Edward Burne-Jones

John Westbrooke admires the work of the most intriguing Pre-Raphaelite painter

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itain’s lavish exhibition of the work of Edward Burne-Jones locates him as one of the last of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, but what is most intriguing about his work is the way it differed from theirs.

Though he’s probably the most famous of Britain’s late Victorian painters, he didn’t set out to be one at all. Unlike the rest, he didn’t go to art school but to Oxford, to train as a priest. But he was side-tracked when he met William Morris, the writer, poet and designer. They shared an interest in the culture of the Middle Ages, and so did the PRB, a group of artists who wanted to return to what they saw as the purity of medieval art. Burne-Jones even got himself apprenticed to their leader, Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

Yes, you can see how he was influenced by the PRB. His early works, often in black and white on vellum, show he soon became a skilled draughtsman though (like some PRB paintings) they can be so crammed with detail you can’t see the wood for the trees. Some of the women he depicts look like classic Pre-Raphaelite “stunners” – firm noses and jaws, bee-stung lips, waves of red hair.

And yet, like most of them, he gradually pulled away from the PRB style as his own developed. He was elected to the Old Watercolour Society in 1864 but resigned in 1870 after a kerfuffle over a classically-based painting of “Phyllis and Demophoön”. There were complaints about Demophoön’s nudity; conversely, some were uneasy about the couple’s androgynous appearance, since both were modelled by Maria Zambaco, who to make matters even more scandalous was not only the painter’s mistress but tried to drown herself in the Regent’s Canal. There’s a lot going on with women in Burne-Jones’s work: many look forceful while the men look fretful.

After resigning he stayed out of the public eye for seven years, doing more painting in oils, visiting Italy, and taking on occasional commissions, preferably ones that he could complete in his own good time.

When he exhibited again, it was at the Grosvenor Gallery, a new venue intended as an anti-Royal Academy, showing a select number of paintings chosen not for historical or religious subject matter but for their inherent beauty – art for art’s sake, the maxim of the Aesthetic movement.

“The Golden Stairs” (1880), still one of the Tate’s most popular works, is among them: a picture of women coming down a circular flight of stairs. Who are they? What are they doing? It’s hard to say. They’re dressed in classical draped gowns, no two quite the same, some with decorations of leaves. Only the first looks back at the artist/viewer.

The women’s faces are all subtly different too – they were genuine portraits, the painter’s daughter Margaret, Morris’s daughter May, and Prime Minister William Gladstone’s daughter Mary among them. Their skin tones are much the same pale gold as the stairs. The painting is unusually high and narrow but not static; the curve of the stairs gives it movement.

But what is it about? Burne-Jones seems again to have been in love with or at least transfixed by many of the models. Most are carrying musical instruments, recalling the claim of the critic Walter Pater that all art aspires to the condition of music – that is, to be about nothing but itself, no narrative, no incident, no moral. It’s a hymn to beauty.

Some see a sort of dreamland in Burne-Jones’ work, for instance in “The Depths of the Sea”, another tall picture in which a mermaid with a smile as inscrutable as the Mona Lisa’s pulls a man to the sea floor. The dreaming is literal in “The Briar Rose” (1890), four eight-foot-long paintings depicting the Sleeping Beauty story as the prince arrives to find slumbering courtiers in an overgrown wilderness. Thousands queued to see the series when it was first shown; it’s now in an Oxfordshire National Trust property.

Burne-Jones’s output was huge, and not restricted to painting in oils and watercolour. The exhibition includes numerous drawings, some of them sketches for bigger works, some of them little cartoons: there’s one of a stout woman with Leonardo’s “Last Supper” tattooed on her back, another of the artist wearily falling asleep as Morris declaims one of his poems. He painted portraits, too, frequently of women with the same faraway look in their eyes and just a hint of the femme fatale.

As well as that, there are stained glass windows, altarpieces, books, tapestries, furniture, all arising from his collaboration with Morris – on the whole, the Tate claims, designer is a better description of him than painter. The pièce de résistance, in fact, is a piano, decorated with Italianate roundels on the sides and full-scale paintings on and under the lid.

Burne-Jones seems to have felt he was, or ought to be, an outsider – born in poverty as Ned Jones, self-taught, infused with socialist ideals he shared with Morris. If so, he was a very Establishment outsider. He became a Royal Academician, without seeming to want to, and finally, at Gladstone’s request, a baronet (and became Burne-Jones). Morris was horrified, as was Burne-Jones’s long-suffering and equally socialist wife Georgiana; only his son Philip approved – but then, the title was hereditary.

It was deserved, too. While the Pre-Raphaelites remained comparatively little known away from Britain, Burne-Jones was famous both at home and internationally; his work looks back to Italians before and after Raphael, shares in the Aesthetic and Symbolist movements and prefigures Art Nouveau and painters as varied as Klimt and Stanley Spencer. Devoted as he was to the PRB, he makes much of their work look parochial and 19th-century, while he’s opening the way to the 20th.

Edward Burne-Jones runs at Tate Britain until 24 February 2019. Entry £18, concessions available.