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Monday, October 20, 2014

Edward Burne-Jones

Sleeping Beauty The Rose Bower from the Legend of Briar Rose,
1880, Edward Burne-Jones 
Edward Burne-Jones, Self-portrait,
1898, painted by the artist from a
photo, shortly befor his death.
When we go to a movie or read a book we're seldom conscious of the fact that virtually every piece of fiction ever written has a long, interesting, often extremely convoluted history behind it. Take for instance, The Legend of the Briar Rose. I'd be greatly surprised if you've ever heard of it. I'd be almost as surprised if you've ever heard of the British artist, Sir Edward Burne-Jones whose series of paintings from around 1880 was responsible for bringing, what was, even then, an old, old story, back to life, in effect, guaranteeing its continued popularity today. Since then the story Burne-Jones illustrated, not for a book, but for museum walls, has gone through many adaptations and variations. The tale dates to as far back as 1330, its heroine having gone through enough name changes to require a copy of Cliff's Notes for clarity and comprehension. She began as Little BriarvRose, later ;to be known as Talia, Briar Rose (apparently no being longer little), and Rosamond. Eventually, Walt Disney called here Aurora in his 1959 animated version of Sleeping Beauty.

The Last Sleep of Arthur in Avalon, 1881, Edward Burne-Jones
The Beguiling of Merlin, 1874,
Edward Burne-Jones
Briar Rose wasn't the only saga to be brought to life by Edward Burne-Jones (top). He gave similar visual reality to Pygmalion, King Arthur, Merlin, the Canterbury Tales, Cupid, Psyche, and any number of historic mythological, even religious figures. His stained glass windows created in tandem with fellow artist William Morris highlight figures from the Old Testament and, indeed, Jesus Christ as well. His images of King Arthur, Guenevere, and Merlin may have influenced T.H. White's Once and Future King, and thus could well have been instrumental in bringing Camelot to the London Stage. Burne-Jones dwelling on Pygmalion probably did the same with regard to George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion, and thus My Fair Lady. Though she was quite British, there's no indication he had anything to do with Mary Poppins.

Edward Burne-Jones and
William Morris, 1874

Edward Burne Jones (the hyphen came later) was born in 1833 in the city of Birmingham (central England). His father was a Welsh frame maker, his mother died when he was six days old. Thus the boy was raised by a single father and a doting, but dull, housekeeper. Burne-Jones' first inclination was to become a minister, not an artist. He studied theology at Exeter College where he first met William Morris (right), later to become a major proponent of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood of painters, but at the time, just another student like himself. They became life-long friends and eventually business partners. They both appreciated the art of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, liked to read poetry (Ruskin and Tennyson), and visit Medieval churches. Sounds like a fun group!

The Council Chamber, Buscot Park, 1872-92, Edward Burne-Jones.

The Golden Stairs, 1880, Edward Burne-Jones
In the mid-1850s, both men got to meet their idol, Rossetti This kingpin of the Pre-Raphaelites made quite an impression on them. Burne-Jones gave up theology to study art while Morris reaffirmed his desire to paint, though few of his works survive (he was interminably slow and meticulous in painting). Moreover, Morris had too many other interests to allow him much time to paint. He was, however, in love with the Pre-Raphaelites to a degree not shared by his friend, Burne-Jones. Though Burne-Jones painting style resembles that of he Pre-Raphaelites in some ways, as seen in his Council Chamber, Buscot Park (above) painted in the 1870s, the artist found the group to be sexually pomiscuous and intolerably fussy. Rossetti was a strong influence, but he was not God. But then, neither was Burne-Jones. His work, all his life, was controversial, not so much for what he painted but how he painted it. The British Victorians liked their painting to be straight-forward and realistic. To the Ruskin-reading Brits at the time, Burne-Jones was neither. Although to our eyes, the element of realism may be reasonable enough, it in no way matched their admiration for the Pre-Raphaelites. The illustrative qualities of Burne-Jones' The Golden Stairs (right) was especially ill-received.

David's Charge to Solomon, 1882, Trinity Church, Boston, Burne-Jones and Morris.
During the early 1860s Burne-Jones first partnered with William Morris and others in the latter's stained glass company, designing quite a number of windows for churches all over England and as far away as Boston where David's Charge to Solomon (above), dating from 1882, can be found. Later the company began producing tapestries. Burne-Jones was their in-house designer. He was also involved in creating illustrations, many of which were influenced by the Pre-Raphaelites. Ironically, though he was not one, their influence over his work helped bring the Pre-Raphaelite aesthetic style into the mainstream of British culture. Despite this, Burne-Jones differed fundamentally from the Pre-Raphaelites who considered the content of the paintning and its hyper-realistic rendering to be all important. For Burne-Jones, the concept of beauty was all-important, the painting having intrinsic value in its own right apart from any message, moral, or mystical meaning it might convey.

The Star of Bethlehem, 1890, Edward Burne-Jones
As quite often happens, Edward Burne-Jones outlived his fame. Art changed. He didn't. By the time of his death in 1898, his reputation was already in steep decline and it didn't improve at all during most of the 20th-century as Modern Art came to dominate virtually every aspect of the art world. Yet Burne-Jones' thinking as to art, beauty, and their intrinsic value were not far removed from that of Manet, Monet, Renoir, and his other French counterparts who were to lay the groundwork for Modern Art. Burne-Jones was not without influence in the arts, but it tended to be literary, writers such as J.R.R. Tolkien, Rudyard Kipling (who was his wife's cousin) and others mentioned above...and apparently Walt Disney too.


Edward Burne-Jones' first Pygmalion series (below) seems almost like a stop-action movie as he explores the progression of love from infatuation to consummation. All date from the 1870's and 80s.

The Hand Refrains
The Heart Desires
The Soul Attains

The Godhead Fires


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