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Grolier Club: Art for Art’s Sake


The Grolier Club was founded by and for bibliophiles in 1884 and is dedicated to the study and appreciation of the graphic arts. The club’s first home was a in few rented rooms at 64 Madison Avenue.  In 1890, the club built the Romanesque Revival building at 29 East 32nd St, which is now a designated landmark.

Grolier Club member architect Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue designed the current neo-Georgian five–story headquarters in 1917, today scaffolded by its neighbor’s enormous skyscraper construction site, but still open to the public from 10 AM to 5 PM, Monday through Saturday.

The Aesthetic Movement

Aesthetic teapot from Grolier Club exhbiti

An aesthetic tea pot with male and female faces. (See mirror)

The Grolier Club mounts several exhibitions a year, all open to the public …at no charge.  In the second floor hall and gallery, Director Eric Holzenberg has produced a remarkable exhibition of pattern books, colored plates, trade catalogues, greeting cards, and decorative objects in the Aesthetic style — “For Art’s Sake: The Aesthetic Movement in Print and Beyond” — all objects taken from his own collection.  As you arrive at the second floor hall, you are dazzled by the wall displays of colorful and multi-patterned book covers and chromolithographed ephemera from 1870-1890, published in Europe, England and America.

By the mid nineteenth century, the newly perfected technique of chromolithography enabled a burgeoning interior design and architectural movement to illustrate its most modern, if not radical, ideas.  Gone were the cabbage roses carpeting, along with the three dimensional carvings of the Rococo revival and Renaissance revival interiors. Instead, here were pattern books based on the new design concepts produced by William Morris and Christopher Dresser, both English designers, and English architect Bruce Talbott, all looking at medieval furniture and Japanese designs for inspiration.

Prang chromolithogaph Christmas card of Charles Carol Colman painting

For instance, the most famous American chromolithographer, Luis Prang, is featured on this wall display with a white fringed and tasseled Christmas card. The card beautifully shows a painting by Charles Carol Colman of an interior scene in the aesthetic style– a room with two stained glass windows with a small Pre-Raphaelite painting of the Nativity and a blue and white porcelain vase with branches of cherry blossoms on a decorative tabletop. Although the windows and the nativity scene are inspired by medieval images, the painting is seen from a flat perspective where the rear of the room is close to the picture plane, as in Japanese prints. Its message is ”Heaven give you many, many, merry days.”

Christmas card from Grolier collection

Japanese doll Christmas card

A smaller postcard-sized print of a Japanese doll hanging from a bough of mistletoe says,

“Just over from Japan. 

Hear my jolly little plan.

Hang me under the mistletoe

To get a little kiss you know!”

Other ephemera in this case include colorful trade cards, trade catalogues, birthday cards and advertisements for carpet dealers.

The Aesthetic Style in architecture and interior design

The grandest Fifth Avenue mansion built in the Aesthetic style, designed and furnished by Christian Herter in 1879, is represented here in four chromolithographed plates from “Mr. [William H.] Vanderbilt’s House and Collection” by Edward Strahan. The conservatory, the library, and the drawing room are reproduced in color in great detail, including the red velvet wall coverings embroidered with crystals, the silver electric light fixtures, swagged wood and ivory inlays and botanical specimens.  This twin palace structure occupied the block between 51st and 52nd streets and was demolished in 1946.  Fortunately, the salon’s cove mural painting, by the French decorator Pierre–Victor Galland, was saved and now is in the collection of Biltmore Museum in Asheville, North Carolina.

Finally, there were the “How-to” books for more middle class pocketbooks and tastes.  Monthly periodicals, such as “The Decorator and Furnisher,” published in New York City from 1882 to 1897, showed the most up-to-date furniture and interiors with examples of the tripartite wallpaper sets — coordinated frieze, wall and dado patterns, for example.

The exhibition continues in the large exhibition room with bookcases filled with elaborately designed, colored and gilded bookbindings.  More sources of the Aesthetic Movement’s designs are discussed and displayed, along with an occasional artifact: an A.W.N Pugin watercolor and ceramic tile in a gothic pattern and a Christopher Dresser vase with an Iznik tile pattern and containing peacock feathers (Near Eastern designs were adapted as well as Japanese).

In the far corner, a charming vignette of furniture and accessories by  Connecticut’s major brass manufacturing company, Bradley and Hubbard (1852-1940), shows how the same design motifs could be adapted to low relief cast decoration featuring stylized flowers and birds, with patterned tiles, silver or copper birds, or a clock with a Moorish dome.  Highly polished brass or gilded furniture was popular for its sparkle in the 3-watt gaslight.

Oscar Wilde, Aesthetic Movement champion

Oscar Wilde, Aesthetic movement champion

Oscar Wilde, “Strike Me With a Sun Flower”

The most ardent spokesman for the Aesthetic Movement and it’s “Art for Art’s Sake” mantra was Oscar Wilde, who toured America to wild acclaim in 1882 and 1883.  With his witticisms, his ability to hold his liquor, and his  outrageous satin and lace outfits, he charmed every audience as he promoted “art for art’s sake” and its anti-materialistic message — and interior design that should consist only of beautiful, useless objects, such as blue and white porcelain, sunflowers and lilies. Mostly, he promoted himself.  Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Patience,” first performed in London in 1871, was a satire on the Aesthetic Movement’s superficiality and decorative fads.

To produce these aesthetic interiors, more “how-to” books were published for the growing middle class, such as those by Clarence Cook, “The House Beautiful” (1878);  Charles L. Eastlake, “Hints on Household Taste” (1872);  Constance Cary Harrison, ”Women’s Handiwork in Modern Homes“ with a frontispiece illustrating an interior by Louis C. Tiffany (1881); and Clarence Cook, “What shall we do with our walls?” (188)1.

The display of children’s books, such as those illustrated by Walter Crane and Kate Greenaway, emphasized the fascination with simplified and colorful plates influenced by Japanese prints.

Director Holzenberg concludes, “The Gothic and Japanese systems of ornament, with their shared affinity for asymmetry, strong colors, and flat patterns are two of the most recognizable and characteristic components of aesthetic design.”

It is interesting to note that at the time of the Centennial International Exhibition of 1876 in Philadelphia, during the building of the Japanese pavilion, American workmen were incredulous at its method of construction.  All wood elements fitted into each other without nails, in the old medieval method.  In fact, the west considered Japanese culture to be in its medieval phase. It makes sense that William Morris would lead the medieval revival with his own hand hewn and constructed furniture, a taste that soon merged with the French and American artists’ flat and linear Japanese design sensibility, and which finally gave birth to the Aesthetic Movement.

The beautifully illustrated catalogue of the exhibition is dedicated to the memory of our mutual friend and collector, Robert Tuggle. It features an erudite introductory essay by the director explaining this late-nineteenth century design phenomenon.  The exhibition will close March 11, 2017.

The Grolier Club   47 East 60th, between Madison and Park Avenues.Hours: Monday-Saturday, 10 am-5 pm.

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