In his traditional Christmas blog, Dr Mark Stocker, Curator Historical International Art, looks at the fabulous artist Edward Burne-Jones and how some fascinating items in Te Papa’s collection relate to him and his inspiration.
Edward Burne-Jones (1833–98) is one of my favourite artists. Two months ago and the week before the opening, I was given a very exclusive run of his Tate Britain exhibition, which beautiful people – and people with an eye for beauty – are now enjoying in London. Jimmy Page, A-list rock star and Burne-Jones collector, was there too – but hey, this is an art history blog, not a gossip column!
From Perseus to Picasso
Burne-Jones’s world is one where Perseus, Pygmalion, Pan, and Psyche preside. His art has tiny, fiddly beginnings but culminates in huge, majestic paintings, tapestries, and stained glass windows that made him an idol of a certain precocious teenage artist: Pablo Picasso. That, though, is another story…
Burne-Jones wants us to join him on his spiritual journey. He stated: ‘I want big things to do, and vast spaces, and for common people to see them and say Oh!’ Only today, the same people say ‘Wow!’
Here’s another revealing artist’s statement: ‘I mean by a picture 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.’ The exhibits at Tate Britain admirably live up to these aspirations.
Burne-Jones in New Zealand
Burne-Jones is represented in New Zealand public collections by several significant works: Dunedin Public Art Gallery has an outstanding painting, Hope, while the Auckland Art Gallery is the showroom for The car of love, a grand but unfinished drawing.
Te Papa owns an object that initially seems modest, a little sketchbook made on Burne-Jones’s visit to Italy in 1871. The pad cost him just one shilling (10 cents) and the price is still clearly visible. With the added pencil sketches – hundreds of them – it is worth rather more than that today!
Te Papa’s sketchbook
Our sketchbook is a window into Burne-Jones’s quirky personality and the way he ticked as an artist. He loves the Piero della Francesca frescoes in Arezzo and hates the special effects of Bernini’s Roman baroque architecture and sculpture. But he says of the Roman people: ‘No men or women look out of their eyes as they do’.
More important, the humblest of preliminary observations and sketches would be worked up into major paintings in the years ahead, making him a star of the late Victorian art world.
Here I can only give you a taste of how this happened. Burne-Jones was enchanted by the volcanic Italian landscape and how its plains alternated with dramatic hills and hill-towns, as well as its fig and olive trees. His original pencil studies of olives were modified and incorporated into a famous painting that rapidly followed on from Italy, The beguiling of Merlin.
The improbably tall but narrow urban architecture of Orvieto provided a perfect backdrop for correspondingly elongated, slender maidens, as we can see in comparing Burne-Jones’s notes and observations of doorways, alleyways and courtyards with his subsequent painting The Annunciation.
Burne-Jones was intrigued by what he described as an ‘Etruscan’ marble tomb, then located in the Capitoline Museum, Rome. It features a girl recumbent in eternal sleep, and holding poppies, which he notes as symbolising death. His source still needs identification, but Dr Nigel Spivey of Cambridge University is on to the case!
What struck me was the connection between the tomb figure and Burne-Jones’s enchanted world of soporific princesses and courtiers in his celebrated Briar Rose series, based on the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale. Burne-Jones isn’t the first artist to make something highly original out of far more ancient sources.
Although the sketchbook is the sole work in Te Papa by the artist’s hand, the collection also has four remarkable embroidered needlework panels directly inspired by his paintings, and originally intended to function as door hangings. As the Tate Britain exhibition shows, Burne-Jones was as much a multi-media designer and craftsman, lifelong friend of William Morris, as he was a painter.
The first pair of panels we will admire is Poesis and Musica (translations not provided!) which were specially designed by Burne-Jones for the Royal School of Art Needlework (RSAN), founded by his aristocratic friend and admirer, Madeleine Wyndham.
The original Poesis embroidery dates from 1875, and the first record of her sister panel Musica appears the following year. The RSAN embroideries are a vibrant and convincing reflection of his aesthetic, attesting to its beauty and versatility. Burne-Jones knew that his designs would be executed to the highest standards in a medium highly responsive to his combination of line and colour and he was not disappointed.
My dear Lady Jane
Te Papa’s pair, by another aristocratic mainstay of the RSAN, Jane Gordon, Lady Cory (1866–1947), came into our collection following her death. Lady Cory attended the private view of the recently deceased Burne-Jones’s retrospective exhibition at the New Gallery, London (1898) but no doubt her admiration for him was long-standing.
In 1906, she borrowed the RSAN’s copy of Musica as her model and its progress took up the next seven and a half months of her life. Prior to making it, she had five hours of special instruction on working the face and hands, as she disliked the ‘short cut’ trend of painting in the flesh areas.
Completed just two years later, Poesis was regarded by critics as an even greater success than Musica. Our panel was exhibited at the women’s section at the Franco-British Exhibition, London, in 1908. Lady Cory wouldn’t have anticipated it, but this distinguished provenance is resonant today when Te Papa emphasises and showcases women’s art, past and present.
Pomona and Flora
Although Musica and Poesis have a subtly beautiful pallor – they’re a veritable Piero della Francesca in needlework – I personally prefer the richer, more full on splendour of two further panels by Lady Cory after Burne-Jones, Pomona and Flora.
Naturally, I was pleased to see an earlier version of Pomona currently on display at Tate Britain. However, it had the painted faces and hands applied by Burne-Jones, with the needlewomen stitching around his brushwork.
I was tempted to tell all the designers and curators around me, and indeed Jimmy Page himself, that Te Papa’s version was truer to its medium and material, and was 100% by the hand of Lady Cory. But as I was Tate Britain’s guest, I instead drank in the art, feeling the better for it.
Burne-Jones, Christianity and Christmas
Burne-Jones lived through the age of Charles Darwin and the Victorian crisis of faith. Together with his fellow Oxford University student William Morris, he originally intended to train as an Anglican clergyman, but instead found a new faith and mission in art.
Burne-Jones certainly didn’t jettison religion altogether, declaring: ‘I love Christmas carol Christianity. I couldn’t do without medieval Christianity’. Some true believers may sneer but I for one completely identify with this sentiment. I felt similar thoughts when I would attend choral evensong many years ago as a student at King’s College, Cambridge and contemplate the fan vaulting and stained glass.
I will leave you with this sumptuous Burne-Jones tapestry, The adoration of the Magi.
I am very grateful to Dr Lynn Hulse for sharing her immense fund of knowledge on needlework inspired by Burne-Jones.
For further reading, go to: Mark Stocker, ‘Educating Jonathan Jones: Seven things you need to know about Burne-Jones’, The Victorian Web