Looking back at 19th-century Britain, Virginia Woolf called Middlemarch “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people”. Which paintings, if any, could she have chosen by the same criteria? For if most Victorian novels are elaborate fairy tales, Victorian art, taking its broad subjects from medieval tales and saccharine versions of classical myth, is yet more infantilised.
The signal achievement of Fiona MacCarthy’s captivating biography The Last Pre-Raphaelite is to make a case for Edward Burne-Jones, most regressive and dreamy of all Victorian artists, as a painter with significance for modernity as well as for his own times. The past 30 years have seen a flood of sensationalist yet over-familiar accounts of pre-Raphaelite lives and loves. Among them, MacCarthy’s wise, unsentimental approach, sharp historical perspective and fresh scholarship stands out here as it did in her prize-winning 1994 biography of Burne-Jones’s best friend William Morris.
“My main source for this book in the end has been his paintings,” she insists. What they tell, on first sight, is a susceptibility to female beauty unrivalled even by Burne-Jones’s mentor Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Both shared an adolescent predilection for the pre-Raphaelite stunner – pale skin, rosebud mouth, wide eyes, abundant frizzy reddish-dark hair. The obsession defined Burne-Jones’s style, ruined his marriage, made him a hypochondriac wreck and can surely be traced – in his terror of abandonment as well as fixation on model and muse – to the death of his mother six days after his birth in Birmingham in 1833.
Burne-Jones was a solitary dreamer when he arrived at an Oxford still dominated by Cardinal Newman in 1853, intending a church career. The medieval atmosphere was seductive but, along with Morris, he soon came to see art, not religion, as the radical weapon with which to fight the materialism of the age. Morris set out to be an architect, Burne-Jones a painter. The former’s social awareness, set against the latter’s interiority of being, strained to near breaking point a lifelong friendship. The theme of art’s public versus private role, still pertinent today, courses through this book.
Rossetti, comparing Burne-Jones’ ornamental imaginative detail and flair for design to Dürer’s, took the student under his wing, while Ruskin paid for him to visit Italy. Burne-Jones fainted from excitement at seeing Botticelli, Mantegna, Pierodella Francesca; their influence shaped his willowy, elongated figures and urged religious subjects. Also apparent – ominously – in the faces of his early virgins were the dainty, prim features of a Wesleyan minister’s teenage daughter, Georgiana MacDonald, whom Burne-Jones married in 1860.
“We were as sure of him as we were of our own souls,” wrote Georgie’s brother. Initially, Burne-Jones adored the MacDonalds: poor, devout, close-knit, with a crowd of lively, loyal, very marriageable daughters – Georgiana’s nephews would include Rudyard Kipling and Stanley Baldwin. By the late 1860s, though, they were no match for the Greek clan of Maria Zambaco, a flamboyant divorcee who came to sit for a portrait and swept the shy Burne-Jones out of the earnest world of Middlemarch into something approaching Wuthering Heights.
Maria imbued his art with a new erotic consciousness: she is the pouting, sultry goddess in his “Venus” paintings, the adored statue in his “Pygmalion”, the temptress in “The Beguiling of Merlin”, the faces of both nude lovers in “Phyllis and Demophoon”. Removed as scandalous from a London exhibition in 1870, this work is in fact shockingly modern, and typical of Burne-Jones, MacCarthy suggests, in its bleak, frank admission of sexual incompatibility and isolation.
Maria proposed flight to a Greek island. Burne-Jones dithered, she produced laudanum, then tried to drown herself in the Regent’s Canal – Rossetti gleefully recorded “bobbies collaring Ned who was rolling with her on the stones to prevent it”. Georgie (“there is a enough love between Edward and I to last out a long life”) stuck by her husband. MacCarthy’s portrayal of the “gigantic weariness” of their later life together is superb.
Burne-Jones escaped into chaste infatuations with society matrons while creating compositions, exquisite in their frozen theatricality, which turned on myths of sleep – “The Legend of Briar Rose”, “The Sleep of King Arthur in Avalon”. Anticipating symbolism and its pessimisms – though Burne-Jones insisted his fantasies were “too beautiful not to be true” – these were anathema to much 20th- century taste. (The Tate’s “Love and the Pilgrim” fetched £21 in 1942.)
Nonetheless, as MacCarthy traces in a fascinating coda, there were always subterranean Burne-Jones aficionados – Evelyn Waugh, John Betjeman – for whom the artist stood in the visionary English tradition stretching from William Blake and Samuel Palmer to Stanley Spencer. Now, as history dispenses with the strict barriers of international modernism to favour more seamless, pluralistic, local readings, the last pre-Raphaelite looks also like a precursor of our own art of stagy artifice and virtual realities.
Jackie Wullschlager is the FT’s art critic
The Last Pre-Raphaelite: Edward Burne-Jones and the Victorian Imagination, by Fiona MacCarthy, Faber, RRP£25, 629 pages