The Last Pre-Raphaelite: Edward Burne-Jones and the Victorian Imagination, By Fiona MacCarthy

Not a lot to like, but plenty to admire

A decade doesn't go by without at least one major Pre-Raphaelite or Arts and Crafts exhibition in Britain. It's difficult to imagine a time when Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898) was not popular.

Born in Birmingham, he was self-taught, a late starter and diffident to boot. But after meeting William Morris at Oxford, and later his mentor Ruskin, he made up for lost time with intense study. He was a workaholic. As well as painting, he designed stained glass, tiles, tapestries, mosaics and pianos; there's even a sketch for a shoe.

MacCarthy has already written a well-regarded biography of his chief collaborator, William Morris, so the socialist poet, weaver and wallpaper designer features minimally in this story. But there's so much more to Burne-Jones than his involvement in Morris & Co. George Eliot was a close friend; Rudyard Kipling and Stanley Baldwin were his nephews; he knew Oscar Wilde and exchanged pornographic letters with Swinburne. Scarcely a Victorian great was unknown to him.

New material, MacCarthy tells us, has come to light regarding his affair with Maria Zambaco, whose huge eyes, sharp chin and pointed nose appear over and over again in his work. He pulled back – just – from running away with the alluring model, and MacCarthy describes the thrilling scene in thick fog near Holland Park where she confronted him, threatening to drink poison. "[Maria] tried to drown herself in the water in front of Browning's house &c – bobbies collaring Ned who was rolling with her on the stones to prevent it, and God knows what else," reported Rossetti. Burne-Jones opted to stay with his long-suffering but capable wife rather than have passionate but impractical liaisons, but he was to repeat his infatuation with other men's wives over and over again.

The Ackroyd-esque subtitle seems to refer to such conflicts over the place of women, shared by his era. Burne-Jones was a generous friend to his protégées, yet hated the idea of bluestockings or equality (or any female not fashionably thin). He joined in the puzzling Victorian cult of small girls, befriending them then getting angry and upset when they grew up and wanted to marry. When Margaret, his daughter, announced her intentions, he exploded.

"What do girls want with men?" he wrote to Kipling. "Didn't I flatter her enough, glare at her enough, fetch and carry and be abject enough?" The embarrassing refusal to contemplate what it was that "girls want with men" was surely funnelled into his painted enchantresses, his Nimues, Sleeping Beauties and mermaids: women rendered eerily beautiful and flattened into a purely aesthetic experience.

MacCarthy is also probing of his relationships with his male friends, detecting more buried hostility than is usually seen in his affectionate cartoons of "Topsy" (Morris). The result is a rich and thought-provoking portrait. I liked Burne-Jones a bit less after reading it, but admired him a lot more.