by Roderick Conway Morris

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Old Romantic

By Roderick Conway Morris
LONDON 16 November 2018
Birmingham Museums Trust
Phyllis and Demophoön by Edward Burne-Jones, 1870



Edward Burne-Jones was already in his twenties when he decided to become an artist. He had no formal training other than some evening classes in drawing while he was growing up in impoverished circumstances in Birmingham, but he had a unique vision of what he wanted to paint, which he later famously summed up as: 'I mean by a picture a beautiful, romantic dream of something that never was, never will be - in a light better than any light that ever shone - in a land no one can define or remember, only desire - and the forms divinely beautiful…'

How Burne-Jones pursued this vision and created his extraordinary, ever more ambitious works is the subject of an impressive retrospective at Tate Britain. Curated by Alison Smith and Tim Bachelor, it is the most comprehensive exhibition of his work to be staged in London since 1975.

The seeds of the determination Burne-Jones needed to turn himself into a successful artist can be found in his childhood. His mother died within a week of his birth, in 1833, and his father barely scraped a living as a gilder and framer. Yet, having managed to get an education at the local grammar school, Ned Jones (as he was then known) made it to Oxford, where he met William Morris. Both were originally aiming for the Church, but on a trip to France in 1855, in a joint moment of revelation the young undergraduates decided to devote their lives to art and architecture.

In London, Burne-Jones sought out the Pre-Raphaelite Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who gave him some initial practical assistance and, as the younger man later recorded, above all 'taught me to have no fear of my own ideas; to design perpetually, to seek no popularity, to be altogether myself'.

As the first two rooms of the exhibition, of the artist's early works and drawings, reveal, his transformation from self-taught amateur to accomplished master was remarkably rapid. His first important commission in 1861 for an altarpiece in Brighton - in which he included portraits of his wife, Georgiana; William Morris and his wife, Jane; his friend the poet Swinburne; and his own likeness - although influenced by the Pre-Raphaelites and Italian painting already shows the emergence of a distinct Burne-Jones style.

We also find here two works - 'The Wine of Circe', and 'Phyllis and Demophoön' - prominently featuring the fascinating Maria Zambaco, a young Greek girl whom he first met in 1866. Maria's modelling for him led to a torturous extramarital affair, which culminated in her attempted suicide in 1869 and a public scandal. Shortly afterwards the somewhat androgynous figures and frontal male nudity of 'Phyllis and Demophoön' led to a hostile reaction when it was exhibited. Burne-Jones withdrew the picture and retired from exhibiting in public for seven years.

However, when the artist returned to the public scene in 1877, it was in a spectacular fashion, exhibiting in a series of annual shows the large-scale oils on Arthurian, mythological and allegorical subjects now so familiar to us today. When 'King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid 'was shown in Paris in 1889, it caused a sensation and marked the beginning of the artist's fame and artistic influence on the Continent, which continued to grow throughout his life.

Burne-Jones made four trips to Italy and perhaps had a deeper understanding of the Italian Renaissance masters, and more successfully absorbed the lessons he learned from them into his own style, than any other British artist. He also ran his large studio with its ever-full order book very much on the lines of a Renaissance bottega, making no distinctions between its artistic and decorative activities, designing stained glass, mosaics, tapestries and embroideries.

Indeed, even after achieving international celebrity as an artist, most of his income continued to come from his designs. For Morris & Co. he made 786 for stained glass alone, between 1861 and his death in 1898, and the results can still be seen today adorning cathedrals, churches and chapels in places as far flung as Boston and Blackburn, Cape Town and Calcutta.

Some of the most beautiful of his works are his tapestries, among them his 'Adoration of the Magi' of 1894, which includes a late self-portrait, as one of the gift-bearing kings, and what seems to be a poignant image of his erstwhile Muse, Maria Zambaco, as the Virgin.

Burne-Jones's influence on European art was immense. As the twisted branches of his 'Pelican in Her Piety' image (1880) confirm here, he was one of the primary sources of Art Nouveau. Painters who fell under his spell included Gustave Moreau and Puvis de Chavannes in France and the fin de siècle Symbolists throughout the Continent, while Wyndham Lewis hailed him as 'a pioneer of Surrealism'.

Edward Burne-Jones; Tate Britain, London; 24 October 2018 - 24 February 2019

First published: The Lady

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023