A dream of Camelot: the ethereal genius of Edward Burne-Jones
“Love Among the Ruins”, 1870-73 by Edward Burne-Jones (©PRIVATE COLLECTION)
The Pre-Raphaelites called the girls they painted “stunners”. Edward Burne-Jones’s women were different. They were sirens, sylphs, seraphim, strange and otherworldly waifs. English roses with divine Italian grace: Botticelli bodies, Mantegna profiles, Giotto pleats. His men are ailing knights-at-arms, alone and palely loitering. His women are blessed damozels or belles dames sans merci. John Ruskin wrote of Burne-Jones’s “pet witches”: kittenish and cruel. He painted Galahads and Guineveres, miracles and mazes, knights, monks, hawks, fading pageants and forests of thorns. His lovers are tragic and star-crossed: Phyllis and Demophoon, Nimue and Merlin, mermaids and seamen. His titles speak of dashed hopes and prophecies fulfilled: Love Among The Ruins (1870-71), The Heart Desires (1878), The Wheel of Fortune (1883), The Rock of Doom (1888). In the age of Dorothea Brooke, Bathsheba Everdene and Daisy Miller, Burne-Jones painted gorgons, fairies and Andromeda chained to her rock. The Way We Live Now? Dull, squalid, sooted. Born in industrial Birmingham in 1833, Burne-Jones said in later life that “the more materialistic science becomes, the more angels shall I paint”. His subject was the way we lived then. The then of Avalon and Ilium, of Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, Ovid’s Heroides, Keats’s realms of gold and Chaucer’s Romaunt of the Rose. He could not stomach Chaucer’s fabliaux, with their cuckolds in bathtubs and pokers up bottoms. “Lust does frighten me, I must say,” Burne-Jones told his pupil Thomas Rooke. “It looks like despair — despair of any happiness.” Burne-Jones sometimes talked of joining a monastery. There he could be safe from Sidonia, Circe and Nimue, from rushing blood and hot palms. His painted ladies are pure and unattainable or hypnotic and enslaving. There is a certain listless languor to his heroes. You look at the moping magus in The Beguiling of Merlin (1872-7) and think: cheer up, man.
“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.
Edward Burne-Jones (left) with William Morris, photographed in 1874 by Frederick Hollyer (©National Portrait Gallery London)
He had no formal artistic training. As a lonely, only child, brought up by his frame-maker father after his mother died a few days after giving birth — “oh, what a sad little home ours was” — the boy Ned had drawn coffee pots and hobgoblins. After King Edward’s Grammar School he went to Exeter College, Oxford, where he met William Morris, a once-and-future-king-figure to whom Burne-Jones was a willing, adoring page. Together they founded Morris & Co — “the Firm” — designing wallpapers, furniture, tapestries, painted panels and illustrated books. In the 1860s, Morris and Burne-Jones lived with their wives at the Red House in Kent. Later, they parted ways. Morris banged the drum for Socialism; Burne-Jones retreated into dreams, myths and quests for holy grails. Morris was drawn to the Norse sagas, to “raw fish and ice”; Burne-Jones to Italy and the “old miracles” of Fra Angelico and Piero della Francesca. Morris grew stout, and Burne-Jones, who had a horror of fatness and deplored Peter Paul Rubens’s double-cream nudes, renamed his friend “All More-Arse”. The mermaid in Burne-Jones’s The Depths of the Sea (1888) is eel-slim. She wraps her arms around the six-pack of a drowned sailor. The thinness of Burne-Jones’s figures suits narrow, vertical frames. He excelled at slender stained-glass saints in lancet windows.
In King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid (1898), the maid has the features of his wife Georgiana. She is fragile and hollow-eyed. Notice her toes, reflected in the brass floor. Burne-Jones was fascinated by reflections. In The Baleful Head (1885), Perseus holds the mask of Medusa above a well. He and Andromeda contemplate the face and its snaking ringlets in the water. Many of Burne-Jones’s scenes are frozen as if in a Medusa glare. Knights swoon in enchanted rest, thorns tangle over bowers, princesses sleep for a thousand years, a marble Galatea waits for Pygmalion to make her flesh.
George du Maurier wrote of Burne-Jones’s “special glamour”, and his oils and watercolours do have the shimmer of a mirage. He rebelled against the age of steam and steel with briarwoods and gold chalices. While Whistler and Monet painted low smogs over the Thames, Burne-Jones saw an ancient river flowing down to Camelot.