‘My pictures are for the people’: Burne-Jones at Tate Britain

Recently, I went to see the fabulous Edward Burne-Jones exhibition at Tate Britain. In today’s blog post I write about some of the background to the exhibition, and offer some of my thoughts about the exhibition.

The exhibition is a celebration of the artist’s work across different mediums: from oil painting and book illustration to piano design and stained glass. It shows the captivating beauty of late Pre-Raphaelitism in a myriad of different forms. As a fan of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, from its founding in 1848 by John Everett Millais, William Holman Hunt and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, right through to its more aesthetic, dreamy iterations at the end of the nineteenth century, I was absolutely mesmerised and enthralled by the exhibition at Tate.

I regularly follow the arts columns in a variety of newspapers, particularly over on The Guardian’s website. So, it was with interest that I read the review of the exhibition by the critic Jonathan Jones. It’s surprising that The Guardian got a critic that so openly dislikes the Pre-Raphaelite and Aesthetic movements to review the Edward Burne-Jones exhibition.  To give you a flavour of the review, Jones writes that the exhibition displays ‘art that shows how boring beauty can be’, and that Burne-Jones’ ‘first paintings are as mature as he will ever get’. Jones then goes on to openly insult Burne-Jones: in his opinion Burne-Jones needed ‘a slap in the face with a wet fish’ and ‘to put it bluntly, Burne-Jones is a stupid artist’.

It’s almost as if we went to completely different exhibitions, at completely different galleries, in completely different universes. It’s my hope here to give a more balanced – and maybe more positive review – of the exhibition.

The last major exhibition of Burne-Jones’ work at Tate was in 1933, and the last exhibition of his work in London was at the Hayward Gallery in 1975. The current exhibition at Tate has provided an excellent, and timely, opportunity to display his works and to explore their relevance in modern society. There are over one hundred and fifty objects on display in the current exhibition at Tate, from across Burne-Jones’ career, including painting, tapestry, drawings, stained glass, illustrations, and a piano. Burne-Jones is one of the last major figures associated with the Pre-Raphaelite Movement (I would put John William Waterhouse in this bracket too). The exhibition guide that visitors receive when they go in to the show argues that Burne-Jones helped to move the Pre-Raphaelite Movement in to symbolism – for the exhibition, symbolism is where the ‘expression of a mood or idea replaced the earlier focus on providing a realistic depiction of the natural world’. Burne-Jones created dream-worlds, drew on myths and legends, was inspired by all things medieval, and promoted an ideal, androgynous form of beauty.

Watts, George Frederic, 1817-1904; Sir Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898)
George Frederic Watts, Sir Edward Burne-Jones, 1869-70. Oil on canvas. Birmingham Museums Trust.

Burne-Jones was born and brought up in Birmingham, one of Victorian Britain’s centres of industry and manufacturing. He went to the University of Oxford to read Theology, here, he met William Morris, who became a lifelong friend and artistic collaborator. Burne-Jones abandoned his theological studies in 1856 in order to direct his religious fervour and energy in to his artistic practice. For Burne-Jones, art – and beauty – was a counterpoint to the ugliness and materialism that Burne-Jones felt was destroying modern Britain. Though his art reflects this, his emphasis on idealistic androgynous beauty, use of traditional British crafts like tapestry and stained glass, and insistence on making his art accessible to the public, means Burne-Jones’ works are intended to inspire and uplift the viewer.

And this is the exact effect of the exhibition: it inspires and uplifts the visitor. The pure fantasy of images like The Rose Bower (1886-90) provide space for the visitor’s imagination to work. It is an escape from the everyday, an escape into a world of beauty, from the flowers to the androgynous figures. As Alison Smith notes in the article about the exhibition in Tate Etc, it ‘is an androgynous type of beauty that is disturbing yet fascinating to behold, and has influenced a growing appetite for fantasy from Tolkien to Game of Thrones‘. This comparison is an important one to make: the fantasy genre is a significant part of today’s popular culture, and for visitors to the Edward Burne-Jones exhibition, it provides a fantastic reference point that enables the visitor to understand the exhibition on a deeper level.

Sir Edward Burne-Jones, The Rose Bower, from The Legend of the Briar Rose, 1885-1890. Buscot Park.

The exhibition also inspires and uplifts the visitor through the variety of works on display. It shows that art by Burne-Jones is not just paintings on a wall; it is a painted piano that you can imagine playing, a tapestry you can imagine touching, a piece of stained glass in a church you can imagine in situ, and in the case of the Kelmscott Chaucer, a book that you could hold in your hands. It brings art off the walls, and beauty in to the realms of the every day. But most importantly it is a democratic form of art, one that people can relate to by imagining not just how it looks, but how it feels and sounds too. This democratisation of the arts is what Burne-Jones wanted.

Burne-Jones’ art is nowhere near stupid, and it doesn’t need slapping with a wet fish: these ‘pictures are for the people’, and are most certainly worth seeing.

The Edward Burne-Jones exhibition is open at Tate Britain until 24 February, booking highly recommended! Find out more about the exhibition here.


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