The Last Pre-Raphaelite
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The Last Pre-Raphaelite

With Love among the Ruins, a composition in watercolour, body colour and gum Arabic by Sir Edward Burne-Jones fetching £14,845,875, a record price at auction in July, now is an appropriate moment to review Fiona MacCarthy's splendidly comprehensive 536-page biography of Burne-Jones and his role in developing taste in late Victorian England.

The book is an absorbing read, making the connections in Burne-Jones's life and work with those around him in the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, in the school of Holland Park and his interaction with a younger generation of artists. All to be expected given MacCarthy's earlier work on William Morris, but also very significant in establishing the major impact Burne-Jones had on the radical art and ideas of the 20th century.

Burne Jones, especially in his work with Morris and Co., also contributed significantly to the decoration of church buildings. At one point he was designing almost one new stained glass cartoon a week. And it wasn't only stained glass; see the Adoration of the Magi tapestry for George Gilbert Scott's gothic revival chapel at Exeter college, Oxford (and other versions in Roker church, Sunderland and elsewhere).

Therein lies an interesting crossover between fine and decorative arts. Burne Jones used the design of this tapestry as the basis for a later painting, the Star of Bethlehem. Certainly too some of his most sophisticated stained glass design for church buildings, such as The Last Judgement east window for St Michael and St Mary Magdelane, Easthamstead, Berkshire 1775, is described by MacCarthy as 'one of the great glories of Victorian church art'. It would be wonderful to have a full gazetteer of Burne-Jones and Morris and Co. stained glass in church buildings.

A relief too to be able to look at Victorian churches for once not in terms of their churchmanship in determining why a particular decorative scheme was selected. Even in Burne-Jones’s church designs we sense the Aesthetic Movement emphasis on beauty and art for arts sake.

One shocking element to the modern reader we discover about Burne-Jones and several of his friends was the intimate and ambiguous relationships they developed with young girls of their acquaintance. Something that would not be tolerated today given our concerns over safeguarding.

What a great outcome if the huge commercial interest in Burne-Jones's painted works could have a knock-on effect in appreciation of his stained glass in churches. In the Church Buildings Council's 100 Treasures in Church Buildings Campaign to be launched in October to save our most at risk treasures there are several Burne-Jones windows that need conserving and there are more that need help. Ironically Burne-Jones's painting Love among the Ruins needed conservation in Burne-Jones's lifetime after a Parisian photographer washed it over with white of egg to make it shinier, thus destroying the surface. Luckily Burne-Jones repainted the damaged heads shortly before his death and the rest of the painting was later conserved by his former assistant.

Janet Gough

13 August 2013

The Last Pre-Raphaelite. Edward Burne-Jones and the Victorian Imagination, by Fiona MacCarthy 2011 (paperback edition 2012). Published by Faber and Faber. Available in the ChurchCare Library, Great Smith Street, London.