I’ve loved Edward Burne-Jones ever since I was a teenager and first became obsessed with the Victorians. The ochre-toned autumnal colour palette of his paintings always transports me to the fog-bound streets of nineteenth century England, where in my imagination, the weather is always slightly damp and the only light is the glimmer of a softly glowing gas lamp in the perpetual dusk. I love his predilection for a romantic medieval past, of chivalrous knights and women in jewel coloured robes that fall in delicious folds about their bodies. His blend of romance, myth and religion creates a mesmerising, fantastic visual world that for me entirely embodies the complexities and contradictions of the Victorian imagination, and I can stand in front of a Burne-Jones painting for hours, drinking it all in.
Tate Britain is currently holding an exhibition of his work, which is the first major solo exhibition of Burne-Jones since the 1930s. Victorian art is still rather unfashionable in fashionable circles: many dismiss it as tasteless and twee, or often, too maudlin. I would challenge anyone who thinks Victorian art is these things to visit this exhibition, because it is a hall of absolute wonder. For the first time, all of his enormous exhibition paintings have been reunited, alongside haunting portraits, stained glass and the most exquisite line drawings that reveal a fascination with Dürer. Seeing such a representative body of his work allows for the extraordinary nature of Burne-Jones’ imagination and genius to be seen. He was daring, innovative, multi-talented and possessed of a creative vision that saw in religious and mythical stories a richly, darkly meaningful parallel world to our own.
If you can manage to make it along, prepare yourself to be amazed and enchanted, and to wish that you could turn the clock back sixty years or so to when such paintings as this were being chucked away and sold for peanuts. The Tate have done a marvellous job of clustering the art together thematically, and allowing enough space for everything to be seen to its best advantage. From enormous paintings to wall-length tapestries, a painted grand piano to illustrated letters to his beloved granddaughter (who was middlebrow writer Angela Thirkell), there is so much to delight in. And if you can’t make it in person, the exhibition catalogue is a wonderful resource. I have it by my side as I type, and am looking forward to dipping in and out of it for inspiration as the nights draw in and I want to be transported back to those smoke shrouded streets of Victorian London!