The Last Pre-Raphaelite: Edward Burne-Jones and the Victorian Imagination
Harvard University Press, 2012
656 pp., $35.00
No Votary of the Actual
To account for the yearning for beauty that animates so much of Edward Burne-Jones' highly stylized art, the novelist Penelope Fitzgerald, who wrote a good biography of the artist in 1975, stressed the frightful squalor of his native Birmingham, which, as she says, was "neither policed nor lighted (except in winter) until 1839" and where "dozens of families clung together" in noisome courts and rookeries, "sharing one tap and one privy." Drunkenness was ubiquitous; and at night, as Carlyle recalled, "the whole region burned like a volcano, spilling fire from a thousand tubes of bricks." It was to escape this industrialized inferno that the framer's son who lost his mother when he was six days old became an artist, exchanging these Brummagem horrors for the knights and ladies of mediaeval romance. Blake famously believed that "If the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise." Persisting in his own dream-laden folly never made Burne-Jones wise—he was the first to admit his want of wisdom when it came to beautiful women—but it did turn him into a good artist, who knew that his own importunate imagination, not the world's appointments, must be the source of his deeply personal art. In her superb new biography, Fiona McCarthy, the author of the definitive life of William Morris, captures the richness of the artist and his epoch with enviable verve. No one interested in the English 19th century should pass it up.
Born in 1833, Burne-Jones set his heart from early youth on becoming an Anglican clergyman. He was fascinated by John Henry Newman, the star of the Oxford Movement, about whose influence he would say: "In an age of sofas and cushions, he taught me to be indifferent to comfort; and in an age of materialism, he taught me to venture all on the unseen." When the young acolyte went up to Exeter College in 1853, "omniscient," as he said, "in all questions of ecclesiastical rights, state encroachments, church architecture and priestly vestments," ...