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Useful and Beautiful: British Books of the 1890s

September 1–October 15, 1999
East Building, Ground Floor, Study Center

This exhibition is no longer on view at the National Gallery.

1999-usefulandbeautiful-cor

original exhibition poster
click to enlarge

Overview: The title of this exhibition refers to what William Morris, designer of everything from typefaces to wallpapers, told his Victorian contemporaries in 1882: "Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful" (Hopes and Fears for Art). In the decade of the 1890s, defining what was useful or beautiful because the foundation of a somewhat contentious industry, especially in arts publishing. This exhibition showed the worlds of the arts in England during the 1890s as reflected in books—books that offered themselves as practical guides for amateur and professional artists and decorators, or as lovely objects to be enjoyed by readers and collectors, and thus that brought to the fore issues involving aesthetic function and theory in modern life.

At the end of the 19th century, England was the cultural center of the globe and the site of a unique convergence of art forms that included music, theater, handicrafts, painting, book design, illustration, photography, and literature. Many of the books on display, whether intended to be useful or beautiful, benefited from a synthesis of the arts.

The exhibition was part of a conference on this very subject, "The Arts of the British 1890s" (September 10–12, 1999). It was curated by two of the conference organizers.

Organization: The exhibition was organized by the National Gallery of Art. Mark Samuels Lasner, president of the William Morris Society in the United States, and Margaret D. Stetz, associate professor of English and gender studies at Georgetown University, were cocurators.

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