“I hope sincerely it will be all the age does not want,” declared Edward Burne-Jones of the Kelmscott Chaucer, the concluding work in Tate Britain’s uneasy new exhibition of the last Pre-Raphaelite.
With the sinuous, ornamental woodcuts he made for the book, set within gilded borders, and the Gothic type designed by his friend William Morris, Burne-Jones hoped it would be “a pocket cathedral”. “I have omitted nothing I could think of to obstruct the onward march of the world,” he added.
Has a major artist ever been so backward-looking? While Monet and Manet were painting modern life in Paris, gifted, nervous draughtsman Burne-Jones — born in Birmingham in 1833, a year after Manet — visited Italy, fainted before Botticelli and Mantegna, then retreated in his London studio into precious archaic paintings, books, ceramics and embroideries, reimagining the Middle Ages in a figural language refined by early Renaissance naturalism.
Tate’s earliest large-scale painting, the altarpiece for a church in Brighton, “The Annunciation and the Adoration of the Magi” (1861) — freshly cleaned so that its shiny armour and the reds and golds of its fabrics gleam against trellises draped with roses, holly and mistletoe — is a pure Christmas-card pastiche of Renaissance nativities. Morris stars as kneeling King Melchior, his sultry wife Jane poses as Mary. Burne-Jones himself is the anxious red-bearded shepherd, gaze downcast and troubled; a motherless child, he was a life-long melancholic.
That yearning, earnest face is a guiding spirit of this show. Yet it is easy to see why, for much of the 20th century, Burne-Jones was deplored and almost unsaleable. Based on Chaucer’s The Romaunt of the Rose, Tate’s largest painting — the stiff, blue-toned three-metre allegory “Love and the Pilgrim”, where one mournful cloaked figure drags another through a path of thorns, sold for £5,775 in 1898; the museum acquired it in 1942 for £21.
Now, in Tate’s first Burne-Jones retrospective since 1933, these monumental canvases play their part in a fashionable interpretation of the artist as a mixed-media experimenter who “bridged the fine and decorative arts”. Casting a warm glow across the opening gallery, the stained-glass panels “Dido and Cleopatra” and “The God of Love and Alceste” (1861-64), inspired by Chaucer’s The Legend of Good Women, stage pre-industrial life as an Eden of gold-tressed Pre-Raphaelite stunners framed by turrets and arches. The aesthetic is already fully formed: the flight from everyday squalor to an enclosed secret garden; the consolation of myth; a return to individual craftsmanship as challenge to Victorian mass production.
Over the decades, the faux-medievalism became dreamier, the howl against 19th-century materialism louder, but the same ingredients reconfigure themselves in multiple media. A trio of rose-winged damsels as angels appear in the forest in an eight-metre tapestry “The Attainment: The Vision of the Holy Grail to Sir Galahad, Sir Bors and Sir Perceval”, lent by Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page. The lid of an “Orpheus and Eurydice” grand piano opens to display a curvaceous nude encircled by blue tendrils. In the oak panel “Perseus and the Graiae”, the Greek hero in silver filigree battles the Gorgon sisters swathed in robes executed entirely in gold leaf.
While Tate’s claim that Burne-Jones was “in essence a decorative artist” does not entirely persuade — the emotional pulse is in the paintings — the real revelation here is how virtuosity in applied art fed his painterly manner. The airless, knotted quality of the interminable “Perseus” and “Briar Rose” cycles of paintings share a heaviness and congestion with the vast “Holy Grail” tapestries and “Pomona” wall hangings. Book illustration stimulated visual storytelling.
Most of all, Burne-Jones’ interest in stained glass — he made some 600 designs for church windows — parallels the linearity of his painted figures, elegantly etiolated, twisting, bound in tight draperies. His most famous paintings are emphatically vertical too, claustrophobic as if encased by lead: the parade of wistful Botticelli-imitation girls descending “The Golden Stairs”; the mermaid tugging her victim to underwater oblivion in “The Depths of the Sea”; the monarch adoring his ragged waif within a compressed alcove in the egalitarian parable “King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid”.
Disliking the “fat oily greasy smeariness” of oil paint, he often executed even exhibition paintings in distinctive watercolour, achieving a peculiar opacity that combined glassy luminosity and leaden heaviness. The method matched the tenor of his own visions — ethereal imaginings anchored in a fatalism — and delivered an atmosphere of stifling rapture, especially in depictions of his flame-haired Greek lover Maria Zambaco.
In “Love Among the Ruins”, Zambaco is one of the enclasped androgynous lovers cowering beneath a stone arch, hemmed in by brambles, taking refuge from a decaying world: contra mundum. Pre-Raphaelite oddness — near hyper-realist detail rendering the unreal and mysterious — here reaches virtuoso extreme. In “Phyllis and Demophoön”, based on another Chaucer story, Zambaco is model for both figures, even though Demophoön is naked. Horror, guilt and desire mingle in his expression as he tries to flee Phyllis’s imprisoning embrace. The legend of Phyllis’s suicide resonated personally, as Zambaco tried to drown herself in the Regent’s Canal in 1869.
It sounds like farce — Rossetti loved reporting “bobbies collaring Ned who was rolling with her on the stones to prevent it” — but repeatedly recollections of Zambaco fuelled Burne-Jones’ sinister erotic artifice. Tate’s poster image is Zambaco as goddess in “Laus Veneris”, swooning in reverie, embedded in surfaces over-packed with sensual symbols: cupids, fruit, flowers, musicians. In “The Beguiling of Merlin”, serpentine rhythms of branches and drapery embody the entrapment in a hawthorn tree of the wizard by temptress Nimueh/Zambaco, hair threaded with snakes. Merlin’s drooping hand and stupefied eyes stand out against the flat linear window-like design. “They live in a different world from ours . . . it is not a question of sickness and health; it is a question of grace, delicacy, tenderness, of the chords of association and memory”, Henry James wrote of Burne-Jones’s figures, noting the artist’s “complete studio existence with doors and windows closed to the outside world”.
Formally, his work is a dead end, and monotonous. Psychologically, it anticipates, like James’s over-complex narratives, the interiority of modernism. As this comprehensive show demonstrates, escaping contemporary life, Burne-Jones finds all paths, in all media, lead back to the suffocating labyrinth of his own mind.
tate.org.uk, until February 24
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