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The Last Pre-Raphaelite: Edward Burne-Jones and the Victorian Imagination
The Last Pre-Raphaelite: Edward Burne-Jones and the Victorian Imagination
Fiona MacCarthy
Harvard University Press, 2012
656 pp., 33.49

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Edward Short

No Votary of the Actual

Edward Burne-Jones, the last Pre-Raphaelite.

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church architecture and priestly vestments," he was disappointed to find that the spirit of Newman had been superseded by a liberalism that wanted nothing to do with the Anglo-Catholics and their via media. Disillusioned, Burne-Jones then met the single most important figure in his life, William Morris, who persuaded him to abandon theology for art.

McCarthy vividly re-creates the great affection that Burne-Jones felt for this indefatigable craftsman, whose respect for the integrity of art left such an abiding influence on his Pre-Raphaelite associates and indeed his age as a whole. For Burne-Jones, Morris was a "rock of defence to us all, and a castle on top of it, and a banner on top of that." With "Topsy," as he nicknamed Morris, because of his unruly hair, he shared rooms in Red Lion Square, where the two ambitious artists set about embodying their vision of art not only in painting but in stained glass, tiles, mosaics, embroidery, tapestry, furniture, jewelry, and book illustration. They also made their great discovery of the three books that would have such an abiding influence on their later work: Ruskin's Stones of Venice (1851), Malory's Morte d'Arthur (1484), and Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (1478). Despite their later differences—Burne-Jones never shared his friend's fondness for Icelandic legend or Socialist rabble-rousing—the two were inspired collaborators. Together with the poet-painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti, another key influence on Burne-Jones, they remade the very conception of art among the philistine English, a conception which stressed not only the beauty but also the utility of art.

Sojourns to Florence, Siena, Rome, and Venice, paid for by the princely largesse of John Ruskin, may have opened Burne-Jones' eyes to the extent of that philistinism, but they did not supply the underlying catalyst of his art, which, as his son Philip recognized, was much more contemporary:

With all his passionate devotion to the past … he was surely at heart a Modern of the Moderns. Deep, undoubtedly, was the influence which Italian art exercised over him, but … it was in reality with eyes immeasurably different from those of a Florentine in the days of Botticelli that he regarded the ancient world or sought to interpret its legacies. The sadness of expression in his faces … is due, I take it, partly to a certain Celtic melancholy … and partly to the unconscious reflection of the troubled and transitional age in which he lived; an age, it must be remembered, which bore the brunt of the first onslaught of a new and strange materialism upon old and established faiths, leaving its children lonely and wistful at the parting of the ways.

Besides Morris, the other key figure in Burne-Jones' life was his wife, Georgie, about whom McCarthy is particularly insightful, especially her close bond to Morris, who had his own reasons for regretting a spouse's infidelity. McCarthy also extols Georgie's 2-volume life of the artist for its well-researched acuity. Indeed, in calling attention to one of its most moving revelations—"I think I should be a better companion to him if he came back," Georgie confesses at the end of the book—McCarthy calls attention to one of her own greatest virtues as a biographer: her unflagging, discriminating sympathy.

This great virtue notwithstanding, McCarthy is not always at her best when she discusses the works themselves. On the fascinating Perseus series that Burne-Jones painted for Arthur Balfour, for example, of which Wyndham Lewis thought so highly, she can only say that the theme "gripped his imagination." Then, again, what might be called the Guardian element in McCarthy gets the better of her when she suggests that the real value of the paintings lies in their being "a critique of contemporary society in all its moral crassness and its lack of responsibility for the environment." Burne-Jones, in other words, is worth looking at because he is green. Readers looking for a more critical consideration of the work may wish to dip into the catalogue for the Metropolitan Museum's centennial exhibition, Edward Burne-Jones: Victorian Artist-Dreamer (1998), edited by Stephen Wildman and John Christian, which includes good commentary on Chant d'Amour (1865), The Annunciation (1876-9), The Beguiling of Merlin (1872-7), Laus Veneris 1873-5), and Briar Rose (1894). Another good book on Burne-Jones' work is Allen Staley's The New Painting of the 1860s, recently published by Yale University Press, which shows how the artist's innovative work in watercolor paved the way for the later oil paintings of the 1870s, '80s and '90s. These were the works that made him such a fixture of the Grosvenor Gallery and the New Gallery when they were challenging the hegemony of the Royal Academy. Some thoughtful defense of Burne-Jones as a painter is still in order when the old estimate of King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid (1883) by R.H. Wilenski still hovers about his reputation. Looking at the painting, the popular critic could only see "the silliest possible still-life record of two models posing in fancy dress on a heap of Wardour Street bric-a-brac." McCarthy hardly mounts the case for the defense effectively when she invokes the admiration felt for the artist by the likes of Pierre Cardin, Andrew Lloyd Webber, and Jimmy Page.

Still, and this is a testimony to her considerable biographical skills, as well as to the exuberance of her subject, that she has nothing bright to say about the art does not take away from her portrait of the artist. Throughout the book, McCarthy turns to brilliant account a striking insight from Graham Robertson, a family friend of the painter, who recalled seeing the great man as a boy: "He might have been a priest newly stepped down from the altar, the thunder of great litanies still in his ears, a mystic with spirit but half recalled from the threshold of another and fairer world; but as one gazed in reverence the hieratic calm of the face would be broken by a smile so mischievous, so quaintly malign, as to unfrock the priest at once and transform the mage into the conjurer at a children's party." This is the man behind the artist that McCarthy presents with such marvelous fidelity by capturing his abounding charm, his chivalric kindness, his wonderful sense of the ridiculous, and his horror of anyone and everything that smacked of the bumptious.

In her deeply researched life, McCarthy shows us the fastidious aesthete who was driven nearly out of his wits by Mrs. Wilkinson, the bossy charwoman who insisted on mopping his studio when he was trying to work; the would-be lothario who could never find the courage to run off with his enrapturing Greek mistress, Maria Zambaco; the brilliant letter-writer who once told his nephew Rudyard Kipling, apropos his brother-in-law Edward Poynter, the Royal Academician who could not get enough honors: "The Lord has hit Uncle Edward hard for his knighthood. He is an ex-officio member of about every utterly uninteresting society in England and spends his evenings eating with bores."

The raconteur in Burne-Jones sheds a good deal of light on the artist in him, an aspect of the man which Robertson noticed when he remarked: "wonderfully quick as he was to observe and note passing events of a sad or comic or quaint character, all such material as would be useful to the novelist or the poet, he saw nothing from the pictorial point of view." Another painter under whom Robertson studied "would come in from a walk full of almost inarticulate delight at the memory of black winter trees fringing the jade-green Serpentine, or of a couple of open oysters lying on a bit of blue paper or of a flower girl's basket of primroses seen through grey mist on a rainy morning. Burne-Jones would have woven a romance or told an amusing tale about the flower girl, but would not have noticed the primroses; the combination of the silvery oysters and the blue paper would not for a moment have struck him as beautiful; he had not the painter's eye." Precisely, but it is his uncanny sense of narrative that gives many of his paintings their distinct allure, especially when the narrative is so suspended as to capture something of the profound mysteriousness of recollected time. The Mill (1870-82) exemplifies this: no dance ever led its viewers a more mystifying dance than this Pre-Raphaelite meditation on the dancers of Lorenzetti and Botticelli.

Henry James once said that Burne-Jones was no "votary of the actual." This is true, but at the same time he did give actuality to an art that is too often confused with escapism. When he contended that what he meant by a picture was "a beautiful, romantic dream of something that never was, never will be—in a light better than any light that ever shone—in a land no one can define or remember, only desire," he was calling attention to an extraordinarily real yearning without which art is impossible. Moreover, this shows how the man who began his days desiring to be a priest never entirely abandoned that unworldly calling.

When Burne-Jones' own story ended at the age of 64 in 1898, Kipling commended the family funeral at Rottingdean, outside Brighton, for including "no mobbing," "no jabber," and "no idiotic condolences"; he also left behind this memorable diary entry about the last of the Pre-Raphaelites: "His work was the least part of him. It is him that one wants—the size and the strength and the power and the jests and the God given sympathy of the man." These are the things that Fiona McCarthy captures with such admirable art in her wonderfully unputdownable biography.

One last point: Harvard has done a splendid job with the illustrations, especially with Burne-Jones' stained glass windows for Gladstone's church St. Deiniol, Hawarden, and with the Green Dining Room in the Victoria & Albert, which remains London's loveliest tea room.

Edward Short is the author of Newman and His Contemporaries and the forthcoming Newman and his Family (Bloomsbury).

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