Oh! – only Oh!

Ruth Bernard Yeazell

  • The Last Pre-Raphaelite: Edward Burne-Jones and the Victorian Imagination by Fiona MacCarthy
    Faber, 629 pp, £25.00, September 2011, ISBN 978 0 571 22861 4

Edward Jones – the Burne came later – was born in Birmingham to a mother who died giving birth to him and a father who eked out a living as a frame-maker, although art, his son reported, ‘was always a great bewilderment to him’. The only person who seems to have recognised the boy’s talent – a neighbour who bought pictures to rework – had the dubious merit of having once painted stormy waves over a calm harbour scene by Turner. Ned did well enough at school to be allowed to study classics, and his classmates became his first real friends. He was attracted to religious ceremony, and arrived at Oxford in 1853 a fervent Tractarian: he dreamed of following in the footsteps of John Henry Newman or even joining a monastic brotherhood. The spiritual intensity of his Oxford phase and the dream of brotherhood never left him, but the appeal of the church gradually faded; by the time he set out for London three years later, the disciple of Newman had become a disciple of Ruskin.

Just how art came to substitute for religion is not altogether clear. Burne-Jones said it happened ‘slowly, and almost insensibly, without ever talking about it’ – but there is no doubt that, like so many of his future achievements, it was a joint enterprise. No bond was more important to him, or longer-lasting, than the friendship he forged with William Morris at Oxford. Morris, too, had flirted with the Church – much wealthier than his friend, he once contemplated using his inheritance to finance a monastery – but by the time they left university ‘we were both settling in our minds,’ as Burne-Jones later put it, ‘that the clerical life was not for us and art was growing more and more dominant daily.’ A trip to France in the summer of 1855 settled the matter. Morris had already travelled abroad, but it was Burne-Jones’s first trip across the Channel. Confronted for the first time with medieval art and ‘transported with delight’ by the discovery of Fra Angelico, he returned to England determined to be a painter.

He was completely untrained for his new career, but what he lacked in formal instruction he seems to have made up by a combination of studying and an instinct for the right company. His reading of Ruskin had already acquainted him with the Pre-Raphaelites, and when he arrived in London he ‘practically stalked’ Dante Gabriel Rossetti until the poet and painter took him on as a kind of apprentice. When Morris came to live in London later that year, he and Burne-Jones shared lodgings in Bloomsbury, paid for by Morris’s mother, and a subsequent visit from Ruskin himself provided the young hero-worshipper with something even ‘better than his books’ – ‘which are,’ he declared loyally, ‘the best books in the world’. Ruskin was on the rebound from the annulment of his marriage and the ensuing break with John Everett Millais (whom Ruskin’s wife, Effie, married). He seems to have been ready to acquire a new protégé, and twice bankrolled Burne-Jones’s travels in Italy, allowing him to see many of the works that would most directly inspire his own.

By the measure of Rossetti’s bohemia, the new arrival seems to have been thought – and to have thought himself – rather backward. The ageing Burne-Jones told his studio assistant that someone from the Rossetti circle had once bribed a prostitute to follow him down the street: ‘He told her I was very timid and shy, and wanted her to speak to me. I saw him talking to her as I looked back and she came after me and I couldn’t get rid of her. I said no, my dear. I’m just going home – for I’m never naughty with those poor things – but it was no use.’ Though Burne-Jones would relish the opportunity to illustrate Chaucer for the Kelmscott Press many years later, Morris could never get him to take up the fabliaux. ‘Lust does frighten me,’ he said, explaining his feelings of revulsion for Aubrey Beardsley’s drawings. And yet it is among the many contradictions of his character that he became close friends with Swinburne – cast here as the ‘wicked’ angel to Morris’s good – and that the two of them exchanged obscene letters that made Burne-Jones, by his own account, ‘scream with bliss’.

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