By their buyers shall ye know them. Notable collectors of the work of Edward Burne-Jones (1833–98) include Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber, the impresario of the popular musical, and Jimmy Page, the rock guitarist and songwriter for Led Zeppelin. The resemblances between the collectors and the collected are visible or audible in their work: mythic resonances and Romantic pomp, a Wagnerian melodrama with one eye on the gods and the other on the box office. It was Burne-Jones’s contemporary Walter Pater who wrote that all art aspires to the condition of music. In the epics of Lloyd Webber and Page, all music aspires to the condition of Burne-Jones.
In 2008, Page, an avid Pre-Raphaelite and Arts and Crafts collector, ran out of wall space in his many mansions. The hammer of the gods fell on the auctioneer’s block. Page was obliged to try to sell a massive Burne-Jones tapestry depicting King Arthur’s vision of the Holy Grail, The Attainment: The Vision of the Holy Grail to Sir Galahad, Sir Bors and Sir Perceval (1891–93). Woven in William Morris’s workshop, and described by Morris as “our largest and most important work,” The Attainment is twenty-three feet long, and one of a series of six. Alas, it didn’t sell. Page also possessed a set of Burne-Jones’s stained-glass panels, and a round table with matching chairs that might have been props for an as-yet-unwritten Lloyd Webber musical set in the court of King Arthur.
Six of the paintings have been lent “anonymously” by Lloyd Webber.
Two other Burne-Jones cycles, Perseus (1875–90) and The Legend of Briar Rose (1885–90), are reunited and shown together for the first time in “Edward Burne-Jones,” now at Tate Britain in London. The exhibition, curated by Alison Smith and Tim Batchelor, gathers more than 150 works in different media, including painting, stained glass, and tapestry, and traces Burne-Jones’s ascent from self-taught outsider to eminence in the European fin de siècle, and his lasting influence on the strain of mythic fantasy in twentieth-century British literature and music. Six of the paintings have been lent “anonymously” by Lloyd Webber.
“No picture I know, the Mona Lisa included, has such a haunting enigmatic female face as the mermaid in this, the first of two versions of this subject,” Lloyd Webber said in 2014 of his favorite among his Burne-Jones collection, The Depths of the Sea (1886). In the Romantic metamorphosis, narrative becomes myth, beauty becomes divine, and the epic becomes strangely human—physical yet insubstantial, touchable yet ghostly: like a phantom of the opera.
The French critic Charles Blanc felt the same way when he encountered one of Burne-Jones’s women in Paris at the Exposition Universelle of 1878:
To my mind, the most surprising picture from London is the one by Burnes-Jones [sic], Merlin and Vivien. It expresses the quintessence of the ideal and a sublimated poetry that are deeply touching. The painter’s Vivien seems to have been conjured by an incantation; she is like a figure by Mantegna, retouched and lovingly enveloped by the brush of Prud’hon.
Most of the British paintings at the Exposition were selections from the Grosvenor Gallery’s inaugural exhibition of 1877. That exhibition precipitated two events illustrating the growing complicity between mass media and the avant-garde, a lucrative paradox pioneered in the 1840s by the alliance of John Ruskin and the founding Pre-Raphs. When Ruskin visited the Grosvenor in 1877 intending to inspect Burne-Jones’s paintings, he found himself distracted by the “Cockney impudence” of Whistler’s Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket (1875). Ruskin, notoriously, accused Whistler of “flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face,” and Whistler sued.
The ensuing legal entertainment proved the durability of the Pre-Raphaelite media game, a strategy reaffirmed most recently by the Young British Artists of the 1990s. The general public could be persuaded to follow the avant-garde, so long as the artists were prepared to roll in the muck as they led the parade. The most accomplished Rossetti work may be Christina Rossetti’s poem “In the Bleak Midwinter” (1872), but her piety and concision is eclipsed in memory by Dante Gabriel Rossetti who, though he was a shaky draftsman and no poet, prefigured Wilde in mastering the art of life as autobiography. He packaged himself, just as Morris worked out a labor-intensive method of mass-production that satisfied middle-class demand without offending the principles of medieval supply.
The Grosvenor’s second marriage of entertainment and the avant-garde was its launching into public awareness the painterly aspect of the Aesthetic Movement, which had been brewing for more than a decade. It was Swinburne who, in the 1860s, took the French poetry of the Movement and made it English—a fact recognized immediately by Mallarmé, who had visited Swinburne in London in 1862–63. The translation of an aesthetic of French literature into a slogan of English painting was made by Pater in Studies in the History of the Renaissance (1873). When the Swinburners and Paterites rejected Ruskin and Arnold’s doctrine that art must be socially productive, the moral fuss that ensued served their purposes, and not just because it dramatized that most useful of Romantic professional devices: a generational split.
The debate over whether art should be socially productive was a shadow play for the more contentious debate on whether homosexuals, socialists, and purchasers of “greenery-yallery” furnishings should be allowed out of bohemia and into the better class of drawing room. Cometh the hour, cometh Oscar Wilde—heir to Swinburne, pupil of Pater, and promulgator of the theory that true art should have no social purpose, but of course the true artist was a socialist. For Wilde, the social use of art was social climbing, but downwards, and famously.
Again, the debate was highly mediated. The generality of people, who had better things to do than go to art galleries, followed the story through George du Maurier’s cartoons in Punch, and through Wilde’s willingness to act the part of the cartooned in his American tour of 1882, in which he was commissioned to be as Aesthetic as possible so that American audiences would understand the jokes in Gilbert and Sullivan’s 1881 opera Patience, itself inspired by du Maurier’s cartoons. Which is to say, while avant-gardists celebrated the intrusion of the Wildean paradox into a previously rational civilization, and homosexuals celebrated the kiss between Wilde and Walt Whitman in the same sense, everyone else noted these developments not as artistic experiment or sexual liberation, but as light entertainment in the du Maurier vein.
The sublimities of light entertainment are comic—as when Lloyd Webber and Led Zeppelin strain for the serious but hit the timpani of hollow pomp, or when Wilde carves up the stuffed dummy of Victorian manners. And though the serious sublime is tragic, one age’s serious sublime becomes another’s comic entertainment. The Burne-Jones that Charles Blanc saw in The Beguiling of Merlin (1872–77) now seems proleptic of the 1970s, a decade in which William Morris wallpaper reappeared in English homes as if century-old designs, sleeping like Briar Rose under the layers of intervening taste, had been drawn to the surface like mold. Merlin’s socks and sandals, his Simple Life robe, and his black eyeshadow and pin eyes all anticipate an analogous rot, the decay of Arthurian legend into the grubby narcosis of an early Glastonbury Festival.
The connection runs deep and direct. The “alternative lifestyle” that became a lucrative business of light entertainment in the 1960s, and which subsequently became the institutionalized lifestyle of the secular West, began in Burne-Jones’s youth and with people like Burne-Jones and his friends. The modern disease of “identity politics” originates in the Victorian cure of Lebensreform. As in a religious rebirth, the Victorian experimenters rejected the common and conventional life and realigned the idea of personality around a defining trait or principle: Edward Carpenter and homosexuality, William Salt and vegetarianism, John Ruskin and the guild, William Morris and medieval chairs, Oscar Wilde and himself.
The experimenters withdrew into forms of ideal community which, being ideal, proved unbearable for most of them, not least because the reformed personality remained helplessly individual. They remained, however, Victorian in energy and conscience, so they worked hard and directed their products back towards society. The effects were the rapid dissemination of their work and the re-integration of the experimenters into society as a kind of Disloyal Opposition. An avant-garde is a luxury for any society. The Victorian avant-garde was sustained by such surpluses of money, positivism, and political stability that its court jester, the Jaeger-suited clown George Bernard Shaw, was mistaken for a great thinker.
Shaw was an intellectual lithographer. His talent, barren of originality, consisted of reproducing other people’s ideas in a comprehensible image. He may have performed a kind of public service by clarifying Wagner’s mystic fog into principles clear as the lines of a steel-cut engraving. But the price of Shaw’s services was that his face overlaid the image. The Pre-Raphaelites had been the first to commodify themselves for the business of art, and thus to put the reproduced image ahead of the original. In this, as in much else, the identification of Burne-Jones as a second-generation Pre-Raphaelite is accurate. But through his international success, Burne-Jones became an influential and admired Symbolist, his spectral Grail Hunters recognized immediately in Paris as the English cousins to the Catholic ghosts of Gustave Moreau and the unchurched dreamers of Odilon Redon.
Shaw was an intellectual lithographer. His talent, barren of originality, consisted of reproducing other people’s ideas in a comprehensible image.
Reproduction was crucial to the spread of Burne-Jones’s art. The ground for the exhibition of The Beguiling of Merlin in Paris in 1878 was laid by Joseph Comyns Carr’s review of the Grosvenor Gallery’s opening exhibition. Carr was the English correspondent for the French journal L’Art and also, as it happened, the deputy director of the Grosvenor Gallery. Carr’s review for L’Art described Burne-Jones’s contribution to the Grosvenor as “the major event of the art season in London this year,” and it was illustrated by a lithograph of The Beguiling of Merlin.
European collectors of Burne-Jones’s engravings included Fernand Khnopff, the Belgian Symbolist in whose The Caresses (The Sphinx) of 1896 the brother of one of Rossetti’s red-haired “stunners” is seduced by a leopard—a scene evoking Oscar Wilde’s description of sex with youths as “feasting with panthers.” They also included Marcel Proust. In Jean Santeuil (1896–1900), prints by Burne-Jones are a means for the Duchesse des Alpes’ mission civilisatrice among her friends, and Loisel the pianist is so refined and acquisitive as to have “even filled the room of the old Madame Loisel with reproductions by Burne-Jones.”
Visiting England in 1950, Picasso told Roland Penrose that, on arriving at Paris in 1900, he had intended to proceed to London so as to examine the Burne-Jones paintings that he had seen in Barcelona only in reproduction. The story recalls Jean des Esseintes in Huysmans’ À Rebours (1884), who plans to see Burne-Jones but never leaves Paris. Des Esseintes dreams of revisiting paintings he has “seen in the international exhibitions”: John Everett Millais’ The Eve of St. Agnes (1863), George Frederic Watts’s Denunciation of Cain (ca. 1872), some late and “anemic” works by Moreau, and Burne-Jones’s women: “some Eves, displaying the singular and mysterious blend of these three masters and expressing the personality both quintessential and raw of a dreamy, erudite Englishman haunted by fantasies of atrocious colors.”
Had Picasso visited London in 1900, he would have seen King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid (1884), a hit at the Exposition Universelle of 1889, secured for the new Tate Gallery by public subscription. Local developments prevented Picasso from keeping up with the Burne-Joneses, and the intervening half-century saw the collapse of Burne-Jones’s critical standing. His son, Philip, also a painter, contributed to this decline by attacking modern styles like Cubism and Fauvism as decadent, which was what the moralists had said about his father when he had been modern.
Burne-Jones’s art, with its post-Christian agonies and proto-Jungian mythologizing, becomes a window into the philosophy of Jordan Peterson, or at least into the inner lives of his less sociable followers.
In a further irony, Philip Burne-Jones’s most memorable painting, The Vampire (1897), depicts a scene straight out of the Decadence in which a woman is about to sink her teeth into a prostrate male. She resembles Mrs. Patrick Campbell, who was rumored to be Philip Burne-Jones’s lover, and for whom Shaw professed infatuation and wrote the lead role of Pygmalion. In 1903, the painting, having inspired a Kipling poem called “The Vampire,” was exhibited in Chicago. Burne-Jones fils insisted to The New York Times that the woman in The Vampire was “a Brussels model . . . hired at so much a day,” and not the actress who had not been his lover: “I want to lay the ghost of that story forever.”
In Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time (1951–75), the narrator Nick Jenkins reflects on the (fictional) Edwardian painter Edgar Deacon, whose Uranian apologetics combine the influences of Watts and Simeon Solomon: “I suppose on this debris of classical imagery the foundations of at least certain specific elements of twentieth-century art came to be built.”
Burne-Jones’s “quintessence of the ideal” was the sublimate of the ideals of the Victorian art movements. Sexuality was and is the great appeal of Burne-Jones. He describes the shift from the symbolic order of Christianity to that of comparative religion and the psychology of sexual repression. The difference being that his contemporaries saw him as a Max Müller, assembling the key to all mythologies, while we see him as a Krafft-Ebing, a non-judgmental cataloguer of the morbid and perverse. Burne-Jones’s art, with its post-Christian agonies and proto-Jungian mythologizing, becomes a window into the philosophy of Jordan Peterson, or at least into the inner lives of his less sociable followers.
What Burne-Jones did know how to do, however, was to draw bodies in torment even as faces are serene, and to endow the most diaphanous of drapery with the weight of heavy metal. His males are ephebic and introverted, his women pale and immobile like jeweled tortoises. In The Rock of Doom (1885–88), Perseus looks quite incapable of freeing Andromeda, or even touching her. In King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid, the king is in armor, the maid enarmored in a dress of pure steel, the pair caught in a ghost story forever. In The Garden Court, from the Legend of Briar Rose cycle, the field is decentered by the layering of the paint and the curvature of female bodies caught in the garden by sleep. The eye is forced to read the image as a tapestry, the mind forced to follow a narrative in which everything is frozen and incapable of reproduction, yet whose latency means that everything, in Henry James’s words, requires “a vast deal of ‘looking.’ ” Where Burne-Jones ends, T. S. Eliot’s dry seasons and J. R. R. Tolkien’s cold quests begin. As Christina Rossetti had written:
In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.
1 “Edward Burne-Jones” opened at Tate Britain, London, on October 24, 2018, and remains on view through February 24, 2019.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 37 Number 6, on page 10
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