In 1851, a 17-year-old William Morris vomited outside London’s Crystal Palace. Having seen “The Great Exhibition,” a showcase of inventions furthering the cause of Britain’s Industrial Revolution, he wanted none of it. Instead, Morris would propel another revolution, in zealous pursuit of craft and beauty.
Morris’ work features prominently in “The Cult of Beauty: The Victorian Avant-Garde, 1860-1900,” a sprawling exhibit on view through June at the Legion of Honor.
The show — including paintings, decorative objects, furniture, blueprints and books — honors the British aesthetic movement, a fertile period of art and design.
The aesthetes earnestly pioneered a visually harmonious life and beauty for beauty’s sake. The movement’s painters, the Pre-Raphaelites, wore luxurious clothes and draped themselves on handmade furniture they depicted in their work.
While the world marveled at mass manufacturing, Morris fought for handmade craftsmanship and redesigned domesticity from floor to ceiling — literally. His role in the anti-technology, pro-beauty society planted seeds for the arts and crafts movement, art nouveau and even art deco.
Wallpaper, ceramic tiles, textiles, furniture and books with Morris’ dense, well-proportioned designs — pictures of foliage, fruit or birds — are familiar, and recall the medieval motifs that inspired him; his “Pomegranate” wallpaper sketch shows the grid system he used to generate a pattern.
In addition to Morris’ designs, still reproduced today on everything from shower curtains to notebook covers, the exhibition features paintings by seminal artists of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Works by John Everett Millet, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John William Waterhouse, Edward Burne-Jones and Frederic Leighton are in every room, and rightfully so.
Founded on principles of reviving Quattrocento, or late medieval-style painting, the Brotherhood was going strong by 1860. Its sumptuous paintings often feature women draped in velvet, classically styled robes and flowing, Rapunzel-length locks.
Furniture on view in “The Cult of Beauty” is a mixed bag, mostly highlighting Japanese influences favored by the aesthetes. Some pieces are elegant and simple, but sideboards and cabinets are hulking masses incorporating too many decorative traits. Linear attributes of the Japanese aesthetic were better appropriated by arts and crafts practitioners. Christopher Dresser’s tea services stand out as a futuristic look toward art deco.
Where: Legion of Honor, Lincoln Park, 100 34th Ave., S.F.
When: 9:30 a.m. to 5:15 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays; closed Mondays; closes June 17
Admission: $20 general, $17 seniors, $16 students, $10 ages 6 to 17, free for children 5 and under
Contact: (415) 750-3600, www.legionofhonor.famsf.org