“… a reflection of reflection of something purely imaginary.”
– Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones
In 1933, Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin (1867-1947) launched an exhibition at Tate Gallery in recognition of 100 years since the birth of his uncle Edward Burne-Jones (1833-98). For the first time since then, the solo retrospective has returned to Tate Britain, reaffirming the last of the Pre-Raphaelites as one of the most influential artists of the end of the 19th century. Known for awe-inspiring paintings, stained glass windows and tapestries, the exhibition offers insight to Burne-Jones’s entire career, bringing together best-loved works that are shown together for the very first time. Although he achieved worldwide fame and recognition during his lifetime, Burne-Jones’s reputation dwindled during the 20th century. Nonetheless, this exhibition proves his growing influence on the contemporary world.
Now known for his consistent paintings of otherworldly beauty, Burne-Jones did not begin his artistic career in the typical fashion of painters at the time. In fact, in terms of art, he was mostly self-taught. Edward Coley Burne Jones was born in Birmingham on 28th August 1833 where he was brought up by his Welsh father – his mother sadly passed away shortly after his birth. Burne-Jones initially aspired to be a minister and enrolled at Exeter College, Oxford to study theology. Although he completed his degree, a chance encounter led to a life-long friendship with the now famous William Morris (1834-96), with whom he shared a love of poetry.
Morris was also studying theology with the intention of a career in the church, however, his love of medieval romance and architecture encouraged both Morris and Burne-Jones to direct their religious enthusiasm towards art. After university, Burne-Jones moved to London, seeking an apprenticeship with Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-82) who guided him as he started to make elaborate pen and ink drawings, a few of which can be seen at the beginning of the Tate exhibition.
Through Rossetti, Burne-Jones was accepted into the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a movement that aimed to overturn everything artists were being taught at the Royal Academy Schools by going back to the style of medieval and early Renaissance painters, i.e. pre-Raphael (1483-1520). Outlined in their shortlived publication The Germ: Thoughts towards Nature in Poetry, Literature and Art, the society believed:
The endeavour held in view throughout the writings on Art will be to encourage and enforce an entire adherence to the simplicity of nature; and also to direct attention, as an auxiliary medium, to the comparatively few works which Art has yet produced in this spirit.
Burne-Jones’s association with the PRB strongly influenced his style of work, absorbing their desire for realism and purity. His paintings often portray the Pre-Raphaelite traditional pale-skinned woman with red hair, mostly as a result of using the same models as other artists within the group, however, his light and dark-haired women all have a similar body shape. As he became more independent, Burne-Jones began to combine other elements with the Pre-Raphaelite ideals, such as aestheticism and symbolism.
William Morris was also associated with the PRB, however, he is most famous for the design collective Morris & Co. In 1861, Burne-Jones became a founding member of the company, designing furniture and stained glass windows for both domestic and ecclesiastical settings. Tate Britain displays a few examples of the windows, which are beautifully designed with evocative shapes and rich colours.
In 1864, Burne-Jones was elected to the Society of Painters in Watercolours, also known as the Old Water-Colour Society, with whom he exhibited with for six years. By this time, Burne-Jones had begun to move away from religious genres, focusing instead on Arthurian stories or classical legends and myths. His painting style was also rapidly developing and the Society began to disapprove of the way colour was heavily layered on to his canvases. Burne-Jones took no heed of these complaints until a particular painting caused controversy amongst members.
In 1870, Burne-Jones painted Phyllis and Demophoön, taking inspiration from a story occurring in Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women. Demophoön, the son of Theseus, promised to return to his lover, Phyllis, however, failed to do so, resulting in her taking her own life. The gods turned Phyllis, who was the Queen of Thrace, into an almond tree, which Demophoön discovered on his eventual return. This painting shows the moment Demophoön remorsefully embraced the tree from which Phyllis emerges to forgive her lover. It was not the subject matter, however, that displeased the Old Water-Colour Society, it was the full frontal nudity that offended their Victorian sensibilities.
Burne-Jones was asked to alter the painting so that Demophoön’s dignity remained intact but, angered at the situation, the painter withdrew his membership and retreated from public society for seven years. During this time, Burne-Jones painted freely, unconstrained by commisions, deadlines, criticism or ridicule. Nonetheless, future paintings suggest he took the Society’s critique to heart, covering up the genitalia on another painting of the same story, The Tree of Forgiveness.
Although Burne-Jones was uncomfortable in the public eye, preferring “to forget the world and live inside a picture”, he took the London art world by storm with an exhibition at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1887. The gallery, founded in 1877 by Sir Coutts Lindsay (1824-1913) and his wife Blanche (1844-1912), exhibited artists the Royal Academy did not welcome whose work emphasised sensory expression and poetic feeling rather than the more conservative approaches. Tate Britain devotes an entire room of the exhibition to Burne-Jones’s paintings that featured in the Grosvenor Gallery.
Burne-Jones’s canvases were unusually extended, some vertically and others horizontally. They often displayed men as the victims of female power and desire, for instance in The Depths of the Sea, which shows a mermaid dragging her prey to his death at the bottom of the ocean. Naturally, these melancholy subjects caused some controversy, however, they ultimately won him immediate fame.
Whilst Burne-Jones was inspired by myths and legends, for instance, those written in Le Morte D’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory (1415-71), some are less easy to understand. Dark, austere and mysterious, viewers are transported to other realms where knights and heroes walk the land but, apart from those based upon a particular story, the meanings of some of the paintings remain elusive.
One of Burne-Jones’s mysterious paintings is titled The Golden Staircase, which has been on permanent display since it entered the Tate Gallery in 1924. A group of eighteen elegant, almost identical young women, dressed in white and holding a range of musical instruments, are climbing down a spiral staircase, almost as if in a trance. Who are they? Where are they going? The purpose of their journey remains unknown.
“My wheel of Fortune is a true-to-life image; it comes to fetch each of us in turn, then it crushes us.” Despite his slightly disillusioned comment, Burne-Jones’s Wheel of Fortune is much easier to interpret. The woman in the painting is Fortuna, the Roman goddess of fortune and the personification of luck. According to ancient philosophy, Fortuna possesses a Rota Fortunæ, or Wheel of Fortune, which she gradually turns at random, determining the fates of those on earth; some suffer great misfortune, others blessings.
Many of the paintings exhibited at Grosvenor Gallery, and later at the International Exhibition in Paris where Burne-Jones became famous throughout Europe, involved the idea of fate, fortune and time. Laus Veneris, which many will recognise from the Tate advertisements for the exhibition, is Burne-Jones’s interpretation of the legend of Tannhäuser, which had been retold in Algernon Charles Swinburne’s (1837-1909) book of Poems and Ballads (1866). The Latin title can be translated as In Praise of Venus and shows the Roman goddess of love with her maidens. The story of Tannhäuser follows the wandering knight who gives up his role, abandoning himself to sensual pleasure with Venus.
Love among the Ruins, based on a poem by Robert Browning (1812-89), combines the topic of love with the passing of time. Emphasised by the vacant stare of a woman as she clings to her male companion in a derelict building, love is a pure and fragile condition that can endure the passing of time. Similarly, in Love Leading the Pilgrim based on The Romaunt of the Rose by the medieval poet Geoffrey Chaucer (1343-1400), shows love, personified by a combination of a Christian angel and Cupid, enduring as the pilgrim goes about his quest.
Burne-Jones was a great storyteller through painting. Within a single canvas, he could set the scene, mood and bring to mind the story it was portraying. Whilst these were standalone images, it led Burne-Jones to explore the idea of a series of paintings following a single theme. Tate Britain has reassembled two of his great narratives, which, until now, had never been displayed together. The first is known as the Perseus series, recounting the life of the Greek hero. This was commisioned in 1875 by the future Prime Minister Arthur Balfour (1848-1930). He requested a series of paintings to decorate his drawing room but left it up to Burne-Jones to decide on the subject matter.
Perseus was instructed by Polydectes, king of Seriphos to bring him the head of the Gorgon, Medusa. Burne-Jones began his series with a dejected-looking Perseus contemplating the impossibility of the task, wondering how he could destroy a creature who could turn a body to stone with one glance. The following frames plot Perseus’s journey to sea nymphs, who would provide him with the means to defeat Medusa, and finally to the cave of the Gorgons. Burne-Jones produced two compositions for the Death of Medusa, the second showing Perseus fleeing from the remaining enraged Gorgons.
Burne-Jones did not leave Perseus’ story there but continued on to explain how he ended the eternal sufferings of Atlas, a Titan condemned to hold up the weight of the sky, by freezing him with the gaze of the beheaded Medusa. Perseus, on returning to Seriphos, discovers the beautiful Andromeda chained to a rock as a sacrifice to the sea monster sent by the Greek god Poseidon. Burne-Jones shows Perseus freeing the maiden and killing the serpent-like monster before finally winning Andromeda’s hand in marriage.
Despite having drawn out these preliminary paintings for Balfour’s drawing room and carefully planning how they would be positioned on the walls, the task was ultimately too ambitious for Burne-Jones. Only four of the images were worked up into finished oils, however, the quality of these preparatory works go to show his exceptional talent.
The second series of paintings do not tell a sequential narrative, as in the Perseus series, instead, they show four different scenes from a story that occur simultaneously. This is the Legend of Briar Rose, based on the version published by the Brothers Grimm, now more commonly known as Sleeping Beauty. These four paintings were originally exhibited in 1890 at Agnew’s Gallery in Bond Street, however, were quickly purchased by Sir Alexander Henderson (1850-1934) and removed to his country house Buscot Park near Farringdon, Oxfordshire.
Full of intense mood and jewel-like colours, Burne-Jones approached this task in the same manner and style as his previous paintings. The flat, frieze-like, richly textured surfaces and his figures, both male and female, reflect the ideals of the Pre-Raphaelites. Another connection with his associates are the inscriptions below each of the frames taken from William Morris’s poem The Briar Wood.
“The fateful slumber floats and flows
About the tangle of the rose;
But lo! the fated hand and heart
To rend the slumberous curse apart!”
The first picture in the series shows a knight discovering a group of slumbering soldiers who have become entangled with the thorny branches that have grown up around them. The knight is likely to be the rescuer of the princess who fell into an eternal sleep after pricking her finger on a spindle as foretold by an evil fairy at her christening many years before. As a result, the rest of the kingdom has been put to sleep until the princess can be safely awakened by true love’s kiss.
The second frame shows members of the council asleep in their chamber, including the king, who is slumped on his throne. The third reveals weavers who have fallen asleep whilst working, slumped over their looms.
“Here lies the hoarded love, the key
To all the treasure that shall be;
Come fated hand the gift to take
And smite this sleeping world awake.”
The final painting in the series reveals Princess Briar Rose sleeping peacefully in her bed surrounded by her slumbering attendants who lay slumped on the floor. The sleepers look peaceful and beautiful, as though it would be a shame to wake them. Those familiar with the story, however, will know the gallant knight will eventually find and wake the princess and live happily ever after. Burne-Jones, on the other hand, did not wish to reveal the ending of the story, explaining, “I want to stop with the princess asleep and to tell no more, to leave all the afterwards to the invention and imagination of the people.”
Whilst The Legend of Briar Rose may be Burne-Jones’s most detailed and spectacular work in the 150 items shown in the exhibition, there is so much more to his talents. Burne-Jones never completely left his religious roots behind, continuing to be a strong devotee to the church. Throughout the country, some of Burne-Jones’s finest work can be seen in churches and cathedrals in the form of stained glass, most of which retell biblical stories. As well as paintings and windows, Burne-Jones also produced designs for tapestries, for example, The Adoration of Magi.
Although there are many stained glass windows and tapestries to his name, it is unlikely that he was the craftsman who put the finished product together. Instead, he would carefully draw out his design, which would then be replicated. Dozens of drawings can be seen around the exhibition, showing the design and thought-process of the artist. Some of his works evolved over many years, beginning with studies, preparatory drawings and full-scale cartoons.
Burne-Jones was typically a quiet, reserved man often susceptible to bouts of depression and isolation, however, Tate Britain introduces another side to his character. Described by the artist Walford Graham Robertson (1866–1948), Burne-Jones was “Puck beneath the cowl of a monk,” and could quickly change from being grave and morose to mischievous with a great sense of humour. Within the exhibition are a handful of caricatures, often self-deprecating and occasionally cruel. One that sticks in the mind is William Morris reading poetry to Edward Burne-Jones in which a tall and slender Burne-Jones falls asleep while the short, stout Morris reads his latest work aloud.
Although this caricature is rather insulting from Morris’s point of view, the pair remained friends their entire lives and were often involved in joint projects. The exhibition displays a couple of examples of illustrations Burne-Jones produced for books published by Morris’s company Kelmscott Press. Burne-Jones also received numerous commissions, including the decoration of a piano, as seen in the final room of the exhibition.
Burne-Jones also painted portraits, however, he only took commisions from friends or well-known people. His daughter, Margaret, was often the subject of many portraits, the most famous being the young woman dressed in blue sitting in front of a concave mirror. His most memorable portrait, however, is of his wife, Georgiana with his children, Margaret and Philip in the distance.
Georgiana “Georgie” MacDonald (1840–1920) was married to Burne-Jones in 1860 and was often involved with his work, particularly modelling for paintings. Often, she would read to her husband while he painted, hence the inclusion of a book in her portrait. The flower resting on the open page is a pansy known as heartsease, a symbol of undying love. This portrait was produced a number of years after Burne-Jones had an affair with Greek model Maria Zambaco, however, rather than destroying the relationship, the end of the affair brought the married couple closer together.
“I want big things to do and vast spaces, and for common people to see them and say Oh! – only Oh!”
– Edward Burne-Jones
“Oh,” is definitely something visitors to the Edward Burne-Jones exhibition at Tate Britain may be thinking when they see the breathtaking paintings of the last Pre-Raphaelite artist. From drawings and stained glass to dramatic paintings, Burne-Jones was a phenomenal artist with his own distinctive style – a style that works and he stuck with throughout his career. There is not a single artwork that does not live up to Burne-Jones’s exemplary standard. Edward Burne-Jones is perhaps Tate Britain’s most delightful exhibition to date, attracting hundreds of people within the opening weeks. He may have lost his popularity during the 20th century, however, after this exhibition, there is no doubt Burne-Jones will be back on the list of most admired British painters.
The exhibition Edward Burne-Jones will remain open until 24th February 2019. Tickets are £18 and can be booked online or purchased on the day.