Edward Burne-Jones' vision had a wide influence. Matthew Sturgis looks at the genesis of the artist who became a star of the Aesthetic Movement
On the evening of 7 May 1877, New Bond Street was thronging with the fashionable, the wealthy, the informed and the curious. The Prince and Princess of Wales were expected. The undergraduate Oscar Wilde was there in a coat tailored to look like a cello. It was the gala opening of the Grosvenor Gallery – a daring new artistic venture that would alter the cultural landscape of the capital forever.
Set up as an independent rival to the staid Royal Academy by the wealthy Sir Coutts Lindsay and his wife, Blanche, it was to be a new sort of exhibition space: tasteful and informal, with the artworks given due space and shown among fine pieces of furniture. It was less a gallery than a Temple of Art. And the art in the temple was – by the standards of Britain in the 1870s – to be most daring. There were works by the radical 'impressionist' James McNeill Whistler, by William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais, by the idealising G.F. Watts and the classicising Frederic Leighton.
In pride of place, though, were eight works by the 43-year-old Edward Burne-Jones. He was the star of the show. He had not exhibited publicly for seven years, and here he was at full force, with his intense visions of Arthurian romance and Classical mythology.
At the centre of his display – on the crimson damask-covered end wall – were the six panels of The Days of Creation. The work showed the creation of the world: in the first panel an angel held a crystal globe in which could be seen the light separating from the darkness; in the next, a second angel had come to the fore, holding a globe in which the Heavens and the Earth were revealed. And so the sequence continued – and the crowd of angels grew – until the sixth day, on which a sixth angel stands before the others with a globe containing the images of Adam and Eve, while at his feet kneels the angel
of the seventh day, holding a golden lyre.
It is a work of sumptuous richness and light, executed in watercolour and gouache – and gold and platinum paint – on six linen-covered panels (each about 41 inches tall). Burne-Jones had begun it some six years before, after one of his tours of Italy. He had returned from Tuscany and Umbria lit up by the wonders of Italian Quattrocento painting: Botticelli, Fra Angelico, Piero della Francesca. And the spirit of these early Renaissance masters infuses the work.
In a list of projects in hand that Burne-Jones jotted down
in 1872, The Days of Creation appears alongside several others: Sleeping Beauty, The Beguiling of Merlin, The Golden Stairs,
Le Chant d'Amour. This was how he liked to work, pursuing numerous projects at once, with that restless energy so characteristic of the Victorians. Most projects were finished, although it often took years, if not decades, for them to reach completion. And the medium in which Burne-Jones realised his vision might alter over time. Oil, watercolour, wood-engraving, stained glass, mosaic, painted furniture, tapestry, ceramics – even designer footwear: Burne-Jones had a relish for new materials and forms.
But at the root of all his prodigious artistic endeavour and achievement was his love of drawing. He has good claims to be considered the greatest draughtsman of his age. He had begun making lines as a young boy, in his father's framing shop, and he never stopped. After a hard day in the studio, his relaxation was to draw.
He could do it in company, while talking and laughing. He drew not only to map out his pictures but also to fix them. The highly finished drawing of The Days of Creation – it comes from the estate of Aglaia Coronio, a great friend of William Morris, and will be offered at Bonhams New Bond Street in January – is not a preparatory sketch for the painting, but a separate work: it's a complete study on the same theme.
Plain 'Ted' Jones had been born in Birmingham into bare lower-middle-class respectability in 1833. An only child, whose mother died soon after his birth, he reacted against the materialism of his thriving industrial hometown, and escaped into a world of Romance and Myth. He read voraciously and he drew. From the local grammar school, he won a place to read theology at Oxford University, and it was there that he met his life-long friend – and long-time collaborator – William Morris. More assured and better connected, Morris encouraged Burne-Jones's artistic ambitions, brought him to London, and drew him into the Pre-Raphaelite coterie that surrounded Dante Gabriel Rossetti. In this bohemian world his talents were recognised.
Rossetti considered him a 'genius' with a pencil, describing his drawings as "marvels of finish and imaginative detail, unequalled by anything unless perhaps Albert Dürer's finest work".
He received his first commissions. He was swept up in the heady whirl of love and romance and sex that enveloped the group. Although he married the young and artistically talented Georgiana MacDonald in 1860, he also maintained a long series of infatuations and affairs.
In 1870, his painting of Phyllis and Demophoön at the Old Water-Colour Society's summer exhibition provoked a scandal, partly because Demophoön's genitals were considered to be too conspicuous, and partly because Phyllis was too obviously a portrait of his erstwhile mistress, Maria Zambaco. He was asked to remove the offending work. Distressed by the public humiliation of this debacle, Burne-Jones withdrew from exhibiting for some seven years. The inaugural Grosvenor Gallery exhibition marked a return to the public arena, and he chose to lead with The Days of Creation. It was a triumphant comeback. Henry James considered him undoubtedly "the lion of the exhibition". He was acknowledged as the central figure of what was beginning to be called the Aesthetic Movement.
During the next 20 years, Burne-Jones built upon this success, achieving an exalted position as the licenced dreamer of the Victorian art world. His visions of knights and heroes, angels and wizards, nymphs and fairies became part of the visual fabric of the age. He created a 'type' – the androgynous and etiolated beauty with bee-stung lips, prominent chin, heavy eyes and an aureole of hair. His figures might have escaped the harsh imperatives of the late-19th century world, but they seemed always yearning for an elusive, or perhaps lost, love.
His vision had a huge influence, and not just among his British contemporaries and disciples from Walter Crane to Aubrey Beardsley. His work was known overseas, through international exhibitions and photographic reproductions.
He was admired by the Symbolists of Vienna, Brussels and Paris. He had an impact on the work of Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele, and on the young Picasso of the Blue Period.
With success came official recognition. Rather to the disgust
of his socialist wife, he accepted a baronetcy in 1894. And when he died, four years later, he was accorded the honour of a memorial service in Westminster Abbey.
Matthew Sturgis is the biographer of Aubrey Beardsley and Walter Sickert.