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Art review: Edward Burne-Jones: Pre-Raphaelite Visionary, at Tate Britain

21 December 2018

Jonathan Evens views the Burne-Jones and childhood exhibitions

Museum of London

Shaftesbury, Lost and Found by William MacDuff (1862), in the Guildhall exhibition

Shaftesbury, Lost and Found by William MacDuff (1862), in the Guildhall exhibition

A YOUNG shoeblack, wearing the uniform of the London Shoeblack Brigade, stands with a street urchin outside a printseller’s shop on Pall Mall, pointing to a print of Lord Shaftesbury. The London Shoeblack Brigade was founded by John MacGregor and Lord Shaftesbury in 1851 and, in this painting by William MacDuff, the young shoeblack is recruiting the “lost” younger boy into the safety of the Brigade. The Brigade made shoeblacks safe by regulating the way in which they made a living, giving uniforms, equipment, and regular street pitches, while also encouraging church attendance and moral instruction.

By 1862, when this picture was painted, Shaftesbury had been involved in legislation that sought to ensure that no child under 13 worked more than nine hours a day, that insisted that they should go to school, and that appointed inspectors to enforce the law. Shaftesbury had also been active in supporting legislation outlawing children from working as chimney sweeps, and both women and children from working underground in mines. As President of the Ragged School Union, which provided free education to poor children, he used his knowledge of the schools, the refuges, and his understanding of the living conditions among low-income families to pursue further changes in legislation.

Manchester Metropolitan University Special CollectionsAdoration of the Magi (1894), tapestry by Edward Burne-Jones, on loan to the Tate

MacDuff’s painting is essentially a piece of propaganda, a recruiting tool, for Shaftesbury’s vital work, and manipulates the sentimentality of Victorians in regard to the very real plight of children (a technique that is, of course, still used in charity advertising today). By offering us a visual narrative for the huge cultural shift in how society viewed, and treated, children over the course of the “long 19th century”, “Seen and Heard: Victorian Children in the Frame” plunges us into the maelstrom of innovation and exploitation, compassion and sentimentality, which characterised Victorian society.

Monty Python’s game “What have the Romans ever done for us?” is one that can also be played in regard to the Victorians. In relation to “Seen and Heard”, and “Edward Burne-Jones” at Tate Britain, we could note that it was the Victorians who gave us the concept of childhood, Christian Socialism, the Arts and Crafts, Aesthetic and Symbolist movements, the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, blockbuster exhibitions, and superstar artists.

While these are all significant achievements, often in response to perceived issues with the Industrial Revolution, that revolution with its concomitant exploitation of the poor in Britain and in the colonies colours our response to every Victorian development and achievement. The Victorian sentimentality foregrounded by “Seen and Heard” also problematises our response to the Victorians more generally, as it patronises while garnering support; the on-going debate about the value of hand-ups versus handouts.

That Edward Jones — Ned Jones to his fashionable friends — who was born into respectable poverty in Birmingham, and had little or no formal art training, could rise to be appointed a baronet and the first artist to be honoured with a memorial service at Westminster Abbey demonstrates the social mobility that was possible for those with energy, imagination, and talent in the Victorian era. Tate Britain’s exhibition, by bringing together more than 150 works in different media, including painting, stained glass, and tapestry, presents Burne-Jones as the polymath that he would have appeared to be to his contemporary audience; to whom he was a designer and decorative and fine artist with an exceptionally wide range of literary reference.

Guildhall Art GalleryMy Second Sermon by Sir John Everett Millais (1864), in the Guildhall exhibition

What makes one popular among one’s contemporaries is not necessarily what suits for a longer-term legacy, particularly when one’s style becomes ubiquitous, as occurred for Burne-Jones through a combination of factors with his stained glass designs for churches. Burne-Jones, in his own words, created in his works “a beautiful romantic dream of something that never was, never will be”. His visions are illusory, as they are based on a vision of the medieval which never existed.

They are based, too, on a very particular conception of beauty: the Pre-Raphaelite “stunner”. Finally, they are also based on egalitarian principles, held by William Morris, Burne-Jones, and their associates, which were thwarted in practice as the meticulous processes used to create their goods also made their products too expensive for all but the wealthy.

This inevitably affects our response to what are often inordinately beautiful images. In relation to an image such as Adoration of the Magi, included here in the version made for the Corporation of Manchester and now in the Manchester Metropolitan University Special Collection (News, 26 October), this is of particular significance. Most paintings of biblical scenes throughout church history have set those scenes in their contemporary milieux; in effect, they incarnate these scenes in everyday life, exemplifying a synergy with the purpose and dynamism of the incarnation itself.

In contrast, the early Pre-Raphaelites used an almost photo-realistic style to depict biblical scenes in what they understood to be the actual setting of those scenes. To do so involved a significant degree of interpretation, rendering such images, despite their beauty and energy, more imaginary than realistic.

Burne-Jones then took this a step further by locating his Adoration in his interpretation of the milieu depicted by artists preceding Raphael, resulting in an image of the incarnation which, while having many wonderful qualities, is not incarnate in and of itself because its setting is, in the words of Burne-Jones, “a beautiful romantic dream of something that never was”.

Burne-Jones, as in much of his fine art, was following the example of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, in whose studio he was a pupil at an early stage in his career, using artifice to create a visual poetry of mood and romance. This second strand of Pre-Raphaelitism led directly to the Aesthetic Movement. The original strand of Pre-Raphaelitism was always better suited to contemporary subjects, such as, for example, in the pair of paintings by John Everett Millais, My First Sermon and My Second Sermon (News, 16 November) included in “Seen and Heard”.

Burne-Jones, while focusing primarily on the second strand, could, nevertheless, also work effectively in the earlier style, as is demonstrated in the Tate Britain exhibition by the inclusion of Portrait of Katie Lewis. In common with the Millais paintings, this image is based on close observation and studies of the actual behaviour of children, as opposed to the formalised images that had characterised the painting of children up to this point. Portrait of Katie Lewis fits the argument of “Seen and Heard” exactly, as Burne-Jones depicts this child as a child with the right to play, learn, and explore, unselfconsciously absorbed in the romance of St George and the Dragon.

Private collectionLove among the Ruins (1870-73) by Edward Burne-Jones, in the Tate exhibition

The curators of “Seen and Heard” recognise that the freedom to be a child which Burne-Jones captures in Portrait of Katie Lewis was, at this time, primarily the preserve of the wealthy. Their wall labels consistently draw attention to the reality of urban and rural poverty, and to significant political turmoil, when describing paintings showing children at play in rural idylls. Generally, however, the works collected in this exhibition are not realistic when depicting poverty.

The aim of George Dunlop Leslie seems typical of the time. Dunlop sought “to paint pictures from the sunny side of English domestic life, and as much as possible to render them cheerful companions to their possessors”. He saw the times he lived in as “imbued with turmoil and misery, hard work and utilitarianism”, and believed that images of innocence, joy, and beauty were things that he could usefully contribute to society.

At this time, paintings depicting working-class children were often criticised as either overly romanticised, and thus “untrue to life”, or if realistic, written off as aesthetically unpleasant and undesirable. This left artists such as Thomas Benjamin Kennington, who painted compelling pictures of the urban poor, as in Orphans, in a minority while others like MacDuff, William Powell Frith, and Augustus E. Mulready happily used sentiment rather than realism to influence the public mood.

Burne-Jones occupies a different space: that of fantasy, which, as J. R. R. Tolkien explained, is about sub-creation, the “making or glimpsing of Other-worlds”, the artist as a creator of alternate realities.

This is Burne-Jones’s great achievement in a series of paintings based primarily on Greek myth and Arthurian legends and exhibited at the Grosvenor and New Galleries between 1877 and 1898. These works, which include Love among the Ruins, King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid, and Love leading the Pilgrim, inspired symbolist artists across Europe from Fernand Khnopff to Pablo Picasso, because of the fully realised nature of the worlds depicted.

When Burne-Jones says, “I mean by a picture a beautiful romantic dream of something that never was, never will be,” it sounds like Dunlop’s avoidance of reality; but Burne-Jones’s intent, through his creation of fully realised Other-worlds, is that, like Katie Lewis absorbed in the legend of St George and the Dragon, we come to desire for this world “a light better than any light that ever shone”, and beauty that “softens, and comforts, and inspires, and rouses and lifts up, and never fails”.

It is this ability for which Burne-Jones can rightly be celebrated. By its sub-creation, his work transcends the romanticising and sentimentalising of reality which was so much a feature of Victorian art, to inspire the realisation of a world in which, through the efforts of those such as Shaftesbury and the artists who supported his campaigns, destitution and exploitation of children could begin to be addressed, and universal education provided.


“Edward Burne-Jones: Pre-Raphaelite Visionary” is at Tate Britain, until 24 February 2019. Phone 020 7887 8888. www.tate.org.uk

“Seen and Heard: Victorian Children in the Frame” is at Guildhall Art Gallery, Guildhall Yard, London EC2, until 28 April 2019. Phone 020 7332 3700. www.cityoflondon.gov.uk

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