My life is all food stains and dead pot plants – no wonder I dream of beauty and good taste | Emma Beddington

I devoured the journalist Hamish Bowles’s recent account of his recovery from a severe stroke, not just because good writing on life-altering events is my favourite genre, but for the way it explored the role of beauty in his recovery – and his life.

Bowles, who is World of Interiors’ editor-at-large, was pondering buying a “1930s gold lamé Lanvin dress” the day he was catapulted into the unlovely but life-saving surroundings of a stroke unit for 50 days, then into rehab for many more. He describes the things that first helped him to feel like himself, intubated and unable to speak, and those that shaped his long, slow convalescence. A “pomegranate-scented terracotta potpourri”, violet-scented face cream, lavender roses from Vogue’s editor-in-chief Anna Wintour and an “exquisite arrangement” delivered by Marc Jacobs, who wore a “wide-lapel jacket of shocking pink”. Bowles’s world gradually widens again in recovery, taking in Vermeer and Hockney exhibitions, and for his first trip home he wears a “vintage amethyst corduroy Dries Van Noten suit”.

I’m wearing a food-stained H&M shirt and saggy men’s khakis and sitting next to the earthly remains of a long-deceased plant I feel no compulsion to tackle, but I loved it. Bowles’s faith in the restorative power of beauty is very touching, plus I have a bit of a thing for (professional? vocational?) aesthetes.

Putting on the ritz … Hamish Bowles with Anna Wintour at the Green Carpet fashion awards in Milan in 2019. Photograph: Dave Benett/Getty Images for Eco-Age Ltd

I’m using “aesthete” as shorthand for the designers, artists and creative directors whose lives I gawp at online. Unlike the 19th-century originals who viewed beauty as its own virtue, divorced from Victorian notions of morality, they aren’t a philosophical movement – at most a loose network of people who love beautiful stuff. Every time one mentions another, I follow them, forging wistful parasocial connections with tastemakers who have strong opinions about provenance and precise shade of socks, who are repulsed by extension leads and know all about 18th-century marquetry gaming tables. Their lives look exquisite: they’ve never found a square of kitchen roll full of fingernail clippings on the coffee table, have they? If so, you’d never guess.

I really shouldn’t love them, but I do, albeit ambivalently. It’s complicated. Unpacking my feelings, there’s envy, inadequacy and a feeling of being left out that sours into a chippy desire to mock, but mainly admiration.

Why admiration? Being an aesthete isn’t like working for Médecins Sans Frontières or hospice nursing. And when the world is ugly in such urgently terrible ways, pursuing beauty can feel frivolous. You’ve managed to source antique Persian faïence from Isfahan for your splashback? Yay you. It’s hard to claim the world needs more interior designers – though how many of our jobs are remotely necessary? Certainly not mine.

This idea of good taste feels exclusive, even elitist – a product of privilege. Accessing beauty isn’t obvious or easy: it can feel like a private club, gatekept by style arbiters who know where to go, who to know and what goes with what. And let’s mention money: although elements of the original Aesthetic Movement thought deeply about democratising beauty and Oscar Wilde’s The House Beautiful lecture assured listeners: “I do not ask you to spend large sums,” contemporary aestheticism at least entertains the possibility that you might be interested in price-on-application bronze and porcelain chandeliers, or £170-a-metre ancient Egypt-inspired wallpaper.

Making an entrance … Hamish Bowles in New York in 2019 for the exhibition Camp: Notes on Fashion. Photograph: Matt Baron/Rex/Shutterstock

Inspiration is free, though, and contemporary aesthetes aren’t necessarily born into beauty and privilege. Luke Edward-Hall, whose beautiful Bloomsbury-reminiscent life I admire online, was raised in Basingstoke – “concrete, roundabouts, bypasses” – and discovered his passion via a National Trust Saturday job.

I’m not the aesthete defence society (imagine the unacceptable hideousness of the logo I’d design), but I admire them because they care, deeply, and share what they love. That might not be the democratisation the original aesthetes imagined, but it does feel generous. I love being shown beauty: it’s a corrective to the deadening, boring algorithmic homogenisation of everything.

Plus it’s life-affirming to know there are people passionately concerned that everything should be the loveliest version of itself. Don’t we all need a reminder that the world can be – still is – beautiful?

Emma Beddington is a Guardian columnist



I was captivated by journalist Hamish Bowles’s recent account of his recovery from a severe stroke. It wasn’t just because I enjoy reading about life-altering events, but also because of how he delved into the role of beauty in his journey to recovery and in his life.

Bowles, editor-at-large of World of Interiors, was contemplating purchasing a “1930s gold lamé Lanvin dress” when he suddenly found himself in the stark setting of a stroke unit for 50 days, followed by a lengthy period of rehabilitation. He recounts the items that initially helped him feel like himself while intubated and unable to speak, as well as those that influenced his slow recovery. From a “pomegranate-scented terracotta potpourri” to violet-scented face cream, lavender roses from Anna Wintour, and a stunning arrangement from Marc Jacobs in a “wide-lapel jacket of shocking pink,” Bowles’s world gradually expanded again during his recovery, encompassing Vermeer and Hockney exhibitions. For his first trip home, he wore a “vintage amethyst corduroy Dries Van Noten suit.”

Meanwhile, I sit here in a food-stained H&M shirt and sagging men’s khakis, next to a long-deceased plant that I have no motivation to tend to, but I found Bowles’s faith in the healing power of beauty to be deeply moving. I must admit, I have a soft spot for aesthetes like him.

When I use the term “aesthete,” I’m referring to designers, artists, and creative minds whose lives I admire from afar. While they may not form a philosophical movement like their 19th-century counterparts, they share a love for all things beautiful. Their curated lives seem flawless: have they ever encountered a coffee table littered with nail clippings on a kitchen roll? If they have, they certainly don’t show it.

Admiration for these aesthetes is mixed with envy, feelings of inadequacy, and a sense of being excluded, which sometimes leads to a desire to mock, but mostly results in genuine admiration.

Despite the world’s current state of ugliness, the pursuit of beauty can seem trivial. It’s hard to argue that the world needs more interior designers, though the same could be said for many professions, including my own.

The concept of good taste can appear exclusive and elitist, often associated with privilege. Accessing beauty isn’t always straightforward or affordable, making it seem like an exclusive club reserved for those in the know. Yet, inspiration is free, and today’s aesthetes are not necessarily born into wealth and privilege.

I’m not here to defend the aesthetes (imagine the hideous logo I’d design for that society), but I admire them for their passion and willingness to share what they love. It may not align with the original aesthetes’ goal of democratizing beauty, but it does feel generous. Being exposed to beauty is refreshing in a world that seems increasingly homogenized by algorithms.

It’s reassuring to know that there are people out there who are dedicated to ensuring that everything is the best version of itself. In a time where beauty may seem elusive, we all need a reminder that the world can still be, and is, beautiful.

Emma Beddington is a Guardian columnist.