William Burges's Great Bookcase & the Victorian Colour Revolution by Charlotte Ribeyrol
Yale University Press, 2023
This is very much a book of two parts —or perhaps more accurately, two distinct themes. One pertains to the physical history of a bookcase created for a specific space and purpose. The other concerns the illuminated stories with which it was adorned, the artists involved in the decoration, and the wider implications of the stylistic motifs employed. As the title suggests, the latter topic occupies the bulk of the book, while the bookcase’s construction and subsequent history are briefly explained.
Commissioned by the architect William Burges somewhere between 1859 and 1862 for his architectural practice, the bookcase was subsequently painted by fourteen young artists of the period, including Burne-Jones, Simeon Solomon, and Dante Rossetti. It represents a high point in the mid-Victorian fashion for painted furniture, while it is also an object of artistic interest in its own right. The bookcase was finished in 1862 and formed the focal point of the Mediaeval Court at the International Exhibition held in London that same year. It was moved to several different locations in the years that followed, and in 1878 it partially collapsed and had to be modified. After the fashions changed it was neglected for decades, and in 1933 it was offered to the young Kenneth Clark, then Keeper of Art at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, for the princely sum of £50! It is possible that without this purchase the bookcase would have disappeared altogether. Never actually displayed at the museum at this time, it was moved again and eventually found its way to Knighthayes Court, Burges’s Devon home, before finally being ensconced in the Pre-Raphaelite Gallery back at the Ashmolean. In a very real sense, then, the bookcase’s journey captures that of Pre-Raphaelite art itself over its history: highly fashionable and even avant-garde to begin with, then somewhat mainstream and popular, a phase followed by a gradual decline leading to obscurity before it was finally restored to its former fame within the English art canon.
In common with many Pre-Raphaelite paintings, the decoration that adorns the bookcase looks back to the mediaeval period. There are several reasons for this, but perhaps the most persuasive is explained in the first chapter. John Ruskin was a keen supporter of the Pre-Raphaelites and his writing on art and architecture was highly influential on the young artists. Central to Ruskin’s thinking about art was his attitude to colour. He looked around the world and saw colour as a gift from God. All bright things —rainbows, butterflies, precious jewels, and birds— glorified the majesty of God, while dull-coloured animals and plants, such as wolves, bears, slugs, and fungi, represented sin and decay. Colour thus became a celebration of God, leading (almost inevitably, in Ruskin’s view) to Gothic architecture and stained glass, and the paintings of the early Renaissance.
The decoration of the bookcase is divided into two halves, with Christian themes on one side and Pagan images on the other. The author has replicated this contrast by examining the themes, colouring, and meaning of the adjoining panels. The first chapter discusses the Christian-influenced depictions of the origins of painting and architecture with reference to two panels completed by Simeon Solomon and Thomas Morten: St John and the Angel Measuring the Heavenly Jerusalem and Beato Angelico respectively. Solomon was just eighteen when he was asked to work on the bookcase, and his prodigious talent must have been identified by Burges via his connection with Leigh’s academy, where Solomon studied along with Burne-Jones and Poynter, also involved with the project.
The theological meaning of colour is essential to any coherent understanding of the purpose and development of the bookcase’s themes. Burges was a keen student of early Gothic decoration and architecture and, like Ruskin, saw colour as the finite expression of a benevolent God. In the bookcase’s creation colour is transformed into something more than a medium of decoration, and becomes an expression of the transcendental, a heavenly gift to be revered. The bright colours of the various panels are not simply exuberant decoration but a celebration of devout faith. They are also a reference to a bygone age, when equally devout workmen created luminous artworks in stark contrast to the dull, monochrome machinery of modern life.
Solomon’s panel has particular significance since it deals explicitly with Burges’ first love, architecture. It shows an angel dressed in imperial purple measuring the temple in Jerusalem which —under the direction of God’s messengers— has been constructed with perfect proportions and harmonious decoration. St John is not simply bowed in admiration, he is making notes so that the temple’s perfect details may be replicated elsewhere. The golden background emphasises both the grandeur of the setting and the importance of the chromatic design, in which the painted pillar has been constructed with twelve different-coloured stones, each representing a tribe of Israel. Ribeyrol deals in some detail with Burges’s historical and theological theories in order to make sense of this image, and the discussion makes fascinating (if occasionally difficult) reading.
The panel which, according to Ribeyrol, contrasts but also complements the theme of the origins and significance of colour in Solomon’s panel is Beato Angelico, painted by Thomas Morten. He was another product of Leigh’s academy, but his life was sadly cut short by suicide in September 1866. Just as Solomon’s work celebrates God’s gift of colour in the architectural context, Beato Angelico honours it in painting with reference to the early Renaissance artist Fra Angelico. He has been chosen to represent the ideal of an early Christian painter: Morten’s image shows him painting a portrait of the Virgin, a reference to his more famous depictions of the Annunciation, which celebrate another gift from God, His son. Ribeyrol argues that the way in which Fra Angelico has been portrayed refers explicitly to St Luke, the patron saint of artists. The background of the scene is not gold, as in the Solomon panel, but an azure blue, symbolising the Virgin. The connection between artists, St Luke, and images of the Virgin has a long history, examined here in some depth.
The subsequent chapters of the book closely examine the other individual panels in equally precise and comprehensive detail. The scholarship is impressive, but at times the minutiae can be a little overwhelming. It is clear throughout that Burges had conceived the design of the bookcase as a unified whole that would encompass a wide range of inspirations, from the cathedrals of fourteenth-century France to the Far East. The bookcase’s diverse influences, colours and decoration make it unclassifiable despite its mid-Victorian date. It is not simply a Pre-Raphaelite object nor a purely decorative high Victorian piece full of colourful flourishes, but a hybrid combining the best of both styles.
The contrast between the Christian and Pagan panels is emphasised throughout the book. The final chapter on the individual panels, before the concluding arguments, again involves Solomon’s work, alongside that of another young artist: a Royal Academy student named Albert Moore who later in his career became known for highly decorative figures set in classical landscapes. Like the images examined in the first chapter, which were based on architecture, these final two also have a common theme, that of sculpture. The Solomon panel illustrates a scene from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, while Moore’s work shows King Edward I ordering the carved effigy of his queen, Eleanor of Castile, from the goldsmith Torrel.
Everlasting love is the theme that connects the two panels. Solomon captures the moment in which the goddess Venus breathes life into Pygmalion’s sculpture of the ideal female form, with which the artist has fallen in love. Moore portrays Edward watching as the artist recreates the image of his dead queen, which Moore based upon the real effigy in Westminster Abbey. Again, the viewer is fascinated by how the two panels mutually contrast and complement each other. Pygmalion kneels in front of his stone image as the waking goddess exhales the breath of life, while Edward leans on the table to observe the goldsmith carving the likeness of his deceased wife in cold stone. The one awakens a lifeless figure, while the other tries to replicate life in an inanimate medium. Pygmalion is surrounded by an azure blue background with a flowering tree, while Edward is placed within the monochrome bronze and earth environment of the artist’s workshop. These panels demonstrate the meticulous care with which Burges designed the bookcase, and show that he clearly gave the artists precise instructions.
When Kenneth Clark purchased the bookcase in 1933 he spent £50 on an object that had gone out of fashion and would probably otherwise have been thrown away. Now it takes pride of place in the Ashmolean, one of England’s most prestigious museums. This book is a worthy companion to the bookcase, explaining in extraordinary depth each panel and decorative motif while also helping the reader to understand the significance of the colours within the context of both the period and Burges’s intentions for the whole design. If there is a criticism to be made it is that the detail can become slightly overwhelming as reference after reference hurtle towards the reader, but it is worth persevering, for the bookcase itself is a unique object created at a special time when English art and architecture were being transformed by modernity and new modes of artistic self-expression.--Paul Flux