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’.

In her new biography Fiona MacCarthy describes a series of ‘brilliantly scurrilous cartoons’, now in the British Library, composed in mocking response to Swinburne’s involvement with the flamboyant American actress Adah Menken. Something of this Burne-Jones – the keen joker and caricaturist – can be glimpsed in the many comic sketches reproduced in The Last Pre-Raphaelite. Burne-Jones’s depictions of a curly-headed and rotund Morris turning cartwheels or squatting, back to the viewer, for a demonstration on weaving, are affectionate rather than scurrilous; but like the more uneasy cartoons of huge female forms protruding from overstuffed costumes that he called his ‘Prominent Women’ series, they testify to a fascination with flesh that comes as a surprise to those familiar only with the stylishly elongated figures of his major paintings. Not that those slim figures couldn’t carry a heavy charge. Witness the sinuous form of Nimuë in The Beguiling of Merlin, or the intertwined bodies, slender almost to the point of anorexia, of Phyllis and Demophoön, with its yearning Demophoön locked in the arms of the lover he is supposedly fleeing. The artist who painted those images may have been terrified of lust, but he was also entranced by it.

By the time he painted Phyllis and Demophoön in 1870, Burne-Jones had been married for ten years and was reluctantly attempting to disentangle himself from the striking woman who had been the model for Phyllis. While his wife Georgiana’s memoir understandably passes over this episode in silence, his modern biographers have been inclined to treat it as the key turn in the narrative. Penelope Fitzgerald’s 1975 biography begins its account of the affair with a chapter entitled, after Morris’s poetic cycle of those years, ‘A Threat to the Earthly Paradise’. The Last Pre-Raphaelite generally avoids such touches of melodrama, but MacCarthy structures her account as a loss of innocence, and she does a particularly fine job of conveying the buoyant atmosphere that preceded the fall.

Ned was 26 and Georgie, the daughter of a Methodist minister, 19 when they married and moved into his former bachelor quarters in Bloomsbury in the summer of 1860, but they had known each other since she was 12 and had been engaged for four years.

The couple chose the date of their wedding, like that of their engagement, to commemorate the death of Dante’s Beatrice. Ned brightened their bare rooms by elaborately decorating an old sideboard and a new piano. Soon after their marriage Morris began gathering his friends together in the Red House in Kent, the Gothic retreat he hoped to make ‘the beautifullest place on earth’. Life at the Red House was a working holiday, with the artists’ wives engaging in woodwork or embroidery, while Ned, Gabriel and the others contributed wall paintings or covered furniture with new designs. Plans were even drawn up to extend the house with separate quarters for Georgie and Ned, before the death of their baby son from scarlet fever put an end to experiment. The sorrowing parents, pleading impoverishment from their recent medical expenses, retreated to London, and Morris was forced to abandon his dreams of a communal ‘Palace of Art’.

Other results of that hopeful decade were longer-lasting. In 1861, Ned had become a founding partner in the decorating firm Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co – an institution that would endure in one form or another well into the 20th century. Around the same time, he succumbed to ‘the natural yearning of mortal man not to be lost in the millions of Joneses’ by adding the name of an uncle to his signature.

Georgie had come to the marriage with some ambitions of her own. She had read Ruskin, studied drawing at the Government School of Design in Kensington and wanted to be an artist. For a few brief years in the 1860s there were attempts at collaboration: a scheme to direct a group of schoolgirls in embroidering tapestries after Ned’s designs, for example, and to teach George Du Maurier’s wife, Emma, how to join her in cutting woodblocks from which their husbands’ illustrations could be printed. But these efforts amounted to little. Though the Memorials make clear that Georgie regretted her exclusion from the studio, it isn’t clear how much this registered with her husband. Writing in 1895, Burne-Jones looked back on those ‘bonny years’: ‘Of them I love to think – years of the beginning of art in me – and Gabriel everyday, and Ruskin in his splendid days and Morris everyday and Swinburne everyday, and a thousand visions in one always.’ Perhaps the pleasure of Georgiana every day went without saying.

The woman for whom Burne-Jones nearly abandoned his marriage was a wealthy Greek expatriate called Maria Zambaco, who had recently returned to London in flight from an unhappy marriage. Their meeting was arranged by her manipulative mother, Euphrosyne, who commissioned Burne-Jones to paint her daughter’s portrait. After their affair began, she ordered a nude study of Maria as Venus Epithalamia and proudly displayed a copy of it in her drawing room. An artist of some accomplishment herself, Maria was a celebrated beauty, one of a trio of Greeks known as ‘the Three Graces’, whose forms can still be seen weaving their mysterious dance in the painting at the V&A that Burne-Jones called The Mill.

That Burne-Jones could imagine his new love ‘born at the foot of Olympus’ only heightened her allure. His wife had once been the model for the Virgin in an Annunciation; his mistress now appeared as Venus and Circe, as well as Nimuë beguiling Merlin. Maria apparently wanted them to run away together to an island mentioned in Homer, and he seems to have entertained this notion quite seriously, but couldn’t finally bring himself to take the leap. The crisis came when she responded to his wavering by threatening suicide. There was a violent scuffle near the Regent’s Canal, as he tried to stop her throwing herself in the water. This was not the end of the affair – it seems to have gone on for several years longer – but it marked a turning point in Burne-Jones’s conception of himself. From then on, he evidently believed he didn’t have the courage to break free from his marriage.

Among MacCarthy’s aims is to do greater justice to Georgie than previous biographers, and in this she largely succeeds. She is especially sharp on the thwarting of Georgie’s early artistic ambitions and the particular ‘unfairness’ of the contrast with Maria Zambaco, who was free to pursue her art without concern for money or family. She writes sensitively about Georgie’s work for the parish council of Rottingdean, to which she was first elected with Morris’s encouragement in the mid-1890s, and the admirable achievement of the Memorials itself. But MacCarthy’s sympathies do not preclude a certain dryness about the more earnest aspects of Georgie’s character and she is inclined to agree with Burne-Jones that she should instead ‘have married a good clergyman’.

Edward Burne-Jones, ‘The Golden Stairs’ (1880).

The loves of his later years tended to be considerably younger women; and he would have preferred them to remain poised for ever on the threshold of maturity. With the notable exception of May Gaskell, whom he met when he was 58 and she an unhappily married woman of 39, they first cast their spell on him as daughters. A number of them have been identified among the graceful figures who follow one another down the sweeping curve of The Golden Stairs: the fiery Laura Tennant, who died in childbirth at the age of 23; Mary Gladstone, the third daughter of the prime minister; Frances Graham, the offspring of Burne-Jones’s patron William Graham; Morris’s daughter May; and Burne-Jones’s own daughter, Margaret, whose engagement at 21 threw her father into despair. ‘And what do girls want with men,’ he wrote to Rudyard Kipling the day before the wedding. ‘Didn’t I flatter her enough, glare at her enough, fetch and carry and be abject enough?’

Margaret was not the only one of these golden girls whose determination to marry prompted Burne-Jones to expressions of indignation and betrayal. MacCarthy devotes particular attention to Frances Graham, whose romance with Burne-Jones began with a lavish valentine from the artist when she was in late adolescence and flared up again after her marriage. ‘All the romance and beauty of my life means you,’ he told her.

It is no disservice to Frances or to the other women with whom he fell in love to note his extraordinary capacity for assimilating them to a pattern. Scholars may have identified individual models for The Golden Stairs, but the viewer is more likely to be struck by how difficult it is to distinguish between them. With their nearly identical dresses, hairstyles and colouring, Burne-Jones’s figures are elegant variations on a theme, almost as if he were studying the motions of a single figure descending a staircase, but preferred, unlike Duchamp, to keep her decently clothed. Even before Gilbert and Sullivan drew directly on the painting’s costumes for their satire of the aesthetic movement in Patience (1881), Burne-Jones was becoming famous for the stylised look of the female figures in his work. In the spring of 1877, he spotted a potential model, Margaret Benson, at a concert rehearsal in the Albert Hall and arranged for an introduction. ‘She has often been called my “Burne-Jones daughter”,’ the obliging Mrs Benson told him.

Though the critics were generally appreciative when The Golden Stairs was first shown at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1880, they looked in vain for its meaning or story. Burne-Jones preferred to keep viewers guessing. Given the narrative expectations of Victorian art-goers, it was particularly daring to produce a work on such a grand scale – the canvas is more than eight feet high – whose figures were assembled, as one reviewer complained, ‘for no reason in particular’. But while many of Burne-Jones’s paintings have a basis in literature or myth, it is somewhat misleading to claim that he was driven by a ‘love of storytelling’. MacCarthy seems closer to the mark when she refers to the ‘suspended animation’ of his pictures, their tendency not so much to tell a story as to freeze the action, subordinating the human form to decorative arrangements of line and colour. The effect is visible even in works like The Beguiling of Merlin, whose agitated lines convey tension without motion, as if the whole painting had succumbed to the trance-like state implied by Merlin’s fixed gaze and nerveless hands.

The conventional divide between high art and decoration had no weight for Burne-Jones, who worked throughout his career in an astonishing range of media. Easel painting, both in oil and in watercolour, was the least of it. His first commission while still a student had been for a series of pen and ink drawings to illustrate a volume of ballads and other poems on fairy mythology; his first serious income as an artist came from the stained glass windows he began to design for James Powell and Sons in the late 1850s. He turned out hundreds of such designs over the course of his working life, most of them for Morris & Co. In a frenzy of mourning after Morris’s death in 1896, he ‘flew at his work’ – the phrase is Georgiana’s – and produced a flurry of new stained glass work, including a Last Judgment at St Philip’s in Birmingham that MacCarthy views as his greatest achievement in the medium. That same year saw the publication of the Kelmscott Chaucer, with 87 illustrations by Burne-Jones. And then there were tiles and mosaics; tapestries and jewellery; wall decorations and painted furniture; even piano designs, which resulted in Broadwood’s producing several versions in oak to Burne-Jones’s specifications. ‘I have been wanting for years to reform pianos,’ he wrote to a friend in 1880, ‘since they are as it were the very altar of homes, and a second hearth to people.’ He displayed pianos he’d designed at his house in Fulham and his country cottage at Rottingdean; above the housemaid’s sink at the cottage were four of his stained glass windows depicting the quest for the Holy Grail.

‘My real home would be in a society which embraces and covers all art,’ Burne-Jones wrote in 1886. The occasion was an invitation to rejoin the Old Water-Colour Society, which he had quit in the wake of a struggle over Phyllis and Demophoön 16 years earlier. (Rather than obscure Demophoön’s genitals, Burne-Jones had the picture withdrawn.) Though he shared Morris’s distrust of such institutions, Burne-Jones repeatedly let himself be persuaded to join them – only to leave when one disappointment or another confirmed his original position. When the news arrived in 1885 that he had been elected to the Royal Academy, Georgie thought it was a joke; but Burne-Jones succumbed to Frederic Leighton’s urging and allowed himself to be made an associate – a rank he retained until he quit the Academy in 1893, having exhibited only a single painting there. He even resigned from the Grosvenor Gallery, which deliberately set out to challenge academic practice and had briefly helped make him a star in the late 1870s. ‘It seems to me I am always resigning something or other, although I should have said I was a peaceable fellow enough,’ he remarked to his patron George Howard.

The truth was that Burne-Jones objected not just to the conservatism of academic painting but to the entire system of production and display that depended on the fact that canvases were portable and designed to be purchased by a private consumer. Even more than the other Pre-Raphaelites, he longed for works of art made to be fixed in place and conceived on a scale intended for a large public: ‘I want big things to do, and vast spaces,’ he said after his first visit to Italy, ‘and for common people to see them and say Oh! – only Oh!’ Hence his love for stained glass windows and mosaics, like the vast one he produced for St Paul’s Within-the-Walls in Rome. (‘It can’t be sold and will be in Rome and will last for ever,’ he wrote contentedly.) Ironically, it was the scale of his work that left this would-be artist of the people so dependent on patrons wealthy enough to command the large spaces in which works like The Beguiling of Merlin (Frederick Leyland) or The Golden Stairs (Cyril Flower, later Lord Battersea) could be displayed. Had Burne-Jones been born a century later, he might have bypassed such patrons and aimed his pictures directly at museums, where most of his larger canvases now hang.