"Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones...was clearly someone who aimed to draw his audience into a fantastical realm and let their minds run wild."
Emily Lane, undergraduate student in History of Art, University of Exeter
Sir Edward Burne-Jones travels from Tate Britain to Scandinavia
Dates: September 14 2019 - January 26 2020
Emily Lane is an undergraduate student in History of Art at the University of Exeter. In advance of a major exhibition of work by one of Britain’s best-loved painters, she writes about Burne-Jones’s hold on the public’s imagination.
The artist Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones (1833-1898) is today heralded as one of several Pre-Raphaelite visionaries. Nevertheless, his work has a unique quality that makes him stand out from his fellow artists. One particular quote from the man himself encapsulates the essence of his work: “I mean for my pictures to be a beautiful dream,” he said. This was clearly someone who aimed to draw his audience into a fantastical realm and let their minds run wild.
After spending time as an undergraduate at University of Oxford, where he studied Theology, Burne-Jones went on to become an apprentice to Dante Gabriel Rosetti. He who would become the founder of the Pre-Raphaelite movement encouraged his young protégé to follow his own creative vision, wise advice given he was largely self-taught. Burne-Jones would go on to boldly choose subjects from academia that did not accord with the artistic interests of his day. Inspiration came from medieval art, myths, legends, folk tales and Christianity. At the time, especially to the followers of Impressionism (which began around 1860), such subjects may have seemed rather more backward looking. But Burne-Jones injected new life into painted stories of old: he used an eclectic colour pallet and chose to incorporate characters whose appearance today might be labelled gender fluid, even androgynous.
If Burne-Jones’s paintings captivated his audiences, they were met with disapproval from art critics. Yet a review of the recent exhibition at Tate Britain (24 October 2018 – 24 February 2019) from London’s Evening Standard by Melanie McDonagh reveals how opinions have changed over time. An audience of the twenty-first century, she implies, will be “bowled over by the dazzling vision, the ethereal form, the distinctive, sometimes jewel-like colour, the blaze of gold in the tapestry, the comic persistence with a single, lovely physical type, the languor and yes, the beauty.” And as she underlines, “You don’t come to Burne-Jones for social realism.”
A taste for unconventionality led Burne-Jones in other experimental directions. Disliking the greasy texture of oil paint, he worked in the less-popular medium of watercolour. This way, he could achieve what Jackie Wallschlager of the Financial Times has described as “glassy luminosity and leaden heaviness”, which deliver an atmosphere of “stifling rapture”. One painting to exemplify this, and which will be shown in the exhibition in Stockholm, is Fair Rosamund and Queen Eleanor, painted in 1862. This centers around a legend that King Henry II created a hidden chamber for his mistress, Rosamund, at the middle of an elaborate maze. Upon its discovery by Queen Eleanor, ‘Fair Rosamund’ was murdered. In the painting, Burne-Jones includes a circular mirror derived from Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait. That van Eyck was a master of oil, Burne-Jones’ use of ink, watercolour, gouche and gum feels all the more interesting. If anything, it enabled him to show off his independent approach and render the story his own.
Burne-Jones was not without a social conscience. For him, it was imperative that all members of society, not just the elite, could engage with his work. "A good artist,” he said, “ought to work only for public purposes." Much of his art can still be found in public spaces today. From Wales to Scotland, there are as many as twenty-two churches and cathedrals across the UK that are home to his stained-glass windows and mosaics. Not only did this make his work accessible at the time, tickling the moral conscience of a populace for whom church going was part of everyday life, but those who occupy these public spaces as visitors nowadays remain captivated by his oeuvre.
When the Tate Britain exhibition travels to Waldemarsudde Museum in Stockholm, followed by KODE in Bergen, the legacy of Burne-Jones as a painter of the many not the few will be upheld. His reputation and talent will be enjoyed by the many not the few, and by new Swedish and Norwegian audiences. In a joint statement about the exhibition’s tour of Scandinavia, the British curator Alison Smith and the Norwegian curator Knut Ljøgodt conveyed how the opportunity to “introduce his art to Scandinavia is the fulfillment of a long-time dream.” Whilst in the region the exhibition will also unearth the influence of Burne-Jones and other British art movements on Scandinavian art and design, and well-known painters such as Frida Hansen, Gerhard Munthe and Georg Pauli. As the Director of Waldemarsudde Dr Karin Siden explains:
“If the exciting Pre-Raphaelite art inspired a number of Nordic artists, the ideology and aesthetics of the Arts and Crafts movement gained an even greater significance for the art and cultural life in the Nordic region, especially in architecture, home decoration and applied arts. Burne-Jones was, with his friend William Morris, a key representative of the Arts and Crafts movement in England.”
And as Josefin Sahlin, Head of Communications at Waldemarsudde, says:
“I really believe that Swedish audience will appreciate Burne-Jones’ artworks and I hope that the exhibition at Waldemarsudde can introduce his artistry to a new audience and let visitors familiar with his art rediscover Burne-Jones’ great work.”
The exhibition will be at Waldemarsudde from September 14, 2019 – January 26, 2020. After its run in Sweden the exhibition will travel to KODE in Norway.
Upcoming events in London
‘Pre-Raphaelite Sisters’ at the National Portrait Gallery, 27 October 2019 – 26 January 2020. This exhibition will explore the overlooked contribution of twelve women to the Pre-Raphaelite movement.