This is the first London exhibition devoted exclusively to this artist since 1975, and as such is probably long overdue. As one might expect from the Tate, it is all-encompassing in its range, displaying large and small oil paintings, watercolours, drawings, stained glass and book illustrations. Burne-Jones was notable among English artists of this period for the sheer range of his output, and is rightly regarded as a major figure. However, as is also true of other artists associated with the Pre-Raphaelite movement, there is no consensus as to his significance in English art history. For some, these artists represent a cultural dead-end, a backwards-looking confederacy which led nowhere important, while others view them as a vanguard of modernism, a prequel to the later, highly influential art-for-art’s-sake aesthetic.
So here we have the first dilemma, and it tends to cloud our judgement. Reading reviews of the exhibition so far, there is still no consensus: two polar-opposite views can be found, and, sadly, the show does not really resolve the issue. Despite this, it is still a hugely enjoyable exhibition which answers many questions for those who hold either viewpoint, while, for the undecided, it allows close scrutiny of an artist who has drifted in and out of fashion.
Burne-Jones was one of the second generation of Pre-Raphaelite artists. He attended Oxford University, where he became close friends with William Morris and both of them left before completing their degrees. They then connected themselves closely with Dante Gabriel Rossetti, a founder member of the Pre-Raphaelites. Burne-Jones took up the group’s aesthetic mantle early in his career, and it is either a criticism of his work —or a particular strength— that his style altered little throughout his life. One of the most fascinating aspects of the exhibition are the many drawings on display. As a hugely prolific artist, he produced many studies for each large-scale work that he undertook, allowing us to more clearly understand the detailed evolution of the completed artworks.
As several of the contributors to the catalogue rightly acknowledge, Burne-Jones is unique among English artists in that he was completely self-taught. He did not attend art school, and had no formal training of any kind. (While at Oxford he had studied theology in preparation for a career in the church.) This is perhaps why, as his career progressed, he became more and more influenced by the drawings of the old masters, Michelangelo and Dürer in particular. The drawings on display here are testament to his skill as a draughtsman; indeed their delicacy bears comparison to that of Simeon Solomon, perhaps the most aesthetically sensitive of this group of artists.
A major element of the argument that dismisses the Pre-Raphaelites as an artistic irrelevance is that their works do not reflect or comment upon contemporary life. Think of the French artists of the time, painting steam engines powering into their newly-built iron cathedrals, or social scenes by the Seine, or impressions of the theatre, with suggestions of possible impropriety but brimming with the vitality of modern life. Burne-Jones was supposedly ignoring these subjects, turning his back on current realities and looking to the past for inspiration. Yet within some of his finest and most popular works, one can find many coded references to contemporary frailties and complexities —they are merely hidden just beneath the surface.
One of Burne-Jones’s best-known works, which lives in the Tate’s permanent collection, is King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid. This is in many ways a standard Pre-Raphaelite image, of mediaeval knight and maiden, but the story which it depicts and the image’s construction suggest much more. The story itself might be interpreted as a criticism of Victorian social mores. In the myth the king has declared his lack of interest in female companionship. One morning, from his window, he sees a beggar-maid and falls in love, declaring that he will either marry her or commit suicide. The scene that Burne-Jones depicts shows the king sitting at the maid’s feet, perhaps in loving worship while he awaits her decision, or to demonstrate that he is uncertain of his own worthiness. He holds his crown in his lap, and his shield is beside his feet, which again hints at two interpretations. The king either wants to make the object of his desire aware of his status, or he is suggesting that he is prepared to give up his regal authority to win her love.
Burne-Jones was more than familiar with contemporary social conventions regarding marriage. John Everett Millais’ partner Effie, the divorced wife of John Ruskin, had been ostracised from polite society despite her husband’s high standing. Queen Victoria banned her from her presence, despite her fondness for Millais himself. William Holman Hunt spent much time and money “educating” his favourite model (and mother to his children) Annie Miller, before he felt he was able to marry her. The complicated personal arrangements between Rossetti, William Morris and Jane, his wife, were also familiar to Burne-Jones. Rossetti’s deceased wife Elizabeth Siddall, Morris’s wife Jane, and Hunt’s wife Annie were all working-class girls who had been lifted out of their social setting by their male lovers. One interpretation of Burne-Jones’s painting might be that it is a comment upon the social conventions which restricted the permissibility of marrying out of one’s social class. The king and the beggar maid are clearly socially unequal, and yet he sits at her feet, yearning for her and offering to give up his life if he cannot have her as his wife. Does this begin to explain the wistful expression on her face as well? Perhaps she is unsure whether she should accept him and put him in a position where he must sacrifice his status. While such interpretations may be disputed, it is clear that there is more at work here than a superficial reading may at first suggest. The painting contains pictorial references to the works of Mantegna, Botticelli and Crivelli, while the placing of the king below the maid may suggest that she is unattainable. The flowers that she holds, anemones, are symbolic of rejected love.
One could easily make the argument that whenever a Pre-Raphaelite painting dealt with the subject of love (unrequited or not), it was in part a reflection of the highly complex personal relationships which consumed these artists. Their marriages and extra-marital liaisons are well-known, and it is tempting to read into many of these works meanings which may not have been consciously intended. For example, when Holman Hunt created his masterpiece The Awakening Conscience, was it simply the portrayal of a 'kept' woman realising that her life could be something more, or was it in part autobiographical, about his relationship with Annie Miller, who had been a prostitute until taken up by Hunt?
A beautiful watercolour, Phyllis and Demophoon, painted by Burne-Jones in 1870 and displayed at the Old Watercolour Society exhibition that year, is another such work. The Society were horrified by this painting’s depiction of frontal male nudity, and asked the artist to either alter the picture or remove it from the exhibition altogether. Burne-Jones refused to change anything, took the painting away and resigned from the society at the same time, thereby losing one of the few outlets for displaying his work. It should be remembered that in 1870 Burne-Jones was far from financially secure, and losing the single most important avenue for promoting his art was not a step to be taken lightly. So what was going on with this picture that made it so important to him?
Not only was the subject ambivalent, its handling also provoked artistic criticism. The story is about two lovers, Phyllis, Queen of Thrace, and Demophoon, the son of Theseus. They fall in love, but Demophoon has to leave and promises to return within six months. He fails to do so and Phyllis hangs herself. The gods turn her body into an almond tree (the almond being a symbol of purity). The prince returns, hears of the story and embraces the tree, at which point Phyllis awakens and forgives her lover. This is the scene which Burne-Jones has chosen to show, but in his depiction he exposes several key elements of both his personal life and his artistic vision.
The figures are intertwined: Phyllis embraces her errant lover as she returns to life. One early critic noted how alike the two lovers were, and it is fairly certain that both were modelled on Maria Zambaco, the Greek sculptor with whom Burne-Jones was passionately in love at the time. The almond leaves are falling from the tree, symbolising the union of the two lovers, while Phyllis wraps herself around her male counterpart as if he might be trying to escape. Burne-Jones’s relationship with Maria threatened not only his marriage but also his career; he was so enthralled with her that he neglected both family and work. An incident in January 1869, when Maria wanted them both to commit suicide and attempted to throw herself into the Little Venice canal —which resulted in the pair struggling together on the ground and having to be separated by policemen— would have been well known at the time. For a considerable time thereafter Burne-Jones completed almost no paintings at all.
Varying biographical interpretations of Phyllis and Demophoon can therefore be made. Perhaps Burne-Jones felt trapped by his lover, or it may be that the figures’ embrace represents the two artists’ undying passion for one another. Burne-Jones might even be expressing regret at having become involved in the first place. To add to the confusion, he had attached to the back of the painting a note written in Latin which translates as “Tell me what I have done? I have loved unwisely.” Of further note, however, is the androgynous style in which the figures are drawn. With strong similarities to the work of Simeon Solomon, a good friend of Burne-Jones, this is one of the latter’s earliest works expressing a non-specific sexual identity, a prominent theme within the aesthetic movement. This characteristic becomes more and more evident as the exhibition charts his subsequent development, and it is a major feature within the later works.
Phyllis and Demophoon is one of the first paintings in which the aesthetic principles of beauty (as articulated most notably by Walter Pater) are clearly visible. Burne-Jones’s increasing pursuit of beauty for its own sake has become something of a poisoned chalice for his legacy, and is now attacked by some critics. Nevertheless, the numerous drawings in the show display a delicacy and lightness of touch that is hard not to admire. When considering criticisms that such works are overly decorated or lacking in social realism, it is perhaps worth reminding ourselves of what, precisely, Pater wrote concerning the aesthetic properties to which Burne-Jones, amongst others, aspired. In his essay The School of Giorgione, Pater explained that
“The sudden act, the rapid transition of thought, the passing expression.... is part of the fidelity of the highest sort, that it presents itself with a kind of profoundly significant and animated instants, a mere gesture, a look, a smile -- into which, however, all the motives, all the interests and effects of a long history, have condensed themselves, and which seem to absorb past and future into an intense consciousness of the present.”
Whether or not one agrees with the sentiments so lucidly expressed here, it is hard to deny their relevance when evaluating the work of Burne-Jones in this exhibition. Another of his most popular works on display here, The Golden Stairs, finally completed in 1880, further emphasises the aesthetic detailing which Pater had repeatedly advocated. In particular, Pater had drawn attention to the significance of music as an ideal form of communication: it does not depend on narrative, but directly employs its form to communicate those higher ideals which should, according to the aesthetic model, be the true subject of art. In many ways The Golden Stairs is the ultimate expression of those ideals, but with some unique features of the artist’s own devising.
The Golden Stairs has no particular narrative. Classically dressed women are arranged in two groups of nine upon a spiralling staircase. They are descending, carrying —but not actually playing— a variety of musical instruments. The women hold a number of different poses, but the overall impression is one of graceful movement within a confined space of uncertain dimensions. If we search for a message in this work, we are doomed to fail. There are no specific classical references which may help us, no artistic ‘borrowings’ which allude to a particular myth or story, and there is certainly no suggestion of a connection to the modern world in which it was produced. We are therefore left with the conclusion that what we see has been designed to be almost purely decorative, and now the picture begins to make sense.
The painting’s reference to music suggests that it is leading us to the higher contemplation of a beautiful object. The women are engaged with each other, but their expressions give no hint of genuine emotion: they tell no story, they have no context. Even the various flowers and herbs which adorn them are mainly decorative. Laurel and jasmine can be identified, but their symbolic meanings add little; laurel usually signifies artistic talent, and jasmine is often used to symbolise beauty and sensuality. These themes are entirely consistent with the musical and decorative themes of the picture, but merely serve to enhance them rather than adding a further dimension. So we may conclude that this work, among the most accomplished of all Burne-Jones’s paintings, can be read as a definitive statement with regard to the aesthetic movement. The theme of the work is beauty itself, and the artist clearly felt no need to complicate it with any superfluous content.
This exhibition is a clear reminder of how productive Burne-Jones was during his lifetime. The range of his output is remarkable, and it is difficult to identify another artist who can be said to have mastered so many different media with such success. For many years after his death he was ignored, as the aesthetic movement with which he was so closely associated fell out of fashion. His art was considered irrelevant to the modern world. However, this collection demonstrates that much of his work can still speak to us across time. Although perhaps too wedded to artifice, and consistent in aiming for the unattainable, Burne-Jones can be legitimately regarded as a fine artist in his own right. He should not be damned with the faint praise implicit in the title ‘The Last Pre-Raphaelite’.—Paul Flux