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Beautiful, Aesthetic, Erotic

The Cult of Beauty: The Aesthetic Movement in Britain, 1860–1900

an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, April 2–July 17, 2011; the Musée d’Orsay, Paris, September 12, 2011–January 15, 2012; and the Legion of Honor, San Francisco, February 18–July 17, 2012
Laing Art Gallery/Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums, Newcastle upon Tyne
Edward Burne-Jones: Laus Veneris, 1873–1878


Created a baronet by William Gladstone, friend of Sarah Bernhardt, and idol of the Symbolists, by the time of his death in 1898 Sir Edward Burne-Jones was the most celebrated English artist in the world. To his admirers, his art represented the culmination of a literary tradition in painting that stretched back to the Renaissance. But to be a literary painter at the end of the nineteenth century was to be on the wrong side of history. Soon enough his reputation would begin its long descent into twentieth-century oblivion.

He sensed this, and was defiant. When a studio assistant told him that French Impressionism was not “based on literature,” he snapped, “What do they mean by that? Landscape and whores? That’s what they want—nothing but landscape or if any figure pictures more or less languid whores.” His own paintings, he added, were “so different to landscape paintings. I don’t want to copy objects; I want to tell people something.”

The exhibition staged by the Tate Gallery in June 1933 to mark the centenary of his birth was therefore something of a bittersweet occasion. Among those present at the private viewing was the artist’s old friend the collector and aesthete W. Graham Robertson, who looked around at his fellow guests and saw “a little crowd of forlorn old survivals paying their last homage to the beauty and poetry now utterly scorned and rejected.”1

From this nadir, things could only improve. Writing in Horizon in 1940, the neo-Romantic critic Robin Ironside defended Burne-Jones’s Romantic Symbolism against Clive Bell’s idea of “significant form” by arguing that a picture’s poetic content was every bit as important as its formal properties. Scorning fashion, Ironside drew parallels between Burne-Jones, the British Visionary, and the French Symbolist Gustave Moreau.2 In the 1960s art dealers, collectors, and writers began to take an interest in his work, but not until 1975 with the opening of John Christian’s pioneering retrospective at the Hayward Gallery and the publication of Penelope Fitzgerald’s delightful biography did a full-scale revival get underway. Today his is once again a household name—and yet as an artistic personality he remains curiously elusive. There is something about Burne-Jones’s work that still needs to be explained, something that has not yet been said.

In The Last Pre-Raphaelite, Fiona MacCarthy identifies that something as the sublimation of desire into art. Aimed at the general reader, her thoroughly researched biography changes our perception of the man and his art by exploring in depth aspects of his life that an art historian might only consider in passing. In recognizing the undertow of melancholy and sexual frustration embedded in work of hypnotic visual power, she articulates what the illustrator George du Maurier called the “Burne-Jonesiness of Burne-Jones.”

By contrast, in his superb study of painting in England during the 1860s, Allen Staley sees Burne-Jones as one of a generation of artists who took British painting from the tight Pre-Raphaelite style that prevailed in the 1850s to the beginning of the Aesthetic Movement. By using formal analysis to delve deeply into Burne-Jones’s artistic training, working method, and absorption of a broad range of artistic influences, he helps us to understand how he came to be the artist he was. No artist works in isolation. During the single decade 1860–1870 Burne-Jones developed and changed in relation to the art of contemporaries like G.F. Watts, Simeon Solomon, James McNeill Whistler, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Giving a chapter to each artist, Staley considers their personal background, private life, and personality—but only insofar as it helps to elucidate, picture by picture, the complex creative process whereby stylistic change takes place. It is a tour de force.


Born four years before Queen Victoria came to the throne, Edward or Ned Jones (the “Burne,” the hyphen, and the “Sir” all came later) had a childhood that sounds more dingy than grim. When his mother died giving birth to him, his inconsolable father employed a loving nurse to raise the child in rooms above his carving, gilding, and frame-making shop in Birmingham, the smoke-blackened lung of the industrial Midlands. Academic success as a day boy at King Edward VI’s School and his decision to read for the priesthood led to a place at Exeter College Oxford. There, in 1853, he met the eldest son of a wealthy London stockbroker who changed his life. Medievalist and bibliophile, William Morris fired Ned Jones with his precocious love of Gothic cathedrals, stained glass, and illuminated manuscripts.

Inspired by the idealism of John Henry Newman and steeped in the chivalric romances of Malory, Scott, and Tennyson, the two young men inhaled the incense of Anglican High Church ritual and together made plans to establish a lay brotherhood in the slums of London. On a walking tour of northern France in 1855, Morris showed his friend the great Gothic cathedrals at Amiens, Rouen, Beauvais, and Chartres. In Paris he took him to the Louvre where he led him straight to Fra Angelico’s Coronation of the Virgin.

The journey transformed everything. The following year the pair left Oxford without taking their degrees and moved to London—Morris to train as an architect, Jones to become a painter. Both married—Morris to the strikingly beautiful daughter of an Oxford groom, Jane Burden, and Jones to one of the five remarkable daughters of a Methodist minister, Georgiana Macdonald.3 Though they abandoned plans for a monastic brotherhood, their dream of living in communal fellowship remained very much alive when, together with the painters Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Ford Madox Brown and the architect Philip Webb, Morris came to furnish and decorate Red House, the country retreat Webb designed for him near Bexley Heath in Kent.

Out of their designs for hand-painted tiles, embroideries, wall paintings, and painted furniture would emerge the firm in which Ned was a founding partner, Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. (later Morris & Co.). For the next two decades the pitifully small amounts Morris paid him for his stained-glass designs became a steady source of income to supplement the early patronage of collectors like William Graham and Frederick Leyland. As both Staley and MacCarthy emphasize, his work in the decorative arts is as significant as his painting.

Largely self-taught, Burne-Jones learned to draw and paint through imitation. Soon after his arrival in London in 1856 he found his first mentor in the Pre-Raphaelite poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Five years older than Ned, Rossetti recognized the expressive urgency and innocence of the earliest drawings, overlooking the hesitant draftsmanship and imperfect technique. Vehemently anti-academic, he opposed any attempt by his protégé to improve his draftsmanship by the traditional means of drawing from the antique, because “such study came too early in a man’s life and was apt to crush out his individuality.”

In an early pen-and-ink drawing, Going to the Battle (1858), the vaguely Arthurian subject, the flattening of two-dimensional space, and the use of delicate overall hatching are inspired by Rossetti, but the fairy-tale landscape in the distance could only have come from the illuminated manuscripts he studied with Morris at the Bodleian Library. What is specifically Burne-Jones’s in the drawing is surprisingly hard to put your finger on, though the delight in decorative patterning and inclusion of frivolous details like a pet parrot on its perch in the foreground would be characteristic of his later work.

In 1860 Burne-Jones taught himself to paint in watercolor, or rather an opaque mixture of gum, water, and body color that was easier to handle than transparent color. Gaining mere competence in the new medium took time, but four years later he had attained proficiency enough to be elected an associate member of the Old Water-Colour Society (later renamed the Royal Society of Painters in Water Colours). In a touchingly naive early example, The Madness of Sir Tristram, you sense the young artist straining to transcend his own technical limitations—and in doing so capturing feelings he knew well from personal experience, the inarticulate yearnings of adolescence.

Two tours of Italy in 1859 and 1862 introduced him to Venetian and High Renaissance painting.4 Staley shows, picture by picture, how Burne-Jones joined the vanguard of a generation of young British painters who in the 1860s turned away from Pre-Raphaelite medievalism and toward classical breadth and volume. Stimulated by the recent rearrangement of the Parthenon marbles in the British Museum, he now drew obsessively from the antique. This is how Burne-Jones transformed himself into a virtuoso draftsman with an instinctive feel for the cadences of complex figure compositions. One of the earliest pictures in which you can see this happening shows a female figure in classical dress playing a lyre for another woman, who is bent over in grief. In The Lament (1865–1866) Burne-Jones’s concern is not to tell a story but to manipulate the viewer’s emotions. As in the work of James McNeill Whistler and Albert Moore at this date, delicately restrained colors and exquisite compositional balance are used to create the slow dream-like atmosphere.

With his newly acquired skill as a draftsman came the ability to draw the nude—until now conspicuously absent from his work. The subject of one of the first important pictures in which nude figures appear is taken from Ovid’s strange tale of the wood nymph Phyllis’s love for the mortal youth Demophoön. In Burne-Jones’s alarming conception of the myth, a distinctly modern-looking woman with a mass of streaming hair emerges from a tree to lock her arms around the torso of a naked young man who flees her embrace in terror. What gives the scene its neurotic edge is the way the man recoils from what is clearly depicted as female lust. But what offended the artist’s contemporaries was not this—it was the absence of drapery or a fig leaf covering the man’s genitals. When Burne-Jones submitted the picture to the 1870 exhibition at the Old Water-Colour Society he must have known it would cause a certain frisson among some of the more conservative members. It did; the picture was removed; he resigned; and he did not exhibit in public again until 1877.

There wasn’t much the Victorian public objected to in art as long as the artist was a family man and/or behaved with a modicum of discretion. Public scandal, though, was a serious business. It might have been possible for Burne-Jones to exhibit a full-frontal male nude at the Old Water-Colour Society in 1870—had the nymph in hot pursuit of him not been instantly recognizable as a portrait of the woman with whom he had been involved in a sexual scandal only a year earlier.

Maria Zambaco was the exotic Greek artist who had earlier left her husband in Paris and with whom Burne-Jones had begun an affair in 1866. During its most intense phase their tumultuous relationship lasted about three years. Erotically obsessed with her as he was, Ned would not abandon his wife and children to live with her in Greece. Maria refused to accept his decision to end the affair. In Rossetti’s telling, matters came to a head in January 1869 when Maria “provided herself with laudanum for two at least” and on a night of thick fog walked with Ned through gas-lit streets the considerable distance from Holland Park to the area north of Paddington known as Little Venice. When the lovers reached a bridge over the Regent’s Canal, the distraught Maria attempted to fling herself into the water. Then the police arrived. Rossetti was amused to recount how the “bobbies [collared] Ned who was rolling with her on the stones to prevent [her suicide].”

  1. 1

    Between 1928 and 1956 the National Art Collections Fund, a private charity that acquires art for the nation, purchased only a single picture by Burne-Jones, and when Christie’s held a sale of Pre-Raphaelite pictures from the Lady Lever Art Gallery at Port Sunlight near Liverpool, his large study in colored chalks Love and the Pilgrim sold for 45 guineas. See Richard Dorment, “Realists and Romantics,” introduction to the exhibition catalog Pre-Raphaelite and Other Masters: The Andrew Lloyd Webber Collection (Royal Academy of Arts, 2003), p. 11. 

  2. 2

    Robin Ironside, “Gustave Moreau and Burne-Jones,” Horizon, June 1940. 

  3. 3

    Through Georgina’s sisters, Burne-Jones became uncle to Rudyard Kipling and Stanley Baldwin, and the brother-in-law of the eminent Victorian painter Sir Edward Poynter. 

  4. 4

    A third and last visit took place in 1871. 

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