Edward Burne-Jones was a theological student at Oxford University, a fellow student of William Morris, a lifelong collaborator, before he turned to art. He was a serial adulterer and had a tendency in his art to depict women as passive beauties and mean as active heroes. And yet, and yet, the pictures are beautiful with vibrant colours, rich fabrics, engaging detail and plants and flowers and birds adorning the scenes.
Tate Britain has a massive exhibition of his art, on until 24 February 2019. To find out more, click here.
I loved the exhibition and could have spent hours in front of each picture. There was so much detail to absorb and appreciate. The exhibition is divided up partly chronologically and partly by theme. The first room shows output from the first half of his life as he developed and matured while the third room shows paintings from the second half of his life. There are rooms devoted to his skill as a draughtsman, his portraits, two of his great series of paintings and to his output as a designer for tapestries and stained-glass windows. Apart from the pale grey of the draughtsmanship room, the gallery is presented in dark colours – grey and blue but also damson and purple – which provide a warm background for his art.
Room 1, Apprentice to Master: 1856 – 1870, in some ways would have been enough for me. It contains some of the most amazing work in the exhibition so don’t be afraid to linger or to plan on returning.
He was inspired by fiction and poetry, by romances and sagas, setting illustrations in a lush Northern European natural world. The richness of the colours and the details are just astounding. They draw you into a different world. That is what illustrations should be about: bringing to life works of literary art.
I found the 1861 work Merlin and Nimue quite enlightening – that’s who “Nimue” is, I thought. In The Wine of Circe 1900 I loved the brightness of the sunflowers and the drapes of the cloak and the sleek, black panthers. Circe stands in what seems to be a signature pose, bending at the waist in a flat-back position. But also 1858’s Going to Battle entranced me and this time it wasn’t the colours because this is a pen drawing. You could spend a day just looking at this drawing and not see all the detail.
Room 2 focused on Burne-Jones as a Draughtsman. I spotted studies for stained glass windows in St Martin’s on the Hill, Scarborough. Since I’m about to move to live near there, I filed that away as the destination for a future outing and there is more information here.
In amongst all the high romance of his serious art are examples of caricatures, including self-caricatures, gleaned from his letters. I loved the humour and the self-deprecation. It must have been wonderful to receive one of these letters.
There is a huge piece called The Pilgrim outside the Garden of Idleness and it made me think of a visit to the British Museum or the Victoria and Albert Museum, except the statues are moving in their niches – or at least they seem to be: they certainly are not pushed back in a well-behaved manner.
Make sure you take a look at the study for the head of a mermaid because you are about to see the final version and I thought the contrast between the two versions was interesting.
Room 3, Exhibition Pictures 1877 – 1898, is full of large scale pieces, again based on myth and stories.
The Depths of the Sea 1887 was his only piece, exhibited at the Royal Academy, of which he was not a fan. A mermaid drags a dead sailor into the sea. The tall, narrow format and bright colour would have been striking and eye-catching in the Summer Exhibition. Although the mermaid does look straight at the viewer, I thought the study of the mermaid’s head in the draughtsmanship room was much more sinister than the final version.
The Wheel of Fortune 1883 shows Fortuna standing draped in grey to the left of the great wheel she is turning and on the wheel are a poet, a king and a slave with his feet pushing down on the king. This reminded me of the use of the wheel of fortune in the Phillipa Gregory’s Cousins’ War series of books.
King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid 1884 hung in the family home and the AV guide includes a descendant of Burne-Jones talking about what it was like growing up with such a painting. It shows the lovelorn king of Ethiopia, solid and real and richly dressed in ornate armour, gazing adoringly up at the beggar maid looking rather ethereal and pale and completely unaware of his love. I was glad to hear the story had a happy ending. The different spaces, with the vertical story-telling, seemed almost Asian, like Japanese prints. How amazing to live with something like that!
In Love Leading the Pilgrim I loved the birds that are emerging from the undergrowth on the left and flying all around, creating almost a halo over the figure of love. Burne-Jones’s work doesn’t seem to reproduce too well. The picture in the link is nowhere near as vibrant as it was in real life.
Love among the ruins 1894 was his first work to receive critical acclaim. It was inspired by a Browning poem of the same name, which you can find here. Essentially, all else fades but love remains. A nice sentiment but the thing I loved most about the painting was the nature – the wild roses, in particular.
Room 4 is Portraits and shows Burne-Jones doing reality. I couldn’t decide if he really created individual looking people. He gives his subjects this pale, smooth skin which makes them look alike especially from a distance and their eyes all seem very large, creating a suspicion of caraciture. However, when you look more closely, the subjects do differ one from another. His painting of hands isn’t good but the way he paints cloth! Oh, wow, it is exquisite, showing different textures and the way the material drapes. Very beautiful.
One work that showed absolutely none of that is a head of the Ignacy Jan Paderewski. He was a Polish pianist, a celebrity of the late 19th century and later served as prime minister of a newly independent Poland. The oil sketch showed shone a great character with his shock of unruly red hair. I loved it.
It is definitely worth seeing the 1883 Portrait of Georgiana Burne-Jones showing the artist’s long-suffering wife, staring out at the viewer with her children in the background, the son playing the piano (active), the daughter observing (passive). Another picture that is difficult to reproduce, in photographs the light room where the children are dominates the portrait. In real life the face and hands of Georgiana draw the eyes of the viewer, against the draw of the light. I found her face haunting but whether solely from pain – from his adultery and from losing a child and being advised to have no more – or also from wry humour, I wasn’t sure.
Room 5 shows the first of two Series Paintings, this time Perseus. There is a selection of the unfinished canvasses of Perseus. I didn’t warm to this immediately – maybe it needed a longer view.
The best for me was The Baleful Head where Perseus is showing Andromeda (whom he rescued from the sea monster) the head of the Medusa, whom he killed, in a mirror of water. The water is in something that looks like a church font but it is in the middle of a rich garden. Tracey Chevalier, novelist, in her commentary talked about the beauty of the pictures but the way he objectifies women and renders them passive. I agree to a certain extent although I felt that the last painting shows some female agency – Andromeda wanted to see the Medusa and she did.
Room 6 shows the second of the Series Paintings, The Briar Rose. In this case, the whole series is presented, in a small room, replicating how they are normally scene. There are four large paintings with infill paintings connecting them and verses of the story of Sleeping Beauty in gold writing below the pictures. Here you can find the reproduction of one of them, The Council Chamber, showing Sleeping Beauty’s father on his throne. The Wikipedia entry here provides the whole context and the text of the verses on the walls. I just loved this room – all the colours, the details and the natural world with lots of birds and flowers.
The final room considers Burne-Jones as Designer. It includes one of the pianos he decorated, this one with the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice and, on the inside of the lid, the Earthly realm. I liked the inside of the lid a lot. It might have been a cheerful companion to piano practice.
Those were my highlights and I really couldn’t recommend it enough if you like figurative art. There is more information, with pictures of some of the works, in the exhibition guide on-line on Tate’s website. Find the link here. Maybe as a final warning: it shows a very romantic vision – it’s not real life, it’s a beautiful dream. If you like your art grittier, perhaps not the show for you.