its construction, its botanical character, is true.

Writing about ``Flora's Feast,'' P.G. Konody got quite carried away: ``...genuine poetry, genuine art, gracefulness and beauty. It is a book for every nation, every age, every class, and therefore universal in the widest sense. It offends no canon of beauty, it runs counter to no direction of taste. It is a book for all and everybody.''

It's a book that must have something special about it if a century later one actually feels half inclined to go along with such a eulogy. ``The flowers that bloom in the Spring, tra-la'' must have something ``to do with the case.''

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