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Eighteen Nineties & Decadent Movement

The Eighteen Nineties, or 1890s if preferred, is a fascinating era, for book & art collectors of course, but also for historians and those with an interest in societal changes. Nestled in the tale end of the Victorian period, the Eighteen Nineties on one hand saw a return to traditional practices of book production, embodied most splendidly perhaps by William Morris's Kelmscott Press, with the book being re-explored as an object of beauty; on the other hand, the 1890s saw a counter-culture emerge seemingly in spirit the (possibly inevitable) response to the overly worthy strictures & aspirations of Victorian society more generally.

This counter-culture is often defined by two Movements in the UK during the Eighteen Nineties: the Decadents, associated with excess and artifice; the Aesthetics, who sought to enshrine the beauty of all artist representation, over the socio-political for example. The period is perhaps most famously characterised by Oscar Wilde, whose arrest, arraignment and court cases in the Eighteen Nineties almost risked over-shadowing his remarkable literary output, and Aubrey Beardsley, an illustrator whose art evolved in tandem with the decade. The controversy surrounding the lifestyle of the former and the oft-challenging art of the latter led at its peak to outbursts of public anger, with for example the publisher's of Beardsley's Yellow Book having their building in London pelted with mud & stones.

Collecting Eighteen Nineties books

Many of the writers from this period are not so well known any more, but their first editions were often produced in small print runs or limited editions, and can still be highly sought after. The private press books from this epoch, i.e. Kelmscott, Vale, Eragny and (just about) Doves, can be extremely valuable, especially when in the smallest, special limitations (Kelmscott's Chaucer on vellum for example, a $1,000,000 book these days in theory). But there are often larger limitations more readily findable. 

 

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