In its latest exhibition, Tate Britain proclaims that Edward Coley Burne-Jones, ‘one of the last Pre-Raphaelites, brought imaginary worlds to life in awe-inspiring paintings, stained glass windows and tapestries’. To which I say, thank goodness he was the last! There is no doubt he was an accomplished artist:a brilliant draughtsman and manipulator of pigments, but by the end of this show I felt like a needed a blood transfusion. Airless, stony architecture of ruined arches and columns, bloodless, gorgeous zombies, lolling in drape-like poses. Wake up for goodness sake! Join the real world! And of course that’s precisely the point. Victorians adored these Burne-Jones Gothic melodramas, which is why so many of them appear in English museums and public institutions.They were bought by newly monied philanthropists- industrialists and bankers- who wanted to forget about the disfiguring, sooty impact of the Industrial Revolution.
Burne Jones (1833-1898) was a contemporary of Edouard Manet (1832-1883) and only a bit older than Paul Cezanne (1839-1906). The latter two were busy creating a new visual vocabulary that would articulate contemporary reality while Burne-Jones seemed to be sloping in the opposite direction with damsels in distress and dozing Lancelots.
It is all so damned beautiful! What did stop me in my tracks though were his portraits, and one in particular which floored me with its intimacy and mystery.
This is 19 year old Amy Gaskell, a pale young woman dressed entirely in black.
In the three-quarter-length canvas, she is shown seated against a black background with her hands in her lap. Her lovely face, modelled with imperceptible transitions from light to dark, is almost in profile. The sitter and the way she has been presented, exudes a sense of mystery - a curious mingling of innocence with melancholy. It turns out there is a heart rendering story behind this portrait, centred round a passionate love affair between Burne-Jones and Amy’s mother, May.
In 1892, the 59-year-old Burne-Jones, who was married with two grown-up children, met and fell in love with Amy's mother Helen Mary (May) Gaskell. She was a vivacious but unhappily married society hostess who belonged to the aristocratic circle of friends known as the ‘Souls’, a sort of politics-fee salon for well heeled types. He was the established Victorian artist and now the poster boy for French Symbolists.
But the relationship was passionate but platonic: drawing room flirtations, the furtive brushed fingertip and an intimate, yearning glances, but no sex.
Amy was apparently a troubled and complex young woman. She was a sort of Victorian Goth: self absorbed with a morbid personality, who once captioned a photograph of herself lying in bed "Dead".
After Burne-Jones died of heart failure in 1898, Amy married Lionel Bonham, a lieutenant in the Grenadier Guards, and followed him to the East. Like her mother’s marriage, Amy’s life with Bonham was very unhappy. After his death from typhoid in 1909, she waited for her husband's body to be returned to the family home, Holdhurst in Surrey. One night, she retired early to bed, giving instructions that she was not to be disturbed. When she did not appear the next morning, her mother went to her room and found her dead. She was only 36. Although May Gaskell insisted that Amy had died of a broken heart, the presumption is that she took her own life.
This portrait of Amy must surely have been the most precious gift Burne-Jones could have given to the woman he loved so deeply but whose love was never consummated: a likeness of a beloved child that could comfort and console the bereft mother in the long years that were to pass before her death in 1940.
Edward Coley-Burne-Jones, Tate Britain until February 24, 2019