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“The Golden Stairs”, 1880, both by Edward Burne-Jones (©TATE, beueathed by Lord Battersea 1924)

His paintings are bloodless, but beautiful. In The Golden Stairs (1880) 18 maidens descend spiralling steps. They might be angels, muses or vestal virgins. The face of the topmost figure is serene, the last conspiratorial as she looks back over her shoulder. “Follow me,” she seems to say. To paradise? Or perdition? At the Tate’s autumn exhibition Edward Burne-Jones, the first solo show dedicated to the artist since 1933, The Golden Stairs will be shown with its preparatory sketches. What a glorious, gorgeous draughtsman Burne-Jones was. His graphite drapery studies for the pleated chitons worn by the Golden Stairs girls are a revelation. Another sheet shows six ethereal hands holdings cymbals, a tambour, a bow and a violin; a third is devoted to feet on ledges. “I have drawn so many toes lately,” said Burne-Jones, “that when I shut my eyes I see a perfect shower of them.” Ruskin, a champion of Burne-Jones, wrote that “an outline by Burne-Jones is as pure as the lines of engraving on an Etruscan mirror”. You could cut out Burne-Jones’s bodies with a scalpel and dress them like paper dolls in gowns, togas or shining armour.
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