The McDowells: The Un-Victorians?

YOU ARE HERE -> 1880s-1890s

Over the years at Ashland the house museum, there has been a definite fascination with reenacting the gracious lifestyle of the ‘Victorian’ McDowells (c1880s-1890s).  At Christmastime, for special programs, and in costumed functions, the staff and volunteers at Ashland have long reveled in evoking McDowell-era splendor.

1886 Illustration of Ashland’s Entrance Hall from Century Magazine

Henry Clay’s granddaughter Anne Clay McDowell and her family came to Ashland in the early 1880s and redefined the look of the historic mansion.  While the McDowells did indeed inhabit the late Victorian era, when it comes to the interior design of Ashland, they were not actually very Victorian at all.  The McDowells had not completely rejected Victorian sensibilities, true, but they embraced progressive design ideas and were decidedly transitional in their aesthetic.  For an overview of their Ashland remodeling, see The McDowells Update Ashland.

A generation before, with lush and highly-detailed ornamentation, fabrics, colors, and furnishings, James and Susan Clay had created a High Victorian showplace of 1850s Ashland.  See Lavishly Furnishing the New Ashland.  The nineteenth century was a time of revolution in industry and technology, politics …and certainly in design and architecture.  The London-based World’s Fairs of 1851 and 1862 highlighted the High Victorian style that James and Susan had employed: busy and richly decorated.  But soon this style triggered backlashes, which resulted in a number of reform movements.

The McDowells were early American adopters of this new reform aesthetic as they moved Ashland away from Victorian design in significant ways.  Embracing late nineteenth-century progressive thought, like the Aesthetic Movement, the McDowells showed themselves to be quite sophisticated and a tad daring for their time and place.

The Aesthetic Movement was a convergence of several design reform philosophies, born out of reaction to both the dehumanization of the Industrial Revolution and the excesses of Victorianism. The movement primarily emerged from the philosophy of English art critic John Ruskin, who espoused the principle of honesty in art and materials. Ruskin’s student at Oxford, the flamboyant Oscar Wilde, was largely responsible for popularizing the Aesthetic Movement, which drew some critical response to its more extreme manifestations.  Art was the central emphasis to the movement, as Wilde coined the phrase “Art for art’s sake.”  In the production of furniture, glass, fabrics, wallpapers, etc., art was to be emphasized.

Caricature of Oscar Wilde and critique of Aesthetic Movement ideals

In the United States, the Aesthetic Movement gained widespread popularity via the first World’s Fair in America, the 1876 Philadephia Centennial Exposition.  This is likely how the McDowells became aware of it.

The movement incorporated exotic sources of design with Japanesesque the strongest and best known. The Japanese influence came out of the fascination with the crafts and motifs of Japan, newly opened to the outside world in the 1850s.  The asymmetry, simplicity of color, and the horizontality of Japanese design were central to the Aesthetic Movement’s style.

Japanesque design by E.W. Godwin

The McDowells had the resources and the opportunity at Ashland to employ these modern – and often quite costly – principles.

Next time: exactly how the McDowells incorporated these new ideas in the interiors at Ashland…and how they were still a little Victorian around the edges…

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