Edward Burne-Jones (1833-98) was an artist and member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. He was born and educated in Birmingham. At Exeter College, Oxford he became friends with his fellow student, William Morris who will be forever remembered as the leading light of the Arts & Crafts movement. .Together with a small group of friends, Burne-Jones and Morris formed the “Birmingham Set”. Amongst their activities was visiting mediaeval churches.
Burne-Jones’s early work was very influenced by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Burne-Jones, Morris and Rosetti’s married lives seem to have become somewhat (ahem) entangled!
Burne-Jones’s early work was mostly of watercolours and he was not conspicuously successful. A switch to oils saw his star rise in 1877. He developed a yen for vibrant colours. In 1885 he was elected Associate of the Royal Academy and exhibited at the RA in the following year. In 1893, at the prompting of Gladstone, he accepted a baronetcy.
He described his approach to painting thus: “I mean by a picture a beautiful, romantic dream of something that never was, never will be - in a light better than any light that ever shone - in a land no one can define or remember, only desire - and the forms divinely beautiful - and then I wake up, with the waking of Brynhild”.
This romanticism did not endear him to all at a time when realism was all the rage. Indeed, Burne-Jones seemed forever embroiled in controversy. An 1870 painting - “Phyllis and Demophoon” - featured his scantily-clad model Maria Zambaco (with whom he conducted a passionate affaire) allegedly in a posture of “female sexual assertiveness”. This was not something to be countenanced by the sexually repressed Victorian establishment, and Burne-Jones was ostracised by the press. His baronetcy was deplored by an Arts & Crafts movement whose idealistic notions of craftsmen and working men led to Socialist leanings. His wife, Georgiana MacDonald - herself an artist - and Morris were amongst the critics of his decision to accept. .
Burne-Jones did not confine himself to painting and stained glass. He worked with jewellery, tapestry, ceramic tiles and was a book illustrator with the legendary Kelmscott Press. Morris was a lifelong friend and collaborator. It was Morris’s death in 1896 that perhaps led to a decline in Burne-Jones’s own health and his death from influenza in 1898. A memorial service was held at Westminster Abbey at the prompting of the future King Edward VII.
It would be fair to say that Burne-Jones’s art has been deeply unfashionable for most of the twentieth century, hopelessly out of kilter with modern art movements. His nephew, the Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, said this of him in 1933, however:
“In my view, what he did for us common people was to open, as never had been opened before, magic casements of a land of faery in which he lived throughout his life ... It is in that inner world we can cherish in peace, beauty which he has left us and in which there is peace at least for ourselves. The few of us who knew him and loved him well, always keep him in our hearts, but his work will go on long after we have passed away. It may give its message in one generation to a few or in other to many more, but there it will be for ever for those who seek in their generation, for beauty and for those who can recognise and reverence a great man, and a great artist.”
Inevitably, though, he has been “rehabilitated” in recent years and his importance in the development of art is now recognised and has been marked by retrospective exhibitions.
His stained glass is perhaps his most accessible work. With the work of the more prolific Charles Kempe, it stands out from the general dross of anonymous Victorian industrial stained glass, the garish colours of which too often prompt unwarranted admiration. Burne-Jones and Morris were perhaps the first to raise church glass to the status of recognised art form. “Romantic” he might have been, but in Burne-Jones’s figures you see recognisably (unbearded!) human faces in recognisably human postures. You might feel as I do, however, that somehow Burne-Jones perhaps unconsciously portrayed Bible stories as just another type of fairy story!
The twentieth century heir to Burne-Jones’s position was perhaps John Piper, also primarily an artist, who is best known for the great wall of stained glass at Coventry Cathedral. See also examples on this website at Iffley and Jarrow. Personally, I admire much of the modern glass of the last thirty years or so.
For more Burne-Jones glass, see Ribbesford, Brockhampton and Roker. Brampton in Cumbria will follow soon.