During his lifetime, Burne-Jones’s art frequently had this mesmerizing effect on people. The girls and women he portrayed in his pictures, as well as the pictures themselves, were “stunners.” With eyes like deep pools, collagen lips and great masses of hair, these iconic beauties can be seen on dust jackets and posters to this day. Think back, for instance, to A.S. Byatt’s “Possession,” which attracted many initial buyers just because of its striking cover: Burne-Jones’s “The Beguiling of Merlin.”
Any new biography of Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898) starts off in the shade of Penelope Fitzgerald’s beautifully written life, published in 1975. Fiona MacCarthy is no match for Fitzgerald on a sentence-for-sentence basis — but who could be, given that Fitzgerald was one of the finest novelists of the 1980s and early ’90s? But MacCarthy makes up for this through her unrivaled knowledge of that thread of English painting and decoration we think of as the Arts and Crafts movement (and its later descendants). She has, for instance, written standard books about the great polymath William Morris, the Bloomsbury group’s Omega Workshops and the influential stone-cutter, type designer and printmaker Eric Gill.
In her preface to “The Last Pre-Raphaelite,” MacCarthy sums up Burne-Jones as “the licensed escapist of his period, perpetrating an art of ancient myths, magical landscapes, insistent sexual yearnings, that expressed deep psychological needs for his contemporaries.” She underscores that he strongly believed “in the power of art to counteract the spiritual degradation, the meanness and corruption he saw everywhere around him in the ruthlessly expansionist, imperialistic Britain” of the 19th century.
Little wonder, then, that the artist’s most famous paintings, tile works, drawings and tapestries illustrate scenes from romantic legends (“Pygmalion,” “King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid,” “Cupid and Psyche”); Malory’s “Morte d’Arthur” (“The Sleep of Arthur in Avalon,” “The Arming and Departure of the Knights of the Round Table on the Quest for the Holy Grail”); fairy tales (“Briar Rose,” “Beauty and the Beast”); and Chaucer (the illustrations for the coveted Kelmscott Press edition of the poet’s works). Two of his best-loved paintings — “Green Summer” and “The Golden Stairs” — are group portraits of young girls in flower, in the latter case of virtually angelic figures descending a series of winding steps.
Burne-Jones maintained that a picture should be, as he said, “a beautiful romantic dream of something that never was, never will be — in a light better than any light that ever shone — in a land no one can define or remember, only desire — and the forms divinely beautiful.” Nearly all his finished work displays the distinctive stillness, solemn beauty and other worldliness I saw in his St. Cecilia, often further imbued with a touch of heartache or subdued eroticism.
Edward Burne-Jones’s mother died shortly after giving birth to him, and her absence colored his childhood, leaving him prey to insecurity and depression. At Oxford, he met the young William Morris, and the two quickly became best friends for life, forming an artistic partnership that would change English art. Rotund “Topsy” and lanky “Ned” enthused over John Ruskin’s books on early Italian art, happily joined the circle around the poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and eventually came to know such controversial figures as Swinburne, Whistler and Wilde. Although Morris went on to become a founder of English socialism, Burne-Jones ended up an uneasy pillar of the cultural establishment. He enjoyed close connections to three prime ministers: William Gladstone, through their daughters’ friendship; Arthur Balfour as a patron and admirer; and Stanley Baldwin, who was a nephew (as was the writer Rudyard Kipling).
Throughout her book, MacCarthy makes clear that Burne-Jones was a greatly likable man: “I get to work with reluctance at 10, wish I was dead at eleven, get hungry at 12, and all the rest of the day wish I was a gentleman and hadn’t to paint.” Like most artists, he didn’t make much money on his art initially. But he had devoted and wealthy patrons, an occasional subvention from John Ruskin, and eventually a steady income from the tiles and stained glass he designed for Morris and Company’s interior decoration business. In due course, Burne-Jones’s house and studio, the Grange, became a lodestone for aesthetic London.
And for women of all ages. The painter was drawn to pantherine beauties (such as the Greek Maria Zambaco, with whom he enjoyed an intense affair), to wronged wives in need of help and to adorable young girls. In many cases, these amours went no further than intensely flirtatious friendships. Burne-Jones simply couldn’t resist feminine beauty, despite the unhappiness his indiscretions caused his stoic and long-suffering wife. In the way of artists ever and always, his various sweethearts ended up lending their features to imagined saints, sirens and heroines.
MacCarthy’s “The Last Pre-Raphaelite” is one of those books one can happily live in for a week, but some readers might feel that it lingers needlessly over the details of several Italian trips or digresses too much into the lives of subsidiary characters — though not enough into that of the shady Charles Augustus Howell, who persuaded Rossetti to dig up his wife’s grave to retrieve the poems buried with her. My own favorite pages focus on a series of Burne-Jones’s watercolors inspired by romantic flower names: “Love in a Mist,” “Ladder of Heaven,” “Grave of the Sea” and dozens of others.
Burne-Jones’s public art is nothing if not serious, but his private drawings — many reproduced by MacCarthy — are whimsical, self-mocking and winningly intimate. A whole series makes fun of William Morris’s girth; one shows a self-caricature of the artist surrounded by all his “unpainted masterpieces”; still others decorate envelopes to child-friends. These tossed-off sketches, so full of good humor, reveal something of why Edward Burne-Jones was so beloved by those who knew him. Today, of course, he has emerged from a period of eclipse to become one of the most admired of all English painters of the 19th century, arguably second only to Turner.
Dirda reviews each Thursday in Style and conducts a book discussion for The Post at wapo.st/reading-room.