The Last Pre-Raphaelite

by Flora Armetta

The Last Pre-Raphaelite: Edward Burne-Jones and the Victorian Imagination by Fiona MacCarthy. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2012. 656 pages, $35.00. ISBN-10: 0674065794.

Fiona MacCarthy’s massive new biography of Edward Burne-Jones, first published by Faber & Faber in 2011, is a fascinating look at a painter whose life and character were in some ways as difficult and mysterious as his haunting paintings. But in The Last Pre-Raphaelite: Edward Burne-Jones and the Victorian Imagination, MacCarthy is careful, thorough and incisive, enjoying the rich scenes and anecdotes that cram Burne-Jones’s history, yet resisting any tendency to over-romanticize the artist, who was himself obsessed with romance. What emerges is a portrait of a man who was eternally at odds with nearly everything around him—sometimes intentionally, sometimes not—but who now reads as a quintessentially nineteenth-century figure, a character from a late Victorian novel.

Burne-Jones began with a Dickensian childhood; his mother died at his birth, and life with his distant father in ugly, industrial Birmingham was lonely and pinched by poverty. Unsurprisingly, he was to be plagued by ill health throughout his life, and was subject to frequent moments of nervous collapse. A good student, he entered Exeter College at Oxford, intending to go on to the clergy, and arrived just in time to fall in love with the controversial and influential Oxford Movement (an effort, influenced by Catholicism, to bring High Church traditions and trappings to the Anglican liturgy). A period of painful religious doubt then led to his decision to give up the priesthood in favor of art, till that point only a pleasant pastime, and MacCarthy makes the vital point that art became Burne-Jones’s new religion. Though he had very little formal training, he was a quick study and worked intensely, eventually becoming, like so many Victorians, something of a Renaissance man—he could not only draw and paint (in watercolors and oils) but was also brilliant at tapestry, stained-glass and mosaic design. He also created jewelry and many home furnishings, and even wrote some fiction, never published but praised by his friends, who included many of the greatest names of his time.

Of the friendships, the most important was unquestionably with William Morris, Burne-Jones’s lifelong confidant and artistic collaborator. As MacCarthy puts it, the two were "a gift to the cartoonists." Morris was rather short and, by the end of his life, extremely heavy, with wildly curly hair; Burne-Jones was tall and gaunt, with bizarrely prominent cheekbones and thin wisps of hair and beard that, in photographs, seem to float off his skull and face.

Their remarkable relationship survived painful political differences and many personal tragedies on both sides, among them the death from scarlet fever of a newborn for the Burne-Joneses, and the repeated unfaithfulness of Morris’s wife, Jane Burden, whose affairs included a long and artistically fruitful liaison with Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

MacCarthy published a well-received biography of Morris in 1995, and one of her stated aims in this biography is to bring Burne-Jones out from under the great Morris’s shadow. She excels at detailed descriptions of the many ways Morris and Burne-Jones enhanced each other’s thinking and work. The two men shared interests in medieval imagery and ideas, in nature and in the theories of John Ruskin. Above all, they believed that art could enhance and uplift everyday life, particularly when they worked together in Morris’s design firm, Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co., whose great success owed much to Burne-Jones’s painted furniture and stained glass. In later life, Morris became deeply involved in the radical Social Democratic Federation, and Burne-Jones was troubled by its deadening effect on his art. The two fell away from each other for a time, but finally joined efforts again at Morris’s famous Kelmscott Press to work on a huge volume of Chaucer (Morris doing typeface and borders, Burne-Jones illustrating) and other successful projects. When Morris died, in 1896, the grieving Burne-Jones memorialized him in the somber, mystical painting The Sleep of Arthur in Avalon, a gigantic canvas (110-by-256 inches) that he worked on periodically for eighteen years. This is a quintessentially Burne-Jonesian image: its focus on ancient English myth; its evident medieval influence (particularly in the tapestry-like flowers and leaves in the foreground), combined with touches of Renaissance Italy, such as the golden canopy above Arthur’s body; the loose, Aesthetic Movement clothing of all the figures; the fact that Arthur is surrounded entirely by women (as Burne-Jones evidently longed to be). The narrative elements seem to invite further speculation about the story on the part of the viewer, such as the unexplained battle at the right. It all forms part of a pattern of the artist’s lifelong influences, interests and visual effects.

One point of minor frustration for some readers may be that MacCarthy often describes Burne-Jones’s works of art more to highlight an event in his life (e.g., explaining that a female figure in a painting is based on one of his new infatuations) than to assess or analyze the work itself. It feels unfair to bring this up, since she is the biographer of an obtuse and complicated man and not an art historian. MacCarthy, in fact, argues that, given Burne-Jones’s resistance to biography, her best sources for the book are his works of art: "The life is there, self-evident, embedded in the art." But for me, this meant that my reading was frequently interrupted by an effort to find large images of the painter’s work, online or in other books, in order to get a better sense of what the painter was actually producing. (For the visual evidence, see Martin Harrison and Bill Waters, Burne-Jones, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1973.)

Nevertheless, I would not have been so interested in finding these images if MacCarthy were not so good at demonstrating what was particular and special about her subject. She interweaves her own observations about Burne-Jones with succinct quotations from his contemporaries, which seem to open up a whole new line of inquiry into his intense character and work. She notes Ruskin’s complaint that "Jones is always doing things which need one to get into a state of Dantesque Visionariness [sic] before one can see them, and I can’t be troubled to get myself up, it tires me so." And MacCarthy writes brilliantly of George Eliot, who can always be counted on for the greatest insights into human motivation and character, as Burne-Jones’s "best interpreter": "It was she, with her power of intelligence, who saw the historical sweep of his imagination and understood the meaning of Burne-Jones’s ‘strain of special sadness’ as a critique of contemporary society."

Another of the book’s strengths is MacCarthy’s carefully researched depiction of Burne-Jones’s wife, Georgiana, who was engaged to him at 15, married him at 19 and endured through his miserable moods, illnesses and many affairs to become, after his death, a political activist (in the burgeoning Women’s Movement and in local politics) and an intelligent and thoughtful writer. She eventually published a two-volume Memorials of Edward Burne-Jones that MacCarthy calls "one of the best memoirs ever written on the life of an artist." "Georgie," as everyone knew her, seems to have combined all of the elements of a Victorian heroine—descriptions of her as calm, quiet, strong, brave, beautiful but never flashy or fashionable, loving, kind, etc., call to mind, say, Esther Summerson in Dickens’s Bleak House—with much of the pained awareness of famous English women who came after her and fought hard against the confines of "the woman’s sphere." An unblinking comment of Georgie’s on her failure to pursue wood engraving, from her Memorials, foreshadows Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own: "I stopped, as so many women do, well on this side of tolerable skill. […] [It is] pathetic to think how we women longed to keep pace with the men, and how gladly they kept us by them until their pace quickened and we had to fall behind."

That the scope of this book is great enough to reveal Georgie’s and so many other formidable personalities, along with that of Burne-Jones, begins to give a sense of MacCarthy’s achievement. Readers should be persuaded of his importance. MacCarthy’s portrait of "the last Pre-Raphaelite" works not only as a reference to Burne-Jones’s outliving nearly all of his famous circle of fellow-artists (Rossetti and Morris among them), but also to his lasting influence on a long list of disparate and various artists from the early twentieth century until now. She argues convincingly that the obvious strain of "psychosexual exploration" in Burne-Jones’s work connects him to Freudian Viennese painters, such as Oskar Kokoschka, Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt. (See The Age of Rossetti, Burne-Jones and Watts: Symbolism in Britain, 1860–1910, edited by Andrew Wilton and Robert Upstone, Tate Publishing, 1997.) Blue-period Picasso also shows Burne-Jones’s influences.

Another way to consider his legacy for painters of today, however, is to set aside his visual style and consider instead his mood and general sensibility. Burne-Jones’s figures are essentially flat and pattern-oriented, as in much of his beloved medieval art, and are therefore in many ways antithetical to contemporary realists who create convincing three-dimensional bodies in space. But if we take into account the undercurrents of anxiety and the dreamy strangeness that appear in the work of painters as different as, for example, Vincent Desiderio and Odd Nerdrum, we can still see a hint of Burne-Jones and his distinctly modern sense that beautiful composition, design, paint surface and color did not need to depict perfection or a Victorian desire for what Matthew Arnold called "sweetness and light." The "visionariness" that so irritated Ruskin remains perhaps Burne-Jones’s greatest strength.

American Arts Quarterly, Winter 2013, Volume 30, Number 1