Years ago in London I was wandering through the Tate with my friends, tired of seemingly endless rooms of Italian Renaissance paintings, when I walked into another room and was simply blown away. The room was full of life-size paintings of stunning beauty, with gemlike colors, exact details of greenery and complex woven fabrics, and narrative depictions from myth and legend. They were by the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and they must be seen in person to be fully appreciated. Ever since then I have been interested in the Pre-Raphaelites, so when I read a glowing review of The Last Pre-Raphaelite in the New York Times, I tracked it down.
Although all art movements go in and out of fashion, the Pre-Raphaelites seem to come in for more than their fair share of controversy. I have even now picked up art history books that don’t contain a single Pre-Raphaelite picture. Edward Burne-Jones was the youngest of this group of painters, although he was outlived by Holman Hunt. He was also a prolific designer of stained glass windows and even jewelry.
MacCarthy’s biography is a fairly exhaustive study of Burne-Jones’ life and works, his marriage and family, life-long association and partnership with William Morris, his mentoring of younger painters and friendships with many important figures in art, literature, and politics and with a string of little girls, and his famous affair with Maria Zambaco. It discusses his association with the Pre-Raphaelites, the Arts and Crafts movement, and the philosophy of Aesthetics.
Burne-Jones believed strongly that beauty should be available to everyone. Hence, his involvement with William Morris in producing items of home decor, in illustrating manuscripts, and in designing stained glass windows for public venues. In fact, he is closely associated with the revival of the stained glass industry in England.
One surprise of this biography was to find the personality of a puckish jokester underneath Byrne-Jones’ ascetic, attenuated appearance. He continued throughout his life a schoolboy habit of drawing little caricatures of himself and his friends, particularly teasing ones of his good friend Morris. Although generally a moral person, he was understanding of the foibles of others and supportive of his friends, even those of whose habits he did not approve. He was beloved by many.
I was interested throughout this book, even though much of it had to do with Burne-Jones’ struggles to finish work. He apparently had far more ideas than he could ever accomplish and was always working on many projects at the same time. The book is full of beautiful photographs of his art—although unfortunately most of them are too small to see the details—as well as of himself, his family and friends, residences, etc. The interiors of rooms are stunning examples of the Arts and Crafts movement.
A small quibble is the epilogue, which is concerned with the revival of interest in Burne-Jones. It is interesting up to a point, where it seems to be attempting to trace of ownership of every single work. Still, this is a fascinating biography.