The Victorian era was a time of industrialization and disruptive changes in British society. With the growing number of technological advances and industries developing, cities quickly expanded, so did pollution and social misery. In 1848, three artists created the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a group of rebels sharing a new artistic and social vision. They rejected the codes set by the English Royal Academy of Arts and embraced socialist ideals, joining the social upheaval spreading through Europe. The founders of the brotherhood, John Everett Millais, William Holman Hunt, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, were soon joined by other artists who adopted their ideas; the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood became the Pre-Raphaelites, a distinct art movement. The British artist Edward Burne-Jones would later join them.
As the movement’s name suggests, the Pre-Raphaelites wanted to go back to the art before Raphael and the turn towards the overly-complicated and fussy composition of Mannerism. Instead, they found their inspiration in the Middle Ages and early Renaissance art. They also followed the ideas of the eminent art critic of the Victorian era, John Ruskin.
Joining the group of rebel artists a few years later, Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones was an illustrious member of the second Pre-Raphaelite wave. He worked between the 1850s and 1898. Difficult to box into a single art movement, Edward Burne-Jones was at an artistic crossroads between the Pre-Raphaelite, Arts and Crafts, and Aesthetic movements. He even added to his work elements of what would become the Symbolist movement. Edward Burne-Jones’ paintings are very famous, but he also excelled in designing illustrations and patterns for other crafted works such as stained glass, ceramic tiles, tapestries, and jewelry.
1. The Prioress’s Tale: Edward Burne-Jones’ Fascination With The Middle Ages
The Prioress’s Tale is one of the earliest of Edward Burne-Jones’ paintings. Yet, he made several versions and modified them over the years. One of the Canterbury Tales, a collection of pilgrims’ tales compiled by famous English poet Geoffrey Chaucer, directly inspired this watercolor. Medieval literature was a great source of inspiration for Pre-Raphaelite painters.
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The painting displays a seven-year-old Christian child living with his widowed mother in an Asian city. The boy, singing songs in celebration of the Virgin Mary, had his throat cut by Jewish men. The Virgin appeared to the child and laid a grain of corn on his tongue, giving him the ability to keep singing though already dead.
Storytelling was the key element in Pre-Raphaelite painting, along with symbols to suggest other levels of understanding to the story. In The Prioress’s Tale, the central Virgin putting a grain of corn on the child’s tongue illustrates the story’s main scene. It is surrounded by a street scene from earlier in the tale, with the child’s murder in the upper right corner. Like in many other Edward Burne-Jones’ paintings, he used flower symbolism extensively. The flowers surrounding the Virgin and child, lilies, poppies, and sunflowers, respectively, represent purity, consolation, and adoration.
2. Love Among The Ruins: A Nearly-Destroyed Watercolor Hitting The Highest Price For Pre-Raphaelite Work At Auction
Edward Burne-Jones painted Love Among the Ruins on two occasions; first, a watercolor between 1870 and 1873, then oil on canvas completed in 1894. This masterpiece represents one of the finest examples of Edward Burne-Jones’ paintings, praised by the British artist himself and by critics of his time. It is also famous for its incredible destiny.
The painting picturing two lovers among a ruined building refers to the Victorian poet and playwright Robert Browning’s Love Among the Ruins poem. Italian Renaissance masters, who Burne-Jones discovered during several trips to Italy, notably influenced the painting’s style.
Pre-Raphaelites used watercolors in an unusual way, as if they painted with oil pigments, resulting in a textured, bright-colored work that could easily be mistaken for an oil painting. That is exactly what happened to Love Among the Ruins. While loaned to an exhibition in Paris in 1893, a gallery’s employee almost destroyed the fragile watercolor by covering it with egg white as a temporary varnish. He certainly did not read the label on the watercolor’s back, explicitly stating that “this picture, being painted in watercolor, would be injured by the slightest moisture.”
Burne-Jones was devastated to learn about the damage done to his precious masterpiece. He decided to paint a replica, this time using oil paints. The original remained hidden in his studio until a former assistant of the owner, Charles Fairfax Murray, suggested trying to restore it. He succeeded in his endeavors, leaving only the damaged woman’s head that Burne-Jones gladly repainted. This happened only five weeks before the death of Burne-Jones himself.
In July 2013, the watercolor with an estimated value of between £3-5m was sold at auction at Christie’s London, reaching the sky-high amount of £14.8 million (over $23m at the time). The highest price for a Pre-Raphaelite work sold at auction.
3. Flora: Burne-Jones’ Fruitful Friendship With The British Artist William Morris
Edward Burne-Jones met one of the future leaders of the Arts and Crafts movement, William Morris, in 1853 when he started studying theology at the Exeter College in Oxford. Burne-Jones and Morris soon became friends, sharing a mutual fascination for Medieval art and poetry.
Georgiana, Burne-Jones’ wife, recalled Edward’s and William’s brotherly relationship as they spent their days frantically reading Chaucer’s work and visiting the Bodleian to contemplate medieval illuminated manuscripts. They decided to become artists on their return to England after a journey across France to discover Gothic architecture. While Morris wished to become an architect, Burne-Jones took a painting apprenticeship with his role model, the famous Pre-Raphaelite painter, Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
The two friends naturally started working together and became partners, along with five other associates in Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co., founded in 1861. The furnishing and decorative arts manufacturer and retailer later changed its name to Morris & Co. (1875).
Burne-Jones created countless cartoons with preparatory drawings used by Morris & Co. to design tapestries, tinted glass, and ceramic tiles. The Flora tapestry is a perfect example of the contribution between Burne-Jones and Morris and their mutual goal: the alliance of arts and crafts. Burne-Jones drew the feminine figure, while Morris created the vegetal backdrop. In a letter to his daughter, Morris wrote: “Uncle Ned [Edward] has done me two lovely figures for tapestry, but I have got to design a background for them.” The two friends kept on working together throughout their entire careers.
4. Phyllis And Demophoön: The Painting That Caused A Scandal
In 1870, Edward Burne-Jones’ painting Phyllis and Demophoön (The Tree of Forgiveness), caused a public scandal. Burne-Jones took his inspiration from High Renaissance art, drawing the figures of two lovers from a Greek mythology romance. Phyllis, emerging from the almond tree, embraces the naked lover who delivered her, Demophoön.
The scandal did not come from the subject or the painting technique. Instead, it was the love chase instigated by Phyllis, a woman, and Demophoön’s nudity that shocked the public. How strange, as nudes were very common in Antique and Renaissance art!
Such a scandal only makes sense in the light of 19th-century Britain. The prudish Victorian society imposed what was tasteful or not. A rumor reported that, when Queen Victoria first saw the cast of Michelangelo’s David exhibited in the South Kensington Museum (today the Victoria & Albert Museum), she was so shocked by his nakedness that the museum’s authorities ordered the addition of a plaster fig leaf to cover his manhood. This story clearly shows how nudity was a sensitive topic in Victorian Britain.
Edward Burne-Jones, who had been elected to the esteemed Society of Painters in Water Colours in 1864, decided to leave it after being asked to cover Demophoön’s genitalia, which he refused. Burne-Jones greatly suffered from the scandal and disengaged from public life during the seven following years. The British artist made a second version of the painting a dozen years after the first, this time carefully covering Demophoön’s manhood, avoiding further controversy.
5. The Last Sleep Of Arthur In Avalon: Edward Burne-Jones’ Last Masterpiece
At the end of his life, Edward Burne-Jones worked on a huge oil on canvas (9 x 21 ft), picturing The Last Sleep of Arthur in Avalon. During this extensive period (between 1881 and 1898), Burne-Jones went totally into painting while his sight and health deteriorated. This masterpiece stands as the painter’s legacy. Burne-Jones was well acquainted with the Arthurian legends and Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur. Along with his longtime friend William Morris, he fervently studied Arthur’s tales during his youth. Edward depicted episodes of the legend on numerous occasions.
This time, though, the huge painting, the largest he ever painted, illustrated something much more personal. It started with a commissioned work by George and Rosalind Howard, the Earl and Countess of Carlisle, and Burne-Jones’ close friends. The Earl and Countess asked their friend to paint an episode of King Arthur’s legend to go in the library of the 14th-century Naworth Castle. However, Burne-Jones developed such a deep attachment while working on the painting that he asked his friends to keep it in his studio until his death.
Burne-Jones identified with Arthur on such a deep level that he gave his own features to the dying king. His wife Georgiana reported that, at the time, Edward started adopting the king’s pose while sleeping. The British artist was rehearsing his own death. Burne-Jones painted the scene as he went through difficult times. Along with his health issues, he grieved over the loss of his dear friend William Morris, who died in 1896. The painter was still working on his last masterpiece a few hours before his own death. A heart attack hit the painter on June 17th, 1898, leaving the painting unfinished.
Though Edward Burne-Jones’ work was forgotten for a time, he is today acknowledged as one of the greatest artists of Victorian Britain. The British artist influenced many other artists, most notably the French Symbolist painters. Pre-Raphaelites, especially William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones’ brotherly friendship, even inspired J. R. R. Tolkien.