‘Beautiful romantic dreams’ — the art of Edward Burne-Jones
The once-unvalued Victorian painter has enjoyed a renaissance in recent decades, becoming the most expensive Pre-Raphaelite ever sold at auction. Alastair Smart finds out why
In the words of his biographer Fiona MacCarthy, Edward Coley Burne-Jones was ‘one of the great, if not the greatest, of Victorian narrative painters’. For most of the 20th century, though, he was deeply unfashionable. When his daughter, Margaret McKail, died in 1953, sheaves of Burne-Jones drawings were put up for auction but sold for next to nothing.
A decade later, Burne-Jones’s largest picture, The Sleep of Arthur in Avalon, on which he’d worked for 18 years until the day of his death, was sold at Christie’s without competition from a domestic bidder. It was bought by the Puerto Rican industrialist Luis Antonio Ferré for just 1,600 guineas. (It is still housed in the Ponce Museum of Art in Puerto Rico.)
By 1998 the tide seemed to have turned, and the artist’s reputation was on the rise again. That was the year of the retrospective, Edward Burne-Jones: Victorian Artist-Dreamer, which travelled from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery in the UK and the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.
‘Like the Pre-Raphaelites as a whole, Burne-Jones suffered in market terms when their type of art was out of fashion,’ explains Harriet Drummond, Director of British Drawings & Watercolours at Christie’s. ‘But in recent years, that has clearly changed, and there’s no better proof than Love among the Ruins.’ The work broke three auction records in 2013: the highest ever price for a Burne-Jones (£14,845,875), for a Pre-Raphaelite work in any medium, and for a British work on paper.
The recent Burne-Jones retrospective at Tate Britain was the first major exhibition of the artist’s work in London for more than four decades, and featured 150 works in a variety of media. According to Alison Smith, curator of the show, the artist’s surge in popularity can be linked to the success of fantasy dramas such as The Lord of the Rings and Games of Thrones. ‘They are pure Burne-Jones,’ she says.
Who was Edward Burne-Jones?
Edward Coley Burne-Jones was born in Birmingham in the British Midlands in 1833 to a struggling picture-framer and a mother who died during childbirth. After studying at Oxford University — and turning his back on a planned career in the church — Burne-Jones moved to London and dedicated himself to art.
Enthused by the work of the new Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Burne-Jones briefly acted as an apprentice to one of its founder members, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. In time, Burne-Jones himself would form part of a so-called ‘second wave’ of Pre-Raphaelites, frequently depicting scenes from Arthurian legend and medieval romance.
The artist’s friendship with William Morris and John Ruskin
Like William Morris, his lifelong friend, Burne-Jones sought to re-enchant a world that he felt had been sullied physically by the Industrial Revolution and morally by the unchecked capitalism of the British Empire. He thought art’s job, far from capturing modern existence, was to offer an escape from it.
‘I mean, by a picture,’ he said, ‘a beautiful romantic dream of something that never was, never will be — in a light better than any light that ever shone, in a land no one can define or remember, only desire.’
Burne-Jones started out making pen-and-ink drawings and watercolours for a circle of friends and private buyers, and these early works — such as The Wise and Foolish Virgins (below), a pen-and-ink drawing from 1859 — rank among his rarest and most fascinating productions.
Burne-Jones supplemented his income at this time by producing (usually unsigned) designs for the decorative arts firm, Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co.
Burne-Jones’s breakthrough exhibition
Burne-Jones switched to easel paintings for exhibition in the 1870s, and it was with these works that he made his name. An 1877 exhibition at London’s cutting-edge Grosvenor Gallery (a late-Victorian rival to the Royal Academy) is widely cited as his breakthrough show. He would go on to exhibit some of his most famous paintings at the Grosvenor in subsequent years, such as The Golden Stairs (1880) and King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid (1884), both now part of the Tate collection. Luna (below) was first exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1878.
Burne-Jones continued to produce masterful watercolours, too, although these were often now very sizeable and painted in a mixed media — such as Love among the Ruins, depicting two young lovers entwined in each other’s arms, who’ve been cast out beyond their city walls. The model for the female figure was Burne-Jones’s beloved mistress and longstanding muse, Maria Zambaco, and the work can be considered a reflection on their doomed romance.
Burne-Jones the artisan designer of tapestry, jewellery, ceramics
‘One of Burne-Jones’s great attributes was his versatility,’ says Alison Smith. ‘You might call him an “artist-artisan” rather than an “artist”. His talent extended to the design of tapestry, jewellery, sculpture, ceramics, furniture and stained glass’, often in collaboration with William Morris, for the latter’s two firms, Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. (1861-75) and Morris & Co. (1875-1940).
Pieces include a painted jewel-casket for another object of his extra-marital (although platonic) affection, Frances Graham; The Adoration of the Magi, a tapestry donated to the Musée d’Orsay in 2009, as part of the Christie’s Paris sale of Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé’s art collection; and The Nativity, a bronze relief panel at Lanercost Priory, Cumbria, dedicated to the late mother of one of Burne-Jones’s patrons, George Howard, the Earl of Carlisle (a design for which, executed in thick bodycolour, fetched $343,500 at Christie’s New York in 2017).
‘He really saw no distinction between the fine arts and decorative arts,’ says Smith. ‘Perhaps because he came at art from a different perspective than was usual, not having trained at art school but having had a career in the church in mind.’
Burne-Jones’s visions in stained glass
As for stained glass, there are examples of Burne-Jones windows across the UK, notably at Birmingham Cathedral and Christ Church, Oxford. Towards the end of his career Burne-Jones converted his designs for these into finished works of art in their own right, as was the case with his monumental drawing for the chancel east window at Liverpool’s Church of All Hallows.
Spread across five panels, it is based on St John’s vision of heaven in Revelations 7:9-17, where the Holy Lamb (representing Christ) stands on a mound from which four rivers issue (representing the four Gospels). Once the window had been completed, the then-monochrome drawing was returned to Burne-Jones, who duly coloured it and added touches of gold. The result was the monumental and gorgeously coloured Paradise, with the Worship of the Holy Lamb, which was previously in the collection of the late Yves Saint Laurent before it was sold at Christie’s in New York in October 2018 for $972,500.
Lauded by the prime minister and the Prince of Wales
In 1885 Burne-Jones accepted election as an Associate Member of the Royal Academy, and in 1894 received a baronetcy from the Prime Minister, William Gladstone.
He retained his artistic powers and work ethic until the end, often making portraits of his friends between undertaking larger commissions, right until the year of his death in 1898. After he died aged 64, the artist was given a memorial service in Westminster Abbey, at the personal request of the Prince of Wales.
The influence of Burne-Jones on the Surrealists, Symbolists, and Picasso
In terms of the artists or movements that Burne-Jones influenced, it is probably fair to say he had as much impact across the Channel, in France and Belgium, as he did in his home country. His dreamlike worlds populated by mysterious characters appealed to Symbolists and Surrealists alike.
Another fan was Pablo Picasso: the languid beggars and bohemians of his Blue Period have been cited by many scholars as showing the influence of Burne-Jones.
Burne-Jones and auction records
‘The good thing about a masterpiece such as Love among the Ruins doing so well,’ says Drummond, ‘is that it encourages owners of other first-rate pieces to bring those to auction, too. And that’s certainly what we’ve been finding. Now is a time of huge opportunity if you’re a Burne-Jones collector.’
Are works from one period of his career noticeably different in value from those he made in another? ‘Not really,’ replies Drummond. ‘That vivid imagination of his was a constant throughout. There are various price-points at which a collector could enter the market, though. He was a wonderful draughtsman, for example, and in 2016 we sold a series of preparatory drawings — from Burne-Jones’s sketchbook — for his famous painting, The Golden Stairs, a number of them for between £5,000 and £10,000. Burne-Jones was an artist of remarkable range, and he has a market to match: there’s something for everyone.’