Edward Burne-Jones at the Tate

Edward Burne-Jones at the Tate


I don’t believe one can quite like Burne-Jones. He is the Victorian equivalent of Marmite. As I emerged from this large retrospective, I thought that if I saw one more fey, pouting, miserable looking maiden, I would pull my hair out and poke my eyes out with a pencil. One can certainly admire his painterly skills and his use of colour, whether bejewelled, muted and subdued, or virtually monochromatic, and his drawings in pen and ink are redolent of Durer in their intricacy. His graphite drawings are sensual, and he did dozens of sketches of heads, hands and feet in preparation for his large works in oils and watercolour with gouache. In 1872 Burne-Jones embarked on a group of drawings illustrating The Masque of Cupid a subject taken from Edmund Spenser’s great allegory, The Faerie Queene. One delightful drawing, known as Desiderium, and based on the figure of Amorous Desyre, modelled by his pouting lover Maria Zambaco, is depicted blowing gently to awaken the sparks of passion. In her book on the Pre-Raphaelites, Fiona MacCarthy notes that, ‘when his son Philip Burne-Jones presented the drawing in 1910 to the Tate, it had evidently been tampered with. A panel to the right of the woman’s head had been chopped off and the Victorian art specialist Rupert Maas, using a contemporary photograph as evidence, believes that it depicted a man’s penis and balls directly within the woman’s line of vision and that Philip had censored his father’s erotic fantasy’.

Burne-Jones studied theology at Oxford, where he met William Morris, who introduced him to the world of mediaevalism, a subject he clung onto throughout his career, but he abandoned his course and took up art, working for Morris and Co. as an apprentice, where he designed furniture and stained-glass for both the domestic and ecclesiastical markets. He was elected to the Old Watercolour Society, nowadays with royal patronage, and exhibited though them, until one of his watercolour and gouache paintings ran into controversy, mainly because of nudity, but also because the model for both the male and female leads of Phyllis and Demophoön were posed by Maria Zambaco, which could explain why the guilty and remorseful lover has such a very small penis. A decade later, he painted the same scene in oils, but covered his genitals with a swirl of cloth, while she was naked. There was more nudity inThe Perseus Series of paintings, two of which were on loan from the Staatgalerie in Stutgart. The Rock of Doom shows an adrogynous Andromeda chained to a rock, while a limp-wristed Perseus peeps around the corner. In the second, The Doom Fulfilled, Perseus dons the helmet of Hades to become invisible, and the sea monster Cetus appears, ready to devour the enchained woman. While he is struggling with the serpentine coils, and having already slain the Medusa, Andromeda has coyly turned her back on the viewer, revealing a rather pert bottom.

When not naked, his young women are draped in figure-hugging robes à la Botticelli, although the Tuscan painter did it a lot better. One only has to compare Primavera to, say, the The Golden Stairs to appreciate the massive void between the Renaissance painters and the Pre-Raphaelites. In this painting, he used a number of his friends and acquaintances as models, including  his daughter Mary holding a trumpet, Edith Gellibrand, known by the stage name Edith Chester, May Morris, daughter of William, holding a violin, Frances Graham, later known as Lady Horner, daughter of William Graham, his patron, holding cymbals, Mary, daughter of the then Prime Minister William Gladstone, Laura Tennant, later known as Laura Lyttelton, and Mary Stuart-Wortley, later Lady Lovelace. In a somewhat mysterious painting, with no discernable narrative, entitled The Mill, three miserable-looking dancers accompanied by a gender-confused lute-player cavort on one side on the mill-pond, while a group of naked male swimmers pose on the far bank. The models are Aylaia Coronio, daughter of Constantine Ionades, who commissioned the painting and who later donated it to the V&A, Marie Spartali, a British Pre-Raphaelite painter of Greek descent, and the ubiquitous Maria Zambaco, whose sulky profile as a dame lontaine has become synonymous with the Pre-Raphaelites. As MacCarthy points out, ‘Some of the women in Burne-Jones sexual and romantic imagination appeared in his pictures, no doubt much to the chagrin of his wife, including Maria Zambaco, probably an innocent liason which caused him a lot of private pain’. There were others that Burne-Jones became very close friends and obsessed with, like Frances (née Graham) Horner and May Gaskell, with whom he had a six year, passionate, but ultimately, platonic relationship, and whose troubled and unhappy daughter Amy he painted.

As the last of the Pre-Raphaelites, he was also one of the precursors of the Symbolist movement, influencing the Belgian painter Fernand Khnopff and the Frenchman Gustave Moreau. As a young man, he visted Italy four times between 1859 and 1873, studying the works of Titian, Piero della Francesca, Tintoretto and Fra Angelica, and the results can be clearly seen in his drawings, which are amongst some of the best works in the exhibition. Two paintings, devoud of mysticism or mediaevalism, are that of his patron, William Graham, an honest portrayal of a ‘real’ person, and one of Ignacy Jan Paderewski, the concert pianist, who later became the Prime Minister of Poland, with his signature shock of ginger hair, who was also famously painted by Alma-Tadema. He was not averse to portraying male beauty, albeit in a slightly drippy way, particularly in his retelling of the story of Sleeping Beauty, orThe Briar Rose, from the version by the brothers Grimm. Also on display are his large-scale tapestries like Adoration of the Magi and The Arming and Departure of the Knights of the Round Table on the Quest for the Holy Grail,which took four years to produce. In amongst the large canvases, drawings, illustrated books, manuscripts, embroideries, furniture and tapestries, is a rare oddity; a painted piano, commissioned by Graham as a wedding present for his daughter, depicting her as Eurydice gazing down on Orpheus, with a reference to Mantegna, while under the lid, is a naked Mother Earth, surrounded by a dozen or so slightly grotesque, chubby little babies, entwined amongst the vines. Andy Warhol was most impressed with the piano when it appeared at the Hayward Gallery in 1975 and was photographed at the keyboard. Another example of a Marmite painter, this time in the twentieth century.

Edward Burne-Jones

Tate Britain

Until 24 February 2019

Admission £18


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