Edward Burne-Jones: a wealth of myth and romance on show at Tate Britain
By James Brewer
Sir Edward Burne-Jones loved to immerse himself in depicting dreamscapes, Greek myths and Biblical scenes, and he could evoke Mother Earth and the underworld within the wood framework of just one drawing-room grand piano.
This towering figure of art adorned in 1879-80 what is known as the Graham Piano (named after one of his patrons, William Graham) with his concept of an ancient Greek story of love and passion.
Politics and industrial change were at the time shaking the real world. Beyond the confines of elegant salons and the artists’ studios, there were slaughter in the Anglo-Zulu War, the invention of the first electric light bulb, and the maiden voyage of the first transatlantic steamship constructed of mild steel.
There is a role for fine art as there is a role for steel furnaces, and the craft and influence of Burne-Jones long outlive his age: the pop art pioneer Andy Warhol was thrilled to be photographed at the privately-owned Graham piano keyboard when it was exhibited at the Hayward Gallery in London nearly a century after it was so decorated.
The piano is just one eye-catching example of the artist’s flamboyant style beautifully displayed in the Tate Britain retrospective Edward Burne-Jones: Pre-Raphaelite Visionary – surprisingly the first such significant tribute to him for four decades.
Sometimes his visions of his magical dream world – several worlds from mythological eras – prompted scandal in the eyes of the establishment which purported to be shocked at the erotic and androgynous portrayal of certain characters.
The master stood his ground. His burning artistic integrity shines throughout his profuse output. Like his close friend William Morris, Burne-Jones (1833–98) believed in art for everyman and everywoman. His association with other craftspeople, philosophers, poets and musicians rounded out the sweet lyricism of his work: “a feast for the soul,” as one visitor to the Tate’s substantial and substantive show enthused.
From his workplace in Fulham, he produced exquisitely tangible representations of intense love, betrayal, sorrow, forgiveness and heroism, setting them in the context of imaginary encounters. He poured his passion into paintings, sketches, embroideries, illustrations for books and designs for spectacular large-scale tapestries.
In 1880 the long-established manufacturer John Broadwood & Sons (whose pianos were appreciated by Beethoven and Chopin) built a grand for William Graham to present to his daughter Frances on her 21st birthday. The instrument was designed and decorated by Burne-Jones with scenes based on a poem by William Morris singing of Orpheus and Eurydice.
He chose for the inside of the lid scenes representing Mother Earth and the terrestrial world. The outside shows the celestial world with a poet receiving a message from his muse, believed to be a portrait of Frances. and has the Graham family motto meaning “do not forget.”
On the sides of the piano are scenes in grey monochrome from the Orpheus story. These scenes are The Garden, The Garden Poisoned, The Gate of Hell, The Doorkeeper, Across the Flames, The House of Pluto, The Regained Lost (three images) and The Death of Orpheus.
Alas the rusting strings preclude anyone today testing the piano’s musical prowess, but for all that this is a magnificent specimen of the applied art of the period.
Burne-Jones was intrigued by the possibilities of transforming the appearance of pianos, which he revered as the “very altar of homes, and a second hearth to people.”
Elsewhere in the exhibition, under the title Ladies and Death is a painted panel taken from below the keyboard of an upright piano given by the aunt of Burne-Jones as a present on his marriage in 1860 to Georgiana Macdonald, a woodcut artist and keen pianist. He decorated the section with a frieze based on the Medieval romance Chant amour and an allegory of death. Veiled and crowned, Death stands outside a garden where eight unaware young women are resting and listening to music. The motif seems to be that death is forever waiting, even in Paradise. The piano was made by the little-known manufacturer Frederick Priestly of Berners Street in the West End of London.
Employing sophisticated linear design, the perfectionist was a pioneer of the symbolist movement which put art and emotional responses on a pedestal in seeking to convey the underlying mystery of life.
The Tate assembles 150 works across a huge spectrum, upholding the stature of Burne-Jones as one of the most influential British artists of the 19thcentury. The endeavour chronicles the assent of Burne-Jones to become the only Pre-Raphaelite to achieve world-wide recognition during their lifetime: this principally was thanks to his participation in the 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris which marked the centennial of the French Revolution. The grand fair, which was visited by such luminaries as Paul Gauguin and Vincent van Gogh, introduced his work to many who were to become beacons of late 19th century and to 20th century art movements. After the fair he was awarded the highest decoration in France, the Légion d’Honneur.
The artist’s enduring love of great poetry, and the respect of leading poets for him, is an insistent theme. The Wine of Circe from 1863-69 depicts an episode from Homer’s Odyssey: the sorceress Circe on the mythical island of Aeaea measuring drops of poisonous pharmakon kakon into wine to make a potion that will turn sailors whose ships are approaching, into swine. At the time, the picture was widely condemned as perverse, but it was admired by the artist’s circle. This watercolour and gouache on paper inspired Dante Gabriel Rossetti to compose a sonnet of the same title. Rossetti described how “the window shows a view of the sea and the galleys which bear the new lovers and victims of the enchantress.” Two black panthers prowl in the foreground, and Rossetti said that he was “taking the transformed beasts as images of ruined passion—the torn seaweed of the sea of pleasure.”
The artistic relationship between the two men went back a long time. Burne-Jones had sought to apprentice himself in London to Rossetti, an established painter and poet, and is said that his early work shows that influence.
He was fascinated by the aura of the ancient Greeks, and as an ‘appetiser’ Tate shows in his delicate drawing style graphite studies on paper of Medusa, Athena, Andromeda and a Gorgon.
The unfinished narrative cycle Perseus was commissioned in 1875 by the future prime minister Arthur Balfour for the music room of his London house, 4 Carlton Gardens, leaving the choice of subject to the artist. Burne-Jones’s scheme for the large canvases was so ambitious that Balfour had to block off windows and change the doors.
To complete the Perseus cycle, Tate has put the four finished oil paintings from a German gallery together with six full-scale preparatory paintings from Southampton City Art Gallery, a silver and gold leaf panel from Cardiff and the watercolours for the overall scheme in the Tate collection.
One of the completed works, The Rock of Doom, encapsulates the typical drama of the Perseus story. Perseus rescues Andromeda, the daughter of Cepheus, king of Joppa (which could mean Ethiopia or the city of Jaffa in Phoenicia) who has been chained to a rock on the Aegean island of Seriphos. In the painting, she is still in danger of being devoured by the sea monster Cetus. Her mother, Cassiopeia, had angered Poseidon by boasting that her daughter was more beautiful than the sea nymphs, the Nereids. The only way to prevent Poseidon destroying Joppa had been to offer Andromeda as a sacrifice.
Earlier the hero had been on better terms with the nymphs, as seen in Perseus and the Sea Nymphs (the arming of Perseus). In this preparatory study, done in bodycolour on paper, Perseus visits the sea nymphs who give him the magical armour he needs for his quest: a helmet of invisibility from Hades the god of the underworld, winged sandals from the messenger god Hermes, and a bag for the captured head of the gorgon Medusa.
Atlas Turned to Stone, another bodycolour study (bodycolour is watercolour mixed with white pigment to make it opaque) refers to a version of the myth in which Titan begs Perseus to turn him to stone to ease his eternal burden of holding up the sky.
A further room underlining breath-taking narrative skills displays The Briar Rose, based on the Sleeping Beauty story. Throughout the series of 3 m-long paintings, a princess and her court are lost in slumber in a medieval dream as she waits for the prince to wake her with a kiss. The princess is modelled on Burne-Jones’s daughter Margaret. Thousands of people queued to see this spectacular display when it was launched at Agnew’s Gallery in London in 1890, and even larger crowds flocked when the paintings were shown at Toynbee Hall in the East End.
In A woman playing a Cithara, of 1896, Burne-Jones experiments successfully although briefly with tempera gold paint and watercolour on paper. This design which features an ancient Greek instrument of the lyre family was the basis for an embroidery, one of many gifts he bestowed on Frances Graham.
Burne-Jones resigned in 1872 from the Old Watercolour Society in protest at complaints about male nudity in his Phyllis and Demophoön, The story is in Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women, though Burne-Jones also cites Ovid’s Heroides. After the conquest of Troy, Demophoön the son of Theseus stayed at the Thracian court where Phyllis, the king’s daughter, fell in love with him., Demophoön departs and when he fails to keep his promise to return, Phyllis hangs herself and is turned by the gods into an almond tree. On his eventual return, Demophoön remorsefully embraces the tree, which blossoms as Phyllis emerges to forgive him. Both Phyllis and Demophoön are here modelled on Maria Zambaco, with whom Burne-Jones had a long affair.
In a reworking of the Phyllis and Demophoön theme in 1881-82, The Tree of Forgiveness, Burne-Jones adopts for the figures a style derived from Michelangelo, and a wisp of fabric allowed Demophoön his modesty.
An official exhibition guide declares that some of his greatest pictures “are stark and monochromatic, showing just how unwilling the artist was to compromise his vision for commercial purposes.”
Love Among the Ruins, one of his most celebrated paintings, take its title from a poem by Robert Browning which tells of two lovers reuniting in the remains of a once great city.
Men are often presented by the artist as victims of female power and desire. In The Depths of the Sea, oil on canvas, a mermaid drags a sailor to the ocean bed, her ambiguous smiling expression (which the curators say is unusual for Burne-Jones) adds a sinister note. This was the only work he exhibited as an associate of the Royal Academy, a then-conservative institution he had long despised to which he was elected in 1885 and from which he resigned in 1893.
Venus Discordia, an unfinished oil on canvas from 1872-73 formed part of a large triptych showing the goddess with the vices Anger, Envy, Suspicion and Strife presiding over the destruction of Troy. The figures reflect Burne-Jones’s study of Renaissance art during his third and final visit to Italy. Drawings such as Desiderium of 1873 are shown to demonstrate his sensitive and personal response to Renaissance Old Masters such as Leonardo da Vinci and Sandro Botticelli, and in this category is Flamma Vestalis of 1896, for which the sitter is his daughter Margaret. The motif of the flaming torch associates her with the vestal virgins whose duty it was to tend the sacred flame of the goddess Vesta.
Although Burne-Jones shied away from the heavily industrial atmosphere of the 1800s, he and William Morris were keen for social reform and hoped their collaborative work in decorative arts as partners in Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co would reach a broad audience through beauty of design and execution.
They shared a love of Medieval imagery, architecture and romance and for poets such as Tennyson, who could offer an enchanted parallel universe. The two giants of the crafts movement got on well and shared jokes – there is a cartoon on display showing Burne-Jones sliding into sleep in his chair as a portly Morris reads him one of his poems. A platinum print of the two from 1874 by another collaborator, the fine-art photographer Frederick Hollyer, is shown courtesy of the copyright holder, the National Portrait Gallery of London.
Early in his career, Burne-Jones was closely involved in the rejuvenation of stained-glass creations, such as The Good Shepherd of 1857-61 and The Adoration of the Magi 1861, a large-scale altarpiece for the church of St Paul’s in Brighton.
The indefatigable Burne-Jones eschewed society commissions in favour of transporting the likenesses of his family and friends into the Medieval world but also into contemporary portraiture. One of these paintings is of Amy Gaskell, daughter of the unhappily-married May Gaskell, with whom he had a six-year relationship. Amy, then 19 years old, is presumed to have been painted as a gift for her mother. In the portrait, she is beset with pallor and is dressed entirely in black, seated against a black background. A troubled personality, Amy died aged 35, possibly from suicide.
A more joyful portrait (lent by the Royal College of Music Museum, London) is that of Ignacy Jan Padereswki (1860-1941), concert pianist and composer and future prime minister of Poland, whom he met in 1890, the year of the musician’s London debut. Burne-Jones is said to have been so taken by the Pole’s striking appearance and shock of red hair that he likened him to an archangel striding the streets of London. The two men became close friends and Burne-Jones went on to use Paderewski’s features for the heads of several of the knights in his Holy Grail tapestries.
In cotton, wool and silk, grandiose tapestries including The Arming and Departure of the Knights of the Round Table on the Quest for the Holy Grail of 1890-1894 and Adoration of the Magi of 1894 have retained or been restored to their rich, deep colours. Everything is a wonder, from angels on high to the finest details of plants and birds.
Congratulations are in order to a team led by Alison Smith, chief curator of the National Portrait Gallery, and Tim Batchelor, assistant curator at Tate Britain, for their valuable service in tracing the evolution of the genius, in the careful placing of the works, and for ensuring the succinct and accessible labelling of every single exhibit.
Edward Burne-Jones: Pre-Raphaelite Visionary is at Tate Britain until February 24, 2019. www.tate.org.uk