Faber & Faber, £25, 629pp. £22.50 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

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

Amotherless, over-protected child, Ted Jones all his lifedrew pathetic self-caricatures as a thin, dishevelled failure, intimidated by the world. This abject figure stalks the margins and envelopes of his correspondence, even after he became Sir Edward Burne-Jones, Bt. But it was a defensive decoy, to keep his inner self hidden behind what his wife called the entrenched citadel of his soul.

"Birmingham is my city according to the facts, but in reality Assisi is my birthplace," he once declared. In his head and his heart, he inhabited medieval Oxford andRenaissance Italy, within a lifelong fantasy of Arthurian knights and Florentine angels, on a perpetual quest for the Holy Grail and idealised Love. And he was lucky, or shrewd, enough to find friends, patrons and a wife to shield him from ugly reality.

From sketching soldiers in the Khyber Pass to amuse schoolfellows he came to beguile Victorian magnates and their successors with visions of Pygmalion and Galatea, Merlin and Nimue, Love and the Pilgrim, King Cophetua, all denizens of "a beautiful romantic dream of something that never was, never will be... and the forms divinely beautiful". Though crowded out in the V&A's recent celebration of The Cult of Beauty, Burne-Jones's pellucid art is central to the Aesthetic movement. Classical mythology blends with fairy-tale and medieval romance to create escapist scenes with unsettling elements that can, just, be construed as socio-political critiques of cut-throat commercialism and economic exploitation.

Fiona MacCarthy writes so easily that even a doorstep biography of this size is a true pleasure to read, unfolding events at an enjoyable pace andskilfully structured to avoid the drag of one-thing-after-another. This despite the lack of dramatic incident in Burne-Jones's life, except for one tumultuous episode.

From school he went to Oxford intending to take orders, or found a monastic brotherhood. He met William Morris, lost his faith but not his dreams, and apprenticed himself to the Pre-Raphaelite circle, with support from Rossetti (who re-named him Ned), Ruskin and GF Watts. He practised drawing, then learnt to paintand studied Italian art in Florence, Venice, Rome and Siena; as he matured his pictures gained balance and suavity, developing a lovely linearity and exquisite tonal harmonies. From his brush, armour assumes the supple sheen of feathers.

Lonely and hungry in London at the outset of his career, he engaged himself to 15-year-old Georgiana, partly for the warmth of her affectionate family and partly to guard against sexual temptations but with a sure instinct for her unwavering love. Aged 35, with professional success well underway, and after the birth of three children – one of whom died in a scarlet fever outbreak that nearly took its mother's life – he fell passionately in love with Maria Zambaco, a "flamboyant woman of experience" and wealth, who had left her husband and now, deploying her Grecian beauty and unhappiness, urged Burne-Jones to run off with her in romantic abandon.

She was the first model for Galatea, turned from marble to flesh. A highly erotic drawing of Maria as Amorous Desire, blowing to kindle embers into flame, is emblematic of her appeal. Burne-Jones was burnt, but not consumed, withdrawing just in time. He enjoyed the liaison's thrill but not its responsibilities, and claimed as cowardice what was really self-protection. Maria's desperate suicide pact scared him back into Georgie's unsexy embrace – and careful financial management. The outline of this affair has long been known; its details remain shadowy. MacCarthy does not cite the comic sketches Ned drew for Maria, to accompany lost letters. Were they lovers? They continued to meet after the ostensible parting; were they later together in Paris? Burne-Jones keeps some secrets yet.

His art became more sensuous, with emasculated men being snared, bewitched and drowned by half-human stunners sharing Maria's features. The most graphic is Ovid's Phyllis, clutching her faithless, fleeing lover. When exhibited, this painting caused ructions, allegedly owing to its male nudity, but mainly due to the evident autobiography. Later, the offending genitals were lightly veiled. Thereafter, Burne-Jones turned his passion to flirtation with a mirroring series of innocent girls, whose young hearts were enthralled by his loving avowals. This paedophiliac tendency has troubled posterity, but was surely also a refuge from carnal urges. "I've such a dread of lust," he admitted, a fear displaced into mocking sketches of fat, tattooed women with grotesque bulges.

Burne-Jones is a challenging subject for a biographer, not least because the Life by his widow is a masterpiece of the genre despite its Zambaco-shaped hole. His whimsical epistolary style, often in comic cockneyand full of absurd exaggerations, was designed, again, to conceal rather than reveal. This was partly a joke, MacCarthy comments of one instance, "but partly not." Much personal correspondence is like this, for business matters were handled by Georgie. The effect is of a Peter Pan personality; and we never get to know what Burne-Jones earned.

As with many artists, his canvases grew larger, culminating in the vast unfinished "Arthur in Avalon", declined by the Tate when critical contempt rubbished all things Victorian. For half a century Burne-Jones's works could hardly be given away; then, from the 1980s, they surged back in popularity, their visual appeal effectively eclipsing those of the original PRB.

So on what does his reputation rest? On his distinct, sustained and evolving imagination, which influenced European Symbolism and (to Burne-Jones's dismay) Aubrey Beardsley. MacCarthy strongly commends his decorative art, in numberless designs for stained glass, mosaic and painted tiles. The glass was a major feature in the success of Morris & Co, of which Burne-Jones was a founder-member, and later examples with semi-abstract forms and solid colour remain strikingly modern.

His pencil drawings are unsurpassed in delicacy and expression, while paintings like "Laus Veneris" still glow in the dark. MacCarthy locates the art's appeal in its narrative, often in literal series like outsize story-boards – the Cupid and Psyche drama, the great Perseus movie, the Briar Rose tale – visual power concentrated in scenes of arrested action.

Like her life of William Morris, to which it is a companion, this volume is a triumph of biographical art, but leaves a curiously melancholy impression. Is this because, as biographer of the two friends, MacCarthy admires one so much more? She understands Burne-Jones's refusal to support Morris's socialism despite his radical views, and his decision to accept a title for the sake of a social-climbing son. But one senses she does not really approve. Or perhaps it is because ultimately Burne-Jones remains elusive, known not through words or deeds, but only indirectly, through his compelling pictorial visions.

Jan Marsh's books include biographies of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Elizabeth Siddal, and 'The Pre-Raphaelite Circle ' (National Portrait Gallery)

Arts and Entertainment
Impressions of the Creative Community Courtyard within d3. The development is designed to 'inspire emerging designers and artists, and attract visitors'

Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Raif Badawi: Wife pleads for fresh EU help as Saudi blogger's health worsens

    Please save my husband

    As the health of blogger Raif Badawi worsens in prison, his wife urges EU governments to put pressure on the Saudi Arabian royal family to allow her husband to join his family in Canada
    Birthplace of Arab Spring in turmoil as angry Tunisians stage massive sit-in over lack of development

    They shall not be moved: jobless protesters bring Tunisia to a halt

    A former North African boom town is wasting away while its unemployed citizens stick steadfastly to their sit-in
    David Hasselhoff's new show 'Hoff the Record': What's it like working with a superstar?

    Hanging with the Hoff

    Working with David Hasselhoff on his new TV series was an education for Ella Smith
    Can Dubai's Design District 'hipster village' attract the right type of goatee-wearing individualist?

    Hipsters of Arabia

    Can Dubai’s ‘creative village’ attract the right type of goatee-wearing individualist?
    The cult of Roger Federer: What is it that inspires such obsessive devotion?

    The cult of Roger Federer

    What is it that inspires such obsessive devotion?
    Kuala Lumpur's street food: Not a 'scene', more a way of life

    Malaysian munchies

    With new flights, the amazing street food of Kuala Lumpur just got more accessible
    10 best festival beauty

    Mud guards: 10 best festival beauty

    Whether you're off to the Isle of Wight, Glastonbury or a local music event, we've found the products to help you
    Unai Emery’s passion for winning and eye for a bargain keep Seville centre stage in Europe

    A Different League

    Unai Emery’s passion for winning and eye for a bargain keep Seville centre stage in Europe, says Pete Jenson
    Amir Khan and James DeGale’s remarkable Olympic performances were just the start of an extraordinary journey - Steve Bunce

    Steve Bunce on Boxing

    Amir Khan and James DeGale’s remarkable Olympic performances were just the start of an extraordinary journey
    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf