Day 497: The Last Pre-Raphaelite: Edward Burne-Jones and the Victorian Imagination

Cover for The Last Pre-RaphaeliteYears 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.

Portrait of Maria Zambaco
Burne-Jones Portrait of Maria Zambaco

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.

picture of Burne-Jones The Golden Stairs
Burne-Jones The Golden Stairs

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.

Day 91: Mortal Love

Cover for Mortal LoveMortal Love is Elizabeth Hand’s extremely unusual and strange novel about artistic inspiration and its relationship to obsession. It is narrated in two parallel stories, one taking place in the present and the other in the Victorian age.

In the story from the past, an American painter named Radborne Comstock meets Evienne Upstone, a model who has inspired the work of members of the Pre-Raphaelites and who has supposedly driven one painter insane. He finds this woman irresistable but she may be insane herself. Evienne has a close associate, a maid, who has blue fingers. Comstock experiences weird hallucinations when he is near Evienne, but is not sure whether they are hallucinations or he is going insane.

In the present time Daniel Rowlands, an American writer visiting in London, meets Larkin Meade, who seems to be the same woman as Evienne Upstone. She becomes his lover and leaves him physically and emotionally deranged.

In the meantime, a young man, Comstock’s grandson, who has been raised by a man with blue fingers and has fought insanity all his life, has become obsessed with his grandfather’s paintings of Evienne and decides to visit London.

This book is a wild, fantastic tale linking Celtic folklore, the Pre-Raphaelite art movement, and ancient mythologies. It is at times bewildering but also makes compelling reading.