As­sess­ing Burne-jones

On the eve of a ma­jor new Burne-jones show, Jonathan Meades finds the Pre-raphaelite deca­dent and rich in fetishes and strange sex­u­al­ity

The Oldie - - CONTENTS - Jonathan Meades

Acer­tain caste of 19th-cen­tury aes­thete was pre­oc­cu­pied by the lack of an ar­chi­tec­ture pe­cu­liar to the age. Among the most clam­orously fret­ful crit­ics was Thomas ‘Vic­to­rian’ Har­ris (1829-1900) who owed his so­bri­quet to hav­ing made of the monarch an ad­jec­tive. He and his kin rued the way ar­chi­tec­ture had been re­duced to ex­te­rior dec­o­ra­tion: a clas­si­cal cloak about an iron of­fice build­ing, a Byzan­tine man­tle about an iron rail­way sta­tion. While en­gi­neers’ struc­tural meth­ods were con­stantly ex­per­i­men­tal and evolv­ing, the ar­chi­tect’s life was spent speed­ing into the past, rum­mag­ing in the dress­ing-up box of the ages.

Ini­tially this pro­duced an ar­chae­o­log­i­cally cor­rect copy­ism – what Wil­liam Hol­man Hunt called ‘seek­ing af­ter dry bones’. He and a group of young painters – who would be­come the Pre-raphaelite Broth­er­hood – felt they were faced with the same prob­lem as ar­chi­tects whose way out of the cul de sac of re­vival­ism in the early 1850s was to mix mo­tifs from dif­fer­ent eras, as though chance and in­dis­crim­i­nacy would mag­i­cally pro­duce an ar­chi­tec­ture of moder­nity fit for the age of tele­phones and steam and sewing ma­chines.

And be­fore those fret­ful crit­ics’ un­see­ing, un­ac­knowl­edg­ing eyes, chance and in­dis­crim­i­na­tion did just that. The het­eroge­nous styles of the age still ex­cluded en­gi­neer­ing as be­ing sub­servient to ar­chi­tec­ture, a ser­vant. But they also went far beyond re­vival­ism. This ar­chi­tec­ture was a com­pos­ite, a syn­the­sis that rev­elled in ahis­tor­i­cal col­li­sions and coun­ter­in­tu­itive jux­ta­po­si­tions. The great­est High Vic­to­rian ar­chi­tects, the supreme au­thors of the ‘modern Gothic’ – But­ter­field, Teu­lon, Pilk­ing­ton – were ma­ture (and of­ten bru­tal) po­ets who stole shame­lessly and cre­ated, as Eliot would have it, some­thing ‘ut­terly dif­fer­ent from that from which it was torn’.

Revenants from the mud and piety of 400 or 500 years be­fore would not have recog­nised, say, Ke­ble Col­lege, El­vetham Hall and the Bar­clay Brunts­field Church as hav­ing any­thing to do with the few grand build­ings they’d seen in their short lives. They are works of brico­lage, ut­terly dif­fer­ent from the sources of their in­con­gru­ous com­po­nents.

The name Pre-raphaelite Broth­er­hood was a typ­i­cally youth­ful provo­ca­tion: an in­cite­ment to per­suade the art world that the lead­ers of the tyro pack, John Everett Mil­lais, Wil­liam Hol­man Hunt and Dante Gabriel Ros­setti, were new, fresh and ready to bury Joshua Reynolds and the stale academy. The link to the art of the 14th and 15th cen­turies was frail. The pe­riod of ap­prox­i­mate copy­ism was brief.

Revenants would have been ini­tially be­wil­dered by the ris­i­ble, pinch­beck me­dieval­ism. They would sub­se­quently, in a blind tast­ing, have been hard­pressed to dis­tin­guish be­tween a PRB por­trait of a ‘stun­ner’ (their word) with big hair, a Pitt-hop­kins mouth and a sim­u­lacrum of Si­mon­etta Ve­spucci’s sump­tu­ous clothes, and a por­trait of a sim­i­lar sub­ject painted by a non-joiner in the gang whose de­vi­a­tion from its self-im­posed rules was pre­dictable.

The break with the past was il­lu­sory. So is the clichéd no­tion, pre­dictably sub­scribed to by Tate Britain’s cu­ra­toc­racy at the time of the gallery’s 2012 ex­hi­bi­tion, that the PRB was ‘avant garde’ and that its mem­bers were ‘rebels’; when rather, as Wyn­d­ham Lewis said, mu­tatis mu­tan­dis, of the Sitwells, ‘They be­long to the his­tory of public­ity rather than of po­etry.’

Within a few years of the broth­er­hood’s foun­da­tion, Pre-raphaelitism had fused with the main­stream and in­cluded nov­el­et­tish li­aisons, snows­capes with sheep, Vik­ings, mildly erotic nuns, dells and glades full of fairies, ge­o­log­i­cal stud­ies, agrar­ian (though sel­dom ur­ban) squalor, stagey, his­tor­i­cal mawk­ish­ness and de­lib­er­ately mod­est land­scapes. Most of these works are il­lus­tra­tive and moral­is­tic; most are achieved with slick pre­ci­sion and height­ened nat­u­ral­ism; most are in­fected by the plague of nar­ra­tive; many of them are con­tam­i­nated by coy au­dac­ity.

Be­side his PRB con­tem­po­raries, Ed­ward Burne-jones is a breath of rank air, an or­chi­da­ceously foetid zephyr. He was prob­a­bly truer to the Broth­er­hood’s shift­ing and ret­ro­spec­tively mu­tat­ing pre­cepts than the three orig­i­nal mem­bers. He was cer­tainly the first English pain­ter since Con­sta­ble and Turner of any­thing other than parochial stature. While those two were the out­doorsy fore­bears of J-F Mil­let, Corot and the Bar­bizon school, Burne-jones’s epigoni were crea­tures of the hot­house, a bunch of ex­otics and poly­mor­phous per­verts – which he wasn’t. Save for a fling with the ex­citable Greek sculp­tress Maria Zam­baco Cas­savetti, he was du­ti­fully ux­o­ri­ous.

There is some­thing of the pathol­ogy of the out­sider artist about him. The world he cre­ated was a world apart – an

os­ten­ta­tious ar­ti­fice. It was a re­cur­ring dream or night­mare pe­cu­liar to him. What was in­side his head had only the most ten­u­ous ac­quain­tance with any sort of ex­ter­nal ac­tu­al­ity. His work was au­ton­o­mous, ob­ses­sive and zeal­ously self-pla­gia­ris­ing. Be­cause it refers to lit­tle but it­self, it is not emo­tion­ally en­gag­ing: it doesn’t cheer; it doesn’t har­row. It has the pro­fun­dity of a greet­ings card.

He in­de­fati­ga­bly re­painted the same pla­nar com­po­si­tions whose claus­trophilia is oc­ca­sion­ally mit­i­gated by an aper­ture grudg­ingly ac­knowl­edg­ing an ex­te­rior world. More of­ten there’s no breath­ing space. The crowded frame is filled and over­whelm­ing as it would be in Pa­trice Chéreau’s La Reine Mar­got. Per­spec­tive is not in­vari­ably heeded. The same fig­ures are re­vis­ited over and again – fig­ures that are ex­ag­ger­at­edly an­drog­y­nous wraiths con­torted into ab­nor­mal pos­tures. They are beau­ti­ful freaks; his beau­ti­ful freaks. They are far from Ros­setti’s ob­jects of straight­for­ward lust and car­nal slaver­ing.

If Burne-jones’s man­nered fig­ures

Phyl­lis and De­mophoon (1870) – Dead Phyl­lis blos­soms as an al­mond tree when er­rant lover De­mophoon rushes to her

had a nat­u­ral habi­tat – and nat­u­ral is an ill-ad­vised word in these cir­cum­stances – it would be the mir­rored dun­geons within mir­rored dun­geons in a dark palace of fetishism and unortho­dox sex­u­al­ity. But that would be to pre­sume a can­dour in a so­ci­ety that kept its abun­dant pornog­ra­phy locked in the li­brary.

As Wal­ter Sick­ert, an im­prob­a­ble ad­mirer, wrote al­most 30 years af­ter Burne-jones’s death: ‘The ex­i­gen­cies of the reign of Queen Vic­to­ria dic­tated drap­ery as a nec­es­sary veil for the fig­ure... nine tenths of the peo­ple of Eng­land knew Burne-jones through the dis­tort­ing medium of Punch’s stu­pidi­ties.’ Small won­der, then, that Vic­to­rian painters were so adept at rep­re­sent­ing self-cen­sor­ing folds of chif­fon, or­ganza and taffeta.

It was also pro­fes­sional ne­ces­sity to go easy on zoophilia, Jezebels in chains, phal­lic-shaped rocks, leer­ing satyrs, nymphs, latex ar­mour, ra­pa­cious mer­men and wide-girth snakes and sea worms – ‘grotesque, slimed, dumb, in­dif­fer­ent’ (Hardy). Painters who worked in less pro­scrip­tive so­ci­eties – Gus­tave Moreau, Fer­nand Khnopff, Féli­cien Rops, Arnold Böck­lin – were not obliged to sup­press their fan­tasies of mephitic ‘deca­dence’ and mas­tur­ba­tory mor­bid­ity to the same de­gree. They showed – Burne-jones could only hint.

That con­straint was to his ad­van­tage. It was his am­bi­tion to make paint­ings that said noth­ing, which were mute ob­jects. They were pure pat­tern – as un­com­mu­nica­tive and am­bigu­ous as the modern Gothic which, by the mid-1870s, was go­ing out of fash­ion, to be re­placed by yet an­other bout of re­vival­ism; this time of ver­nac­u­lar build­ings with folksy ‘roots’ in Merry English soil.

Burne-jones en­dured longer. But, although he and his life­long friend and busi­ness part­ner, Wil­liam Mor­ris, were com­plicit in found­ing the arts and crafts move­ment, he was at odds with English paint­ing of the very late 19th cen­tury which was a re­ac­tion to rig­or­ously for­mal­is­tic de­sign: looser, un­but­toned, less for­mu­laic and less pro­gram­matic than what pre­ceded it. It ad­dresses some­thing out­side it­self. It looks at the world.

‘Deca­dence’, on the other hand, from Burne-jones to X-cer­tifi­cate es­capists such as Moreau, is in­cu­ri­ous and in­grown – a dec­o­ra­tive ver­ruca.

‘Ed­ward Burne-jones’ is at Tate Britain, 24th Oc­to­ber-24th Feb­ru­ary 2019

Desiderium (1873) – or Amorous De­sire, from Spenser’s The Faerie Queene

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