Saturday, 18 August 2012

The Danger of Burne-Jones

I apologise in advance as this is not one of my easier posts, but more one filled with wonderings and questions.  I began my wonderings when I was reading the interesting opinions of Carlos Peacock in my post about the 1951 exhibition of Pre-Raphaelite art in Bournemouth.  His rather sneering dislike of Burne-Jones surprised me, seeing as he was fair and level with the other artists.  The phrases 'bloodless aestheticism' and 'necromantic' 'wan ghosts' seem judgemental and worse, a sense that there is something 'wrong' with Burne-Jones that is not present in the rest of the Pre-Raphaelite movement.

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
When Balfour became Prime Minister, he took his beloved Burne-Jones canvases to Downing Street and hung them in No.10.  Unionist MP Willie Bridgeman complained of their presence, stating the 'anaemic and unmanly forms' gave the meeting a 'nerveless and flabby character' which was 'painfully symbolic of their owner'.

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 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
The 1881 Gilbert and Sullivan opera Patience is a satire and mockery of the aesthetic movement, where thinly-veiled versions of Rossetti, Swinburne and Whistler are made gentle fun of, while ladies drift around in aesthetic dress.  In later performances, the figure of Oscar Wilde became a more distinct target of its mockery, as he seemed to personify the spirit of the aesthetic young man...

Aesthetic teapot from 1882
While Burne-Jones was not a direct target of the opera, one scene had the ladies coming down a flight of stairs that was said to loudly echo his painting, The Golden Stairs.

The Golden Stairs (1876-80)
The opera shows the aesthetic gentlemen being attractive to the women but too self-involved and silly and end up with no woman at all (which is what Bunthorne claims he wants).  The retrospective application to Wilde gives an added dimension as to why the gentlemen may not wish to marry and taking a look at that teapot it all seems very crude and childish these days.  While it is almost certain the Gilbert and Sullivan in 1881 meant no allusion to homosexuality, could later productions have hinted at it, after the trial of Wilde?  Did any of the scandal rub off on Burne-Jones?

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)
Now that is the question.  Of all the figures from the Pre-Raphaelite movement, of all the controversies, the adultery, the suicide, the rise and fall, why should Edward Burne-Jones, occasional womaniser, workaholic, elder statesman, be the one that puts people on guard?  It is not simply the 'unfashionable' nature of Burne-Jones' work that is commented on, it is the 'bloodless' and 'unhealthy' nature of the work, as if the canvases could harm.  Indeed Bridgeman fears that the influence of the Perseus canvases affected the meeting, taking away the positive 'male' virtues of progress and courage.  I'm not sure that the inference is that the Burne-Jones canvases were feminine, more that they, like Balfour, had the hint of sexless inertia.  Did the Edwardians fear that more than homosexuality?

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.


  1. I personally never could see the "deathly" and "unmanly" characteristics of Burne-Jones' figures. The women and men seem healthy, (if pale, but I myself have naturally pallid complexion, similar to the faces of his women, and no one thinks me "necrous") and their faces are intelligent, and the male heroes are thin and lithe rather than excessively muscular. To my mind they seem ethereal, not in figure but in their expression. Some of them seem to be looking through us - ignoring our pale and shadowed world, instead seeing the peerless splendour of Burne-Jones' inner imaginings. Perhaps that is what the critics fear - the idea that the world they are so wrapped up in simply does not matter, neither to Burne-Jones, nor to the figures in his paintings. Neither are expressionless, as they are wrongly criticised, but full of a burning intensity that is focused entirely in their eyes.Take "The Beguiling of Merlin". No one with half an eye could possibly call Merlin's face "expressionless". Look at Perseus - if he is "unmanly" then so are many of the most attractive men alive today. (Tom Hiddleston for example). These critics have shallow perception, biased viewpoints and secret fears, yet they are given credence when they lampoon such a great artist.

  2. Poor Ned indeed! All he wanted was to share a glimpse of his inner landscape with the world. Any sort of sexless or inert quality I've seen in his work I've always simply attributed to its dreamlike quality...literally. The figures move through dreamscapes. And as a fellow dreamer, I don't mind that at all. ;)

    I did a brief post four years ago on homosexuality and the PRB, but this is soooo much better. :)

  3. I always thought of Burne-Jones as artistically bisexual (despite his having a physical affinity for the ladies) because he gives equal time to the beauty of his male and female subjects. There is a lot of himself as well in all his paintings' "characters" (the writer W.Graham Robertson mentions noticing that when he met him in purpose for the first time: "His face with its great width across the eyes and brows, tapering oddly towards the chin, was strangely like his own pictorial type; its intense pallor gave it a luminous appearance added to by his large grey-blue eyes and silvered hair...") So he was really painting variations of himself in his dreamworld.

    Robertson's book "Time Was" (that I just found a used copy of) has an excellent chapter about his friendship with Burne-Jones and writes about Ned's gentle personality and working style. No surprise, Robertson was also a friend of Oscar Wilde's and he was the illustrator for the first edition of The Wind in the Willows.)

  4. Thank you for your comments. This was one of the most tricksy posts to write because I find it hard to grapple with people's fears over such a private thing. The things said about Balfour (and by extension BJ) defy belief. I wonder however if we are really so much better, lord knows we are obsessed with if actors are straight or gay, for example.

    Oh, and Tom Hiddleston.... *sigh*

  5. A fascinating blog ~ thank you ~ I shall reflect and review more on the topic ~ I love his work and find it 'otherworldly' rather than anaemic etc

  6. Hi Kirsty,I have nor been checking my favourite blogs lately to my own loss! I am now unwell and have got to the stage when I am nearly better and get grouchy with everyone else in the house,mostly Mr bell who has been lovely cooking boil in the bag things(He is no cook)So I am catching up and I have really enjoyed your last few posts so much.Your wit and humour are a tonic and I love the old pre Raphs etc so much.When I read the latest biog of Burne Jones I must admit I thoughht I might have wanted to box his ears for the way he treated little Georgie and the soppy way he went on about his Greek amore but if William Morris had time for him then he must have had some redeeming features.If William and Georgie had really got it together would they have been happy,they both had a social conscience and worked hard. trying to plan a trip to Kelmscott Manor in September ,one of my pilgrimage spots meanwhile as I sit wanly in my bed you have cheered me up ,thanks Kirsty all the best Angela.

  7. Thanks for the comments. Angela, get well soon! I wonder if we are forever unable to separate the painter from the painting, hence our eternal struggle to 'know' them, inside and out. I feel it is wrong of critics to say that just because he could paint a good looking man well, he was gay. In that case you should never leave Stubbs alone in a stable. I find my cake-stand beautiful, but I have no desire to lure it into bed (unless it is weighed down with a big jam sponge, and that is entirely different).

  8. Indeed ! I am feeling a bit better thanks.A good question that. We all have our funny little ways!! love Angela

  9. What an interesting post! It's very easy to forget, in this age of tabloid papers and Twitter, how prevalent hurtful and ugly gossip has always been in human society. And yet it goes back all the way. I can't help feeling that one of the reasons Ned's paintings attracted certain comments is that they were so often held up to Rossetti's - and some people just couldn't (or wouldn't) see past the subtle and paled palette of one painter compared to the saturation of the other! But that teapot is just vicious.

  10. Oh, and yes - Tom Hiddleston....

  11. Indeed, Tom Hiddleston. I was about to say that I didn't think we'd be so crass and weird as to whisper that so-and-so was a hermaphrodite these days, but I've heard that said recently about a certain popular female singer, so maybe we've not moved on at all. I think that people did struggle to comprehend how Ned could have come from Rossetti, but inspiration is a wondrous and mysterious thing. And it's not *always* to do with who is poking who.

  12. Good to see some sister-Hiddlestoners here. We have good taste! But still, there are some fools in the entertainment business and public who say he's unattractive because his slim but strong build is "weedy" and his face "girly". Honestly. Can you believe it? Well, from this article, I think they're all of the same breed, the descendants of the critics.

    The comment about comparing Rossetti and Burne-Jones - the comparison is easier when one looks at the earlier works of both painters. The subject and composition of the paintings are very similar, but then Burne-Jones went to Italy and took inspiration from Michelangelo and his style evolved, while Rossetti's diverged in a different direction.

  13. There's a curiously bloodless sensuality in B-J's painting: on the one hand, he stands out from the pre-Raphs as a painter of nudes, but on the other hand there's just something about a lot of his paintings that inspires one to take a nice nap. I also get the impression that, well, he really just wasn't that interested in men as subjects. Or for that matter, faces. Rosetti obviously loved to paint the face and its expressions; B-J seems to have fallen back on some early image of Georgie 90% of the time.

    I love The Doom Fulfilled, BTW, but Andromeda seems to be looking on as if she were contemplating a new purse in a shop window.

  14. I like to think that Andromeda is trying to remember the moment that morning when she thought it was a good move not to wear any pants.

    Thanks for the comments :)

  15. My wife says, "She's wondering whether there's enough skin on that serpent for matching shoes and a purse."


Many thanks for your comment. I shall post it up shortly! Kx