Burne-Jones Talking

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By: Burne-Jones Talking: His conversations 1895-1898 preserved by his studio assistant Thomas Rooke Mary Lago (ed) (London: Pallas Athene, 2012)

Review by: Ellen Ramsay

Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898), Pre- Raphaelite artist and friend of William Morris, was known to exclaim, “Belong to the Church of England? Put your head in a bag!” The Catholic Church and its services were “wicked.” The Methodists produced “psychical difficulties” in the artist and a mosaic commission for the decoration of St. Paul’s Cathedral was declined in 1891. St. Paul’s, after all, was a “beastly place” resembling a “Necropolis. Horrid doleful chill pompous display miserable to go into and to think of” [sic]; a sort of “deadman’s hole…So glad I never did those 4 quarter domes they wanted me to” said the artist in 1896.

Burne-Jones Talking is an entertaining and spirited volume with ample examples of nineteenth century wit for today’s discerning secular reader. These conversations, dating between 1895 and 1898, were taken down from memory by Thomas Rooke, the artist’s studio assistant for twenty-seven years. It edward Burne-Jones would have been desirable for the assistant to have garnered the artist’s permission to document the conversations. This he did not do as he explains in his “Apology” reprinted in this volume. Perhaps Rooke knew that Burne-Jones, a very private person, would not have granted permission. The resulting text, however, provides a valuable glimpse into the daily life and thoughts of an artist who was in the circle of the secular movement in nineteenth century London.

Through these conversations, Burne-Jones introduces us to William Morris, Dante and William Rossetti, Aubrey Beardsley, Oscar Wilde, G.F. Watts, Robert Catterson-Smith, James McNeill Whistler, Frederic Leighton, Charles Faulkner, John Everett Millais and Ford Madox Brown, amongst others. The artist is greatly concerned about politics, art, and religion, the latter being a source of much amusement for him.

For secularists who appreciate art, there are some very interesting passages in this volume. We hear, for instance, about the opening of the National Portrait Gallery building in 1896 and how Burne- Jones enjoyed the gallery’s excellent collection of George Frederic Watt’s (1817-1904) paintings. Burne-Jones was a staunch admirer of Watts who was a portrait painter of many luminaries in the secular movement. Watts was considered England’s most important painter in the nineteenth century and was married briefly to Ellen Terry in 1864. To this day, in room 26 of the National Portrait Gallery, one may admire Watt’s very sensitive portraits of William Morris, John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Leslie Stephen.

Whether it is on the subject of art, politics or religion, there is much in this small volume to interest the modern reader. It is perhaps surprising to learn that not much has changed in the world since the nineteenth century with regard to religious privilege in society. It is comforting, however, to hear the striking comments of a great artist from the early movement who demonstrates to us that secularism has a long history of witty and feisty individuals who survived despite it all.

At writing, this book was available in the bookstore in the Victoria and Albert Museum and a copy of the 1982 John Murray edition is available at the British Library.

(For William Morris enthusiasts, the National Portrait Gallery in London is holding an exhibition from October 16, 2014 to January 11, 2015 entitled, Anarchy and Beauty: William Morris and his legacy, 1860-1960. There will be a variety of lectures and two weekend workshops to accompany this exhibition (see the Gallery’s website). Included in the events is a free presentation entitled, Visualising Portraits: William Morris in the Collection on November at 2 pm, and a lecture (£6) on Moustaches, Whiskers and Beards: A History of Facial Hair on November 13 at 7pm in the Ondaatje Wing Theatre.)

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