Edward Burne-Jones Exhibition, Tate Britain

A new exhibition about the Pre-Raphaelite artist is promising to introduce the painter to a whole new audience. Peter Gray reports.

The Beguiling of Merlin by Edward Burne-Jones
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This forthcoming exhibition marks the first major London retrospective of the Victorian artist Edward Burne-Jones in nearly fifty years.

Burne-Jones, often known as the last of the Pre-Raphaelites, is chiefly remembered for his flamboyant painting style as well as for the quality of his stained glass windows and tapestries.

The artist was born in Birmingham in 1833 into a Britain that had been dramatically altered by the industrial revolution. While many had grown wealthy during the period, the move to a machine based economy had brought vast changes to every corner of domestic life.  The burden of these changes was most keenly felt by the urban poor. Huddled into dirty, smoky cities, the working classes toiled for long hours in cold, dark factories for little monetary reward.

Jones became part of a growing movement of artists, writers and intellectuals who rejected this new world – with its increasing preoccupation with industry and commerce. Instead, the artist drew inspiration from the distance past, and in particular the art, myth and legend of medieval England. The study of the art and culture of the middle ages is known as Medievalism.

In 1852 the artist went up to Oxford to begin studying Theology and it was at Oxford that Jones met the man who would make such a decisive impact on his life.

William Morris was the son of a wealthy financier from Walthamstow. Morris had gone to Oxford to study Classics, but he had soon grown bored of the regimented tedium of college life and, like Burne-Jones, he found himself turning to medievalism as a form of escape. This passion was fuelled by a keen appreciation for the university town’s many medieval buildings.

For Morris, the Medieval period represented an almost utopian era, when community and chivalry trumped commerce and business as the pillars which held society together. If the values of that distant time could be rediscovered, ran the argument, the modern world would be enriched beyond measure.

The middle class East Londoner and the working class Birmingham boy soon became firm friends – thanks to a shared love of poetry. As the pair grew closer, they quickly fell into a larger group, which soon became known as the Brotherhood. The group united around a common love of the middle ages as well as a keen appreciation for the work of Tennyson and Ruskin. The group would spend long rambling days visiting medieval churches and other places of interest around Oxford.

It was at about this time that the pair met Gabriel Dante Rossetti. The threesome quickly struck up a friendship when Morris and Burne-Jones tried to recruit the older artist as a contributor for their new magazine.

The painter, the son of an émigré Italian scholar name Gabriele Pasquale Giuseppe Rossetti and his wife Frances Mary Lavinia Polidori, quickly made an impression on his new friends with his painting style and his innovative use of watercolours.

Buoyed by these new friendships, Burne-Jones made a momentous decision. He would no longer become a church minister, as he planned for so long. Instead, he would become an artist, and his art would celebrate the magnificence of medieval England.

Shortly after making this decision, Jones left Oxford without completing his degree. The young artist settled in London and within a few months he began to receive art lessons from his new friend Rossetti. He also attended a number of life drawing classes.

Despite his lack of formal training, Burne-Jones began work as an artist, indulging his passion for the middle ages by sketching primarily medieval subjects. As his knowledge and experience grew, so too did his distaste for ‘modern art’.  He regularly described the work of the Impressionists as little more than ‘landscape and whores’.

When asked about his own work, he summed up his ideas about art thus: “I mean by a picture a beautiful romantic dream, of something that never was, never will be—in a light better than any that ever shone—in a land no-one can define or remember, only desire—and the forms divinely beautiful.”

This new exhibition traces Burne-Jones’ work across a number of mediums – oil painting, stain glass and tapestry.  Jones was a key figure in the 19th century revival of stained glasswork. The artist is responsible for several celebrated works including windows in Holy Trinity Church, Sloane Square, All Saints, Jesus Lane, Cambridge, St Peter and St Paul parish church in Cromer and St Edmund Hall and Christ Church, both at the University of Oxford.

The paintings on display trace the artist’s evolution from his early days when the influence of Rossetti is only too evident, right up to the 1860s when the artist’s own individual style is clearly evident.

Edward Burne-Jones is a major artist of the Victorian period whose romantic dreams and fanciful scenes offer a major contribution to Victorian art and foreshadow later movements like Art Noveau and the Aesthetic movement.

Edward Burne-Jones will open at Tate Britain on the 24th of October and the exhibition will run until the 24th February 2019.

Tate Britain is at Millbank, SW1P 4RG

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