The world of Edward Burne-Jones

Published 24 October 2018

With a major retrospective now open at Tate Britain, Martin Oldham reflects on the importance and relevance of Edward Burne-Jones paintings.

  • From the Autumn 2018 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    The paintings of the Victorian artist Edward Burne-Jones transport us to the realms of Arthurian romance or of classical legend. There is a consistency to his vision, each picture densely packed with beautifully designed detail. Suffused with crepuscular light, they have a claustrophobic quality that intensifies the melancholy mood. His women possess a wispy otherworldly beauty, as do many of his men – androgynous heroes, more likely to be lost to languid introspection than performing gallant deeds.

    This autumn Tate Britain’s major retrospective of the artist – the first in London for over 40 years – brings together many of his best-loved works, such as the two narrative cycles: the Perseus series, commissioned in 1875, and The Legend of the Briar Rose (1885–90). Both are presented in their entirety and shown together for the first time.

    Burne-Jones did not think of his work as escapist fantasy. He shared a commitment to socially engaged art with William Morris, aiming to reach a wide audience by creating a “heaven on earth” that might offer solace from the drabness of modern life. His art was popular: thousands queued to see the Briar Rose cycle when it was first shown in 1890. Many of his works were acquired by the new public galleries in England’s industrial cities. His designs for church decorations and stained-glass windows were appreciated by another kind of public.

  • Edward Burne-Jones, Love Among the Ruins

    Edward Burne-Jones, Love Among the Ruins, 1870–73.

    Private Collection.

  • Burne-Jones gained international recognition when he exhibited at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1878 and in 1889. Works such as Love Among the Ruins (watercolour version, 1870–73, cover image) made a lasting impression on Symbolist painters such as Gustave Moreau and Fernand Khnopff. His influence can be found in the works of Munch, Klimt and early Picasso, and the flowing lines and rhythmic forms of his designs helped shape the emerging Art Nouveau style.

    Burne-Jones’s works are still popular, but there is also a tendency to regard him as an idiosyncratic outsider. Tate’s show reaffirms him as one of the most influential artists of the fin de siècle.

    Martin Oldham is Head of Digitisation and Research at The Watercolour World. Edward Burne-Jones Tate Britain, London, 24 Oct–24 Feb 2019