By the time of Sir Edward Burne-Jones's death in 1898, his penchant for dreamy decadence had been eclipsed by more explicit decadence, and by impressionism, realism and, soon, modernism. Fiona MacCarthy's biographical rescue of the mid-Victorian escapist is the inevitable follow-up to her earlier life of Burne-Jones's closest colleague in the arts, the robust, assertive, many-sided William Morris. Son of the keeper of a frame shop, Jones, who hyphenated his names as he aspired to class mobility, began with less education and less money than Morris, his privileged but perennially unkempt Oxford classmate. Both intended unadventurous careers in the clergy, but Morris became a prolific artist, author, and designer—and a radical socialist; Burne-Jones became a sensitive artist in many forms, and a gentleman with a titular handle—a baronet in 1894.
Displaying obvious promise, Morris and Burne-Jones were soon sponsored by the Pre-Raphaelite visionary John Ruskin and his disciple Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Once Ruskin fostered, and subsidized, Burne-Jones's experiences of Renaissance Italy, the fledgling painter would write, "Birmingham is my city according to the facts ... but in reality Assisi is my birthplace." Like his fellow artistic rebels, especially Morris, he loathed coarse, crass Victorian materialism and the unromantic surface of industrial newness. He developed an appetite for Quattrocento stained glass and mosaics, illuminated manuscripts and tapestries, early printing, medieval church interiors, Arthurian myth, and Chaucer. Morris refused to enter the "Great Exhibition" of 1851 at the Crystal Palace, the seedbed of modernism. Burne-Jones, seeing it after the magnificent prefabricated structure had been moved from Hyde Park across the Thames to Sydenham, was dismayed by its "gigantic wearisomeness" and its "cheerless monotony [of] iron and glass, glass and iron." His life's work was to create its antidote, a tribute to an imagined yesterday. [End Page 246]
Evoking the otherworldliness of Greek myth and early Christian iconography while working as a founding partner of Morris's Arts and Crafts design firm, he made a comfortable living from Morris & Company projects. On his own he painted elaborately detailed canvases which often led to helpless passion for his sultry models, and to nervous collapses when they failed to reciprocate. Fiona MacCarthy explains his The Golden Stairs (1876-1880), nine feet high, and painted from a precarious wooden platform, as "the defining painting of the Aesthetic Movement." It was his "quintessential dream picture. The [eighteen] girls on the stairway have a somnambulistic look." While their draping gowns are much alike, the heads of the descending young women were all drawn from "stunners," in the Rossettian term—some his intimate friends, some the daughters of friends, some hired models, one his daughter, Margaret, for whom his affection was close to unhealthy. He left the meaning of the canvas obscure.
Burne-Jones's indomitable and extraordinarily forgiving wife, Georgiana, who would write a fact-filled if unrevealing biography of her "Ned" published in 1904, requested return of "the illicit and improbably romantic letters ... he scribbled out in such a frenzy of devotion to the succession of women he adored,... receiving a rather mixed response." Most have since vanished.
For years he sold little, as he initiated many works, finished few and exhibited fewer. "I have sixty pictures, oil and water, in my studio," he once said, seemingly exultantly, "and every day I would gladly begin a new one." His professional world changed when in May 1877 the glittering Grosvenor Gallery on New Bond Street in London opened. Established by Sir Coutts Lindsay with his wife's money—Blanche's mother, Hannah FitzRoy, was a London Rothschild who had married "out"—it featured eight Burne-Jones paintings in the inaugural exhibition. One was The Beguiling of Merlin, in which the exotic stunner, in diaphanous draperies, is the Greek-born Marie Zambaco, whose draperies in real life the artist often removed. Although she darkly resembled Jane Morris, William's unfaithful spouse who conducted a long-running affair with Rossetti, many Pre-Raphaelite stunners also appeared on canvas...