Edward Burne-Jones at Tate Britain

Arendse Lund discovers ethereal beauty and a sense of humour in a major retrospective of one of the last Pre-Raphaelites.

Imagine, if you will, a studio in West London, with canvases crammed from floor to ceiling. These paintings are surrounded by items that reflect the artist’s interests: intricately-designed books, drafts for stained glass, and cartoons for tapestries. The paintings themselves are of all sizes and each is in a different state of completion: some were declared finished, only for the artist to change them years later; others will never officially be complete. The architect of this chaos is Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898), a painter, designer, and the subject of Tate Britain’s latest exhibition.

Edward Burne-Jones was a radical British artist influenced by the Pre-Raphaelite ideals of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. He was part of the Aesthetic Movement, and as such believed in championing the beauty of his subjects. The vast depth and breadth of Burne-Jones’ creativity is captured in this ambitious retrospective. Working in a variety of mediums, Burne-Jones’ early pen-and-ink drawings are displayed alongside his stained-glass work, his paintings, and an altarpiece.

These early works from his time as an apprentice are not his strongest, but with seven large rooms dedicated to the artist, there is ample space for the curators to gradually ramp up towards the artist’s major works. The exhibition continues with rooms on his draughtsmanship, large exhibition pieces, portraiture, narrative series, and design work.

Moving on from the miscellanea in the first room, visitors continue to Burne-Jones’ work as a draughtsman. Here is one of the most unexpected discoveries of the exhibit: Edward Burne-Jones—a founding member of the Arts and Crafts movement, pillar of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, scorner of the Watercolour Society’s traditionalism—had a sense of humour.

Sir Edward Burne-Jones; William Morris by Frederick Hollyer, 1874 © National Portrait Gallery

One sketch shows a self-deprecating image of himself drowning under a stack of letters. In another, William Morris, his good friend and business partner, reads poetry to him. He depicts himself with a long, scraggly beard, exhaustedly slouched in his chair. In contrast, Morris appears large in his chair, gripping a poem. Burne-Jones also drew caricatures of people spotted on holiday and inked apologies for missing get-togethers. These humorous drawings show Burne-Jones’ playful side—one not typically given valuable space at a Pre-Raphaelite exhibit.

William Morris reading poetry to Burne-Jones (1861), courtesy of V&A

Still bubbling with the soft humour of these sketches, it’s a strange transition to then be ushered into a room of Burne-Jones’ exhibition pictures. Consider this a room of his greatest hits: paintings include The Mill and The Tree of Forgiveness. The latter was a reworking of his earlier Phyllis and Demophoön, a painting that caused an outcry with its male nudity when it was first exhibited in 1870 and subsequently lead to Burne-Jones resignation from the Old Watercolour Society. Now the pieces that once courted controversy no longer seem outrageous. Instead, the most striking aspect is the dream-like beauty of his subjects.

Phyllis and Demophoön (1870), courtesy of Tate Britain

Throughout Burne-Jones’ career, he embraced the styles and themes of medieval art which were prevalent before the advent of Raphael. He, and other Pre-Raphaelites, considered these medieval ideals more pure and beautiful. However, this was not always well-received by the art critics of his day. “A pity it is I was not born in the Middle Ages,” Edward Burne-Jones once complained. “People would then have known how to use me—now they don’t know what on earth to do with me.”

Visitors overwhelmed by the enormity of these masterpieces have a moment to recover when stepping into the portraiture room. Burne-Jones preferred to paint portraits for family and friends, prioritising mood over realism and eschewing the portraiture style favored by fashionable society. The Portrait of Katie Lewis (1886) shows a young girl wearing stockings lying on a couch, intently reading the story of St. George and the dragon. Her small dog is curled on her legs. As with all Burne-Jones’ works, mood takes priority over realism, and his portraits are particularly intimate in their subject matter and style. (Visitors may also envy Katie Lewis for her recliner. At this point in the exhibit, sofas would have been welcome—if not to sit and admire the artworks, then perhaps to recover from the sheer number.)

Portrait of Katie Lewis (1886)

There are three rooms left, but it is only in the final room that Burne-Jones’ work as a designer finally takes center stage. Here a painted piano decorated with frolicking, yet demonic-looking cherubs—an oxymoron to be sure—dominates the room, while enormous tapestries, depicting angels with delicately feathered wings encircle the viewer.

This is a scene meant to delight and tantalise—and it succeeds. Burne-Jones once remarked of his career: “I’ve learned to know Beauty when I see it, and that’s the best thing.” This room is the culmination of this beauty in all its forms and a reminder that Edward Burne-Jones was not only a painter but also a talented artist in other media.

While occasionally overwhelming, the exhibition is also a salute to an ideal of beauty that was both revolutionary and nostalgic in its time. Attendees of last year’s “Van Eyck and the Pre-Raphaelites” exhibit at the National Gallery shouldn’t be concerned about overlap. Instead, think of the National Gallery’s exhibit as the hors d’oeuvres to Tate Britain’s main course; while the former gave visitors a smattering of pieces by different Pre-Raphaelite artists influenced by a single source, the latter allows for a deep and concentrated look at one artist in particular.

Tate Britain’s Edward Burne-Jones is a massive undertaking to understand the artist’s life and career and should not be missed. Fans of William Morris, the Pre-Raphaelites, and allegorical paintings will enjoy this exhibition. The beauty of the artworks, the talent in the variety, and the occasional spot of humour makes this an afternoon well spent.

Edward Burne-Jones is at Tate Britain, London until 24 February, 2019. For more information, visit tate.org.uk.

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