Edward Burne-Jones is a shadowy figure in art history. Although his painting “Love Among the Ruins” stands as the most expensive Pre-Raphaelite work ever sold at auction, he is not a household name like his Pre-Raphaelite peers, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and John Everett Millais. During his life, Burne-Jones’s position in the Victorian art world was equally as hazy. Though in many ways part of the artistic establishment – he was internationally recognised for his influence on the Symbolist movement in France and was a protégé of the art critic John Ruskin – in other respects he was an outsider. Suspicious of the establishment, he preferred to lurk alone in his cavernous and cluttered workshop – described by the novelist Henry James as “a complete studio existence with doors and windows closed to the outside world” – where he would receive only his closest friends.
Burne-Jones’s social position on the outskirts of the British artistic establishment is perhaps unsurprising, given his humble upbringing. Born as Edward Jones in 1833 to a frame-maker, he escaped an impoverished childhood in bleak, industrial Birmingham to study theology at Oxford. It was there that he met William Morris, who shared his devotion to the medieval writers Geoffrey Chaucer and Thomas Malory. The pair developed a theological and literary framework that distinguished their work from formally trained artists. In 1861 they and five others co-founded the decorative arts firm Morris & Co., which was hugely influential during the Arts and Crafts movement of the 1880s and 1890s.
At an exhibition dedicated to Burne-Jones at Tate Britain in London, visitors can see the full scope of his creative output, which eludes distinctions between fine and applied art. His artistic interests stretched beyond painting and drawing to include crafts like textiles and stained glass. The show reunites all the paintings from two of his grand cycles, which retell the fairy tale “Sleeping Beauty” and the myth of Perseus and Andromeda. Burne-Jones found particular inspiration in medieval legend, Greek myth, timeless fairy tales and biblical stories. According to Elizabeth Prettejohn, an art historian, he believed that art had no greater moral purpose than “to find out what is beautiful”. He was determined to exhibit his paintings in public so that people from all social classes could admire them. In his words, he wanted “common people to see them and “say Oh! - only Oh!”.
“Clerk Saunders” (1861)
Burne-Jones had a preference for the sinister. This early painting depicts a scene from a ballad by Walter Scott about a man, Clerk Saunders, who persuades his girlfriend, Margaret, to go to bed with him before they are married, only to be caught in the act and murdered by her brothers. Here, Clerk reappears to Margaret as a ghost. His surprisingly weighty figure presses Margaret against a wall. She elbows him ineffectually as he leans closer, his heavily lidded eyes conveying a desire that persists from beyond the grave.
“The Wine of Circe” (1863-9)
Inspired by Ruskin, who became his mentor, Burne-Jones experimented with frieze-like classical compositions. Although the lighter shades of orange and yellow in this work give it an unusual clarity and brightness, the theme is dark. Circe, a scheming sorceress from Homer’s “Odyssey”, prepares a potion that will turn her male victims into swine. As she bends down at her urn, her robes trace the outline of her figure, which, though anatomically human, is almost prowling, much like the panthers at her feet. When “The Wine of Circe” was exhibited at the conservative Old Watercolour Society in 1869, it was condemned as “perverse”. Burne-Jones, frustrated at such efforts to limit his freedom, resigned from the society a year later.
“Desiderium” from “The Masque of Cupid” (1873)
Beautiful women were one of Burne-Jones’s favourite subjects to draw and paint. Here, he sketches Amorous Desire from Edmund Spenser’s “The Faerie Queen” with softly sensuous features – ruffled hair, puckered lips and a long exposed neck. The gentle application of shadow enhances the defined bone structure that makes so many of his female figures striking and instantly recognisable as his own.
“The Finding of Medusa” (c. 1882)
In this unfinished cartoon for his series dramatising the trials of the ancient Greek hero Perseus, Burne-Jones shows Medusa – a female monster with venomous snakes for hair – as she first encounters Perseus, her assassin. The painting’s ghostly grey pallor and general dearth of detail give it a macabre mood. But it is Medusa’s deathly pale and apprehensive expression that truly foreshadows her impending decapitation. Burne-Jones’s decision to flesh out the details of Medusa’s face hints that he holds some sympathy for the antagonist’s plight, as her wide, troubled eyes and clenched mouth add emotional depth to an otherwise underdeveloped image.
“Adoration of the Magi” (1894)
Originally commissioned by the rector of Exeter College, Oxford, this tapestry was one of many decorative designs produced during Burne-Jones’s long-term association with Morris & Co. This, the third of nine versions, was donated to the Manchester School of Art in 1895 by William Simpson, a printer, so that it could be admired by the wider public. Burne-Jones makes a cameo appearance as Caspar, one of the three kings.
Through his art Burne-Jones depicted romantic, verdant realms that directly contrasted with the grimy, sooty reality of life in 19th-century Britain. According to a possibly apocryphal tale, as Burne-Jones composed this work, a young girl questioned whether he really believed in the scene. His response was that “it is too beautiful not to be true”.
“A Bathing Beauty. Two views, front and back, of Emma de Burgh”, front (c. 1893-95)
For all his fantasies about idealised otherworlds, in private Burne-Jones possessed a silly side. Among his papers are the informal doodles and comic drawings he made to entertain friends. He enjoyed drawing overweight figures, possibly inspired by Leonardo da Vinci’s grotesque sketches housed in the Bodleian library at Oxford. Emma de Burgh, an American, was notorious across Europe for her heavily tattooed body, and had Leonardo’s “Last Supper” inked on her back. Burne-Jones takes obvious delight in the clash between high culture and low.
Edward Burne-Jones Tate Britain until February 24th