Laus Veneris 1873-8; oil paint on canvas; 1194 x 1803cm; Laing Art Gallery (Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums)

Recapturing an Imagined Medieval Paradise

26th October 2018

The most substantial Edward Burne-Jones retrospective in the UK for a generation has just opened at Tate Britain. Jack Watkins shares his thoughts on this tribute to one of the best known of the pre-Raphaelites.

When he died suddenly at the age of 65 in 1898, the memorial service held for Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones in Westminster Abbey (thanks to the intercession of the Prince of Wales) was the first to be granted to a painter. Yet, less than fifty years later, when an exhibition was staged in 1933 to mark the centenary of his birth, they couldn’t – to use the old cliché – give the tickets away. The see-sawing fortunes of Burne-Jones’ reputation has matched those of most of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood over the years, hammered by critics and historians for their pretty but superficial and fussy creations, and their obsession with recapturing some imagined medieval paradise. There have been several good shows on them in recent years, however, and I particularly remember the excellent one on John Everett Millais, held at the Tate at the end of 2007. It revealed an artist of stunning versatility and skill.

Tate Britain must be hoping for something like the same reception for the new offering on Burne-Jones, generally considered the last of the leading Pre-Raphaelites. It’s the largest retrospective to be held on the boy from Birmingham in this country for a generation; it boasts over 150 objects, and examines his work in the field of tapestry and stained glass window design, as well as painting.

Still, I approached this exhibition with a big question in my mind. I’ve always had a soft spot for the lavishly pictorial Victorian artists, many of whom specialised in epic paintings of historical or classical scenes – the sort of practitioners that the highbrows disdain for what they see as an absence of any signs of artistic progression. Burne-Jones, though… he was the man who specialised in all those whey-faced angel-women types, wasn’t he? How could this show possibly be any good?

Within seconds of passing through the door, I had my answer. Jeepers, this was going to be as bad, if not worse, than I had feared. Not just rows and rows of wistfulness and stiff poses, but the dullest of palettes. The odd baleful soul in the middle of something a bit different – a landscape, say – would have been bearable, but to go by what’s on offer here, Burne-Jones seemed to paint little else but people, usually miserable ones. The total lack of variety is like an album of some faded pop star’s greatest hits, the sort that’s really just one song, endlessly recycled, with an odd word changed here and there. Utter ennui.

Yet, in a funny, unintended sort of way, I also wonder if this is exactly the right exhibition for this vacuous moment in British public life. One of Burne-Jones’ prime motivations for his art was a desire to escape the ugliness of the modern world as it was during the time of the Victorian industrial revolution, and return to the simpler, pre-machine days of bygone centuries. He chose for his subject matter early medieval and mythological subjects to reflect his thoughts about ideal beauty. Of course, what he had in common with his medieval artist heroes was that they, too, produced endless images of one single idea; in their case, for example, it was often the Virgin and Child.

They, however, had no choice: that was the requirement of an artist of their time. They weren’t trying to turn back the clock, merely responding to the demands of contemporary patrons. Now we live in age in which a surprising number of people also seem to want to turn back the clock to, say, the 1950s, and an imagined past that never was. The idea is just silly. And that is what is striking about Burne-Jones’ paintings. They are silly and, ultimately, pointless. Revisionists who have tried to resuscitate Burne-Jones’s reputation have pointed out his relevance to the Symbolist school of painters, but, un-academically speaking, you could say his modern symbolic relevance lies in his backward-looking emptiness. In that, he is the perfect candidate for a 2018 retrospective. At least, Lawrence Alma-Tadema and Lord Leighton, and all those other conservative Victorian artists who get flak for being unoriginal, never bored us by having an agenda.

Yet, we must accept that some people will be deeply attracted to this exhibition. What does it hold for them? Burne-Jones, despite his eventual rise to the top, had studied theology and was intent on entering the Church, until William Morris, his great friend from their days at Oxford University, persuaded him to become a painter. Despite a lack of formal fine art training, Burne-Jones spent time on the continent making sketches and studying the Italian Old Masters, and several examples from this period are ample testimony to the strength of his draughtsmanship.

Anyone who has travelled through England and included visiting old churches within their itinerary may well know that Burne-Jones had a lucrative sideline as a church decorator, especially of stained glass windows for churches of both large and modest size. The Good Shepherd, a stained glass panel from the 1850s, is an example, alongside The Adoration of the Magi altarpiece, originally designed as part of a reredos for St Paul’s Church, Brighton, but considered too elaborate, and bought by the church’s architect GF Bodley, before being donated by his family to the Tate collection. William Morris modelled for the figure of the king in the centre, and among the other models was the poet Algernon Charles Swinburne.
One of the most interesting things about Burne-Jones was his involvement with Morris, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Ford Madox Brown in the small Oxford design company they set up in 1862, Morris and Co: dedicated to high-quality design and workmanship in the making of textiles, wallpaper and furniture. Morris, a Socialist, had the idea of restoring the craftsman to the more elevated social position he had held in earlier centuries. This was a noble aspiration so far as it went, but the monstrous, ‘spectacularly decorated’ Graham Piano, which Burne-Jones designed for ‘one of his most generous patrons’ at the end of the 1870s, is still hard to love. What a ridiculous waste of money.

The major importance of the Tate Britain exhibition, however, is that it unites two of the artist’s most famous narrative cycles, The Briar Rose, and his unfinished Pegasus series, for the first time, with two rooms dedicated to the enormous, eight-feet long, canvases. The Briar Rose sequence created such a stir that when it was first shown in London, in 1890, thousands of people queued round the block to view.

I wouldn’t have been one of them, though, had I been around at the time. If Burne-Jones’ idea of getting close to the past had been to go out and draw and paint accurate representations of medieval castles before they fell down, I could have respected the man. Instead, he was content to churn out pap for the more-money-than-sense brigade. It’s only my opinion, of course. Go and judge for yourself, but don’t say you haven’t been warned.

Edward Burne-Jones continues at Tate Britain until 24 February 2019 • www.tate.org.uk

Find Your Local