The Last Pre-Raphaelite

‘The best way of lengthening out the rest of our days, old chap, is to finish off our old things’, said the ageing William Morris to his oldest friend and collaborator Edward Burne-Jones ( Both were in their sixties; neither would see out the 1890s. Burne-Jones had been designing tapestries and stained glass – sometimes at the rate of a window a week – for Morris’s firm since its foundation in 1861. Their last collaboration, the Kelmscott Chaucer, returned to an undergraduate passion they’d shared at Exeter College, Oxford ( The not yet roly-poly Morris had read The Canterbury Tales to Burne-Jones, the underfed youth brought up above a frame shop in Birmingham. They learnt from Thomas Carlyle not to become clergymen, and from John Ruskin to dedicate their lives to art. After Oxford they attached themselves to Dante Rossetti, who roped them in to help paint the Arthurian murals for the Library of the Oxford Union. The Oxford murals soon began to disintegrate, ditto the friendship with Rossetti, but Arthurian themes continued to preoccupy Burne-Jones. In the two years before his death in 1898, he worked obsessively on The Sleep of Arthur in Avalon, which he began in the early 1880s and remarked that he might not finish until 1970.

MacCarthy, already an impressively empathetic biographer of Morris, now approaches Burne-Jones with equal insight, despite the lack of sympathy which sometimes simmered – though never erupted – between the two artists. In the 1870s, Burne-Jones was more than ever inspired by a sense of brotherhood with the early Renaissance masters. Pity his boredom when Morris pestered him for illustrations to the Icelandic myths. Yet they remained friends even when Morris became lost to socialism, and Burne-Jones the pet of the Souls, that most resolutely apolitical of privileged coteries.

MacCarthy is briskly unsensational about Burne-Jones’s worship of the ‘cool, collected, charming, as yet sexually unawakened daughters of the English ruling classes’, which found mysterious expression in the drugged-looking beauties in The Golden Stairs. This became the defining picture of the Aesthetic Movement, but Burne-Jones had reservations about fame: the more he was praised, the more he feared being unmasked as an impostor. Four years later in King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid, he put his incorruptible wife Georgie centre stage once more, suggesting his awareness that she, at least, was unmoved by his celebrity. When the tide turned against him in the later 1880s, he stuck to his last. His response to the Impressionists was that ‘they do make atmosphere, but they don’t make anything else’.

Meanwhile, the marriage of his adored daughter Margaret in 1888 released the bereft father into a last frantic bout of extramarital lovemaking. In life, as in art, he began by revisiting an earlier romance – Frances Graham, the best beloved of the Golden Stairs maidens, but finding the quality of her attention insufficient, he turned instead to her friend May Gaskell, who had the advantage of being unhappy. The affair was almost certainly chaste though letters suggest that it was sometimes a struggle –   on his part – to keep it so.

Burne-Jones never ceased to play the motherless boy starved of beauty in his role as lover, husband and father, but his kindness and generosity to others were unbounded. His nephew by marriage, Rudyard Kipling, left a remarkable testament to his character: ‘His work was the least part of him. It is him that one wants – the size and the strength and the power and the jests and the God-given sympathy of the man. He knew. There was never a man like him who knew all things without stirring’. But MacCarthy does not go as far as Burne-Jones’s previous biographer, Penelope Fitzgerald, who suggested that the artist was the model for the lama in Kipling’s Kim. Perhaps more significantly, Fitzgerald’s biography, published in 1975, finished with the artist’s death. The Golden Stairs was then in storage at the Tate and the afterlife of the artist was still an uncertain affair.

By contrast, MacCarthy pursues his reputation through the succeeding decades after his death, shining her torch on buyers and sellers, scholarly monographs and curatorial feuds. She finishes with an account of the triumphant return to the Tate (on loan) of Arthur, for which the gallery had jibbed at paying just £1,000 in the Sixties. MacCarthy’s interest in the subsequent reputation never obscures her portrait of the artist as an intensely Victorian figure, both formed by and responsive to origins he had escaped: ‘Birmingham is my city according to the facts, which I always rebel against as far as possible… in reality Assisi is my birthplace’. MacCarthy puts the Birmingham back into Burne-Jones, citing his extraordinary focus, his interest in public art and his sense of self-worth being dependent on painting ‘visions and dreams and symbols for the understanding of the people’. She reproduces a delightful caricature of himself as a hunted, chronic non-finisher, but her text tells the story according to the facts of Burne-Jones as a prodigious worker, never not busy on several ‘old things’. This is a biography to savour.

656 pages in Faber & Faber paperback edition

ISBN 978-0571228621

Edward Burne-Jones

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