Faber £25

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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
Gary Lineker at the UK Premiere of 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Bale as Batman in a scene from
film
Arts and Entertainment
Johhny Cash in 1969
musicDyess Colony, where singer grew up in Depression-era Arkansas, opens to the public
Arts and Entertainment
Army dreamers: Randy Couture, Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren and Jason Statham
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off 2014 contestants
tvReview: It's not going to set the comedy world alight but it's a gentle evening watch
Arts and Entertainment
Umar Ahmed and Kiran Sonia Sawar in ‘My Name Is...’
Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
This year's Big Brother champion Helen Wood
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Full company in Ustinov's Studio's Bad Jews
Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Harari Guido photographed Kate Bush over the course of 11 years
Music
Arts and Entertainment
Reviews have not been good for Jonathan Liebesman’s take on the much loved eighties cartoon
Film

A The film has amassed an estimated $28.7 million in its opening weekend

Arts and Entertainment
Untwitterably yours: Singer Morrissey has said he doesn't have a twitter account
Music

A statement was published on his fansite, True To You, following release of new album

Arts and Entertainment
Full throttle: Philip Seymour Hoffman and John Turturro in God's Pocket
film
Arts and Entertainment
Kylie Minogue is expected to return to Neighbours for thirtieth anniversary special
tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

    A descent into madness in America's heartlands

    David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
    BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

    BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

    Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home
    Lauded therapist Harley Mille still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

    Lauded therapist still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

    Australian Harley Miller is as frustrated by court delays as she is with the idiosyncrasies of immigration law
    Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world. But could his predictions of war do the same?

    Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world...

    But could his predictions of war do the same?
    Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs: 'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

    'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

    Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs
    Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities, but why?

    Young at hort

    Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities. But why are so many people are swapping sweaty clubs for leafy shrubs?
    Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award: 'making a quip as funny as possible is an art'

    Beyond a joke

    Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award, has nigh-on 200 in his act. So how are they conceived?
    The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

    The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

    Sadly though, the Lawrence of Arabia star is not around to lend his own critique
    Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire: The joy of camping in a wetland nature reserve and sleeping under the stars

    A wild night out

    Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire offers a rare chance to camp in a wetland nature reserve
    Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition: It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans

    Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition

    It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans
    Besiktas vs Arsenal: Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie

    Besiktas vs Arsenal

    Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie
    Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

    Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

    As the Northern Irishman prepares for the Barclays, he finds time to appear on TV in the States, where he’s now such a global superstar that he needs no introduction
    Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to Formula One

    Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to F1

    The 16-year-old will become the sport’s youngest-ever driver when he makes his debut for Toro Rosso next season
    Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

    Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

    But belated attempts to unite will be to no avail if the Sunni caliphate remains strong in Syria, says Patrick Cockburn