I was revisited by this impression when I was doing some work on Arthur Balfour recently. Some of you may remember him from my post on the Souls group and Burne-Jones. 'King' Arthur was a huge fan of Burne-Jones and commissioned paintings on the story of Perseus for his home in Carlton Gardens.
|The Doom Fulfilled (1888) Edward Burne-Jones|
While I'm not in the mood to repeat the gossip about Arthur Balfour, if I report he was an unmarried gentleman I'm sure you can guess part of what was discussed (although there is a whole other raft of gossip about him being a hermaphrodite, which is just plain puzzling). As Mr Bridgeman MP said, the man and his choice of art were 'anaemic' and 'unmanly'.
I turned to Percy Bate's account of the Pre-Raphaelites in his turn of the 20th century book, to see his opinion. He dedicates an entire chapter to Burne-Jones, and his opinion is that Ned was an important component in what we understand to be Pre-Raphaelite art and its development. He does allude to the more negative aspects of opinion against the artist: 'All through his long career he was constant to one ideal and that ideal he expressed perfectly...to many his sexless figures and wan faces seem morbid and unpleasing.' Again, the idea of bloodless, pale, almost ill figures and the notion of 'sexless' which brings me back to the rumours of Balfour. Bate places Burne-Jones beside Rossetti, not as a contrast but as a compliment, but Rossetti is seen naturally as redblooded, full of life, straining at the lease of sexuality. Ned is 'delicate fancy', perfect but removed from the world and all it holds, including sexuality.
Is there a hidden fear or suspicion of Ned Burne-Jones in these early 20th century criticisms? Even when they are positive, is there a need to defend what he portrays as being 'a removed perfection', and not of this world? And what is it that we should be wary of? I decided to look to see if there was any hint of this before Burne-Jones died...
|Illustration from the 1885 programme of Patience|
|Aesthetic teapot from 1882|
|The Golden Stairs (1876-80)|
As it turns out, Ned knew both of the most 'notorious' gay men of the artistic circle, not counting Balfour (who also may have been conducting an S&M affair with the wife of a fellow Soul. Blimey, he was a busy man!). He was close to both Simeon Solomon and Oscar Wilde, the former being a friend from their early painting years, and the latter seeking him out because of his art. It seems to be true that Ned refused to cut all ties with Solomon even after his arrests. While expressing a dislike of the sin, he couldn't condemn the sinner and even when Solomon broke into his house, Ned refused to press charges. While the others of the circle cut off ties and were quick to decry Simeon Solomon, Ned seems to only felt sadness at his friend's fall into destitution.
His response to Oscar Wilde was more reactive and fearful, but this possibly speaks of the comparative depth of their relationship. While Ned was flattered by the attention and praise of Wilde when he was a figure in vogue, when he was found guilty of gross indecency with two male prostitutes in 1895 Burne-Jones wondered why he didn't have 'the common courage to shoot himself - I looked eagerly for it but it didn't happen...' It can be supposed that rather than a disgust in the homosexual acts, what upset the sensitive Burne-Jones the most was the bringing into disrepute and scandal the aesthetic movement to which he had dedicated a large part of his life. He relented in his attitude to Oscar the following year, giving money to Constance Wilde and speaking kindly of Oscar shortly before his release. No matter how torn Ned may have felt in his feelings, his name and Wilde's would forever be joined through the movement to which they had both so richly contributed. The teapot of the aesthetic poet strikes the most cliched attitude of effeminacy and speaks of the unmanly, a term applied so readily to the art of Burne-Jones.
Hang on though, the last thing I would think of Burne-Jones was that he was secretly gay. I mean, where would he find the time with all the womanising? Mind you, apart from the business with Maria Zambaco, Burne-Jones' love of the ladies was covered up both at the time and, until recently, in his posthumous biography. If his lovelife is not open for discussion, then what are you left with but canvas after canvas of androgynous figures, pale and clinging. When Willie Bridgeman turned his suspicious eye upon the canvases, he saw the 'unmanly', the deviant. When Carlos Peacock looked at the canvases almost half a century later, he agreed. So what is the danger of the gentle Burne-Jones?
|The Last Sleep of Arthur (1898)|
As I said at the beginning of this post, I don't have the answer, but I think it's an interesting aspect to the history of Burne-Jones' criticism and the need to comprehend his place in art and society. I wonder what Burne-Jones would have made of the suspicion towards his work? I suspect he would have despaired at his unworldly work being applied so roughly to our crude scratchings in the lives of others. Poor old Ned.