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)

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