There’s a couple of things that immediately hit you about the Edward Burne Jones retrospective at Tate Britain: first, there are a lot of paintings on display here. An impressive haul. And second, the man had a signature style, and boy, did he stick with it.
Whichever way you look and wherever you find yourself in these galleries you will be surrounded by richly toned and textured paintings of myth and legends. Impossibly beautiful princess and goddesses share their world with muscled knights in armour. Princes are perfectly proportioned, and their muses are ravishing beauties with long thick hair and their bodies wrapped in sensually draped tunics.
It’s the same image again and again and again. There’s almost forty years of the artist’s life on these walls and, as you wander through the galleries, you can’t help feeling the man must have been quite an eccentric.
I remember the glorious Joseph Cornell show at the RA a couple of years ago and you couldn’t help but come away feeling that the man himself must have been slightly odd to produce the works he did. I feel the same way about Burne Jones. This is a man who played dungeon and dragons each and every day for forty years through his works.
And you have to bear in mind the world that was going on outside his studio. This was Victorian Britain. It was a period of drastic social upheaval and industrial innovation. JMW Turner had just died but not a shadow of the revolutionary spirit – either in artistic terms or social and cultural is reflected in Burne Jones’s paintings. This seems to be a man who lived entirely in a parallel world of his own imagination.
And certainly, that imagination wasn’t interested in diverse representation. The whiteness in Edward’s paintings is blinding, yet notably Britain was not the blanket of whiteness many right-wingers would have you believe. But more than this, as I leant in to the famous The Golden Stairs, I realised the women spirits were not just white, each had blue eyes. I could not find one with even brown eyes.
The depiction of women generally isn’t great. Merlin and the Knights of the Round Table was a favourite myth to investigate for Edward and there are several paintings linked to that here, including ones where he is being seduced by Nimue, a student of his. Because obviously that dynamic of a pupil leading her teacher astray is not uncomfortable for us now.
But add to that, we have depictions of Nimue with serpents weaved in her hair – the serpent of the Nile tones all over again. The seductress, the temptress leading the good man astray… It doesn’t sit comfortably.
There is something beguiling about Edward’s works but, setting aside the misogyny and casual racism, they are charming rather than fascinating. Other commentators have said that the enigmatic nature of some of his works make them interesting. I cannot agree and can’t help but think that’s crediting Edward’s paintings with an asset they don’t really have.
Edward Burne Jones’s paintings are beautiful, nothing more. But they are a very narrow definition of beauty. The exhibition does seek to give weight and gravity to this artist who lacked formal training by emphasising what he learnt from the Renaissance Masters. But those artists achieved more than just idealistic representation – they also challenged and interrogated the human condition in a way that Edward’s works do not even attempt to do. I know Burne Jones’s works are popular but, for me, there is a limit to my appreciation of them.
Tate Britain, London, to February 24, 2019
Admission: £18 (concessions available)
1 Love Among the Ruins, 1870-3, watercolour, bodycolour, and gum Arabic on paper 96×152 cm. Private collection.
2 The Baleful Head, 1885, Bodycolour on paper, 153x129cm. Southampton City Art Gallery.
3 The Briar Wood, 1874-84. Oil paint on canvas. 125x231cm. The Faringdon Collection Trust.
4 The Rock of Doom, 1885-8, oil paint on canvas, 1550x1300mm. Staatsgalerie Stuttgart.