Book Review: The Last Pre-Raphaelite
by Fiona MacCarthy
W. Graham Robertson, the waspy Bertie Wooster figure captured so inimitably in John Singer Sargent’s portrait from 1893, captures an encounter in his glowingly wonderful 1931 memoir Life Was Worth Living:
He might have been a priest newly stepped down from the altar, the thunder of great litanies still in his ears, a mystic with spirit but half recalled from the threshold of another and fairer world; but as one gazed in reverence the hieratic calm of the face would be broken by a smile so mischievous, so quaintly malign, as to unfrock the priest at once and transform the mage into the conjurer at a children’s party.
The dual figure described here, half saint and half sprite, was Edward Burne-Jones, the great Victorian artist/polymath who’s the subject of a sumptuous and definitive new biography by Fiona MacCarthy, The Last Pre-Raphaelite: Edward Burne-Jones and the Victorian Imagination. MacCarthy, whose 2002 biography of Lord Byron managed the amazing feat of being simultaneously salacious and circumspect, had previously written an absorbing life of Burne-Jones’ more famous friend and fellow artist William Morris, and one of her aims in this new book is to help her new subject stand on his own in the light of inquiry, rather than constantly being the junior adjunct to the more commanding Morris. In this – and in many other things – the book succeeds marvellously.
This account is exhaustive (far more so than Penelope Fitzgerald’s otherwise lovely biography of the man from 2003), and yet MacCarthy never allows mere details to pile up – every fact is made to carry dramatic weight or personal significance, every connection – especially early in Burne-Jones’ life – is woven into the making of the artist:
The autumn [of 1855] brought a new excitement, the Morte d’Arthur, the book that of all books altered the direction of Burne-Jones and Morris’s creative lives. Le Morte d’Arthur was the lengthy cycle of Arthurian legends written by Sir Thomas Malory, a knight from Warwickshire. It appears that he was working on it while he was in prison, charged with the unknightly crimes of violence, theft and rape. Malory’s magnum opus as completed in 1471 and printed by Caxton in 1485. In 1817 Robert Southey, so-called ‘Lake poet’ and the current Poet Laureate, produced his own edition of Malory and this was the version Burne-Jones had discovered by chance in Cornish’s, the bookseller in New Street in Birmingham where the impecunious undergraduate spent many hours each day reading voraciously and buying occasional cheap books to pacify the owner. The Morte d’Arthur was far beyond his means but when Morris came to stay in Birmingham he bought it almost without thinking and, wrote Burne-Jones, ‘we feasted on it long.’
Morris is part of almost every anecdote, but he is never allowed to dominate the proceedings – center stage belongs firmly to quiet, diffident, brilliant Burne-Jones. MacCarthy is the perfect guide through it all – his marriage to Georgie MacDonald (who was brilliant in her own right and whose sister was the mother of Rudyard Kipling, who spent many an idyllic vacation at the peaceful home of the Burne-Jones family), his friendship with fellow artists like Morris and Dante Gabriel Rossetti and many others, and of course his scandalous, turbulent affair with the sultry Maria Zambaco:
Maria was a flamboyant woman of experience. It is not hard to see how Burne-Jones was seduced by the sexual promise she spectacularly offered. Burne-Jones had been obsessed by his own undesirability. His self-caricatures show a pathetic scarecrow figure, ugly, scraggy and unlovable. His closeness to the confident Rossetti had only increased his own feelings of sexual inadequacy. …Maria’s flattering suggestiveness gave him sudden hope.
But the single most satisfying strand of MacCarthy’s big book is her assured and sensitive discussion of Burne-Jones’ artwork in all its scope and variety. This is a perennial weak spot in biographies of artists, where often skill in researching history doesn’t automatically impart the ability to look responsively at craftwork, or painting, or stained glass (or plays, or novels, but that’s another story). MacCarthy has that ability in ample amounts – her meditations on Burne-Jones’ artwork are scattered throughout The Last Pre-Raphaelite, and they’re unfailingly fascinating.
After the artist’s death, it was Kipling who wrote of him:
His work was the least part of him. It is him that one wants – the size and the strength and the power and the jests and the God given sympathy of the man. He knew. There was never a man like him who knew all things without stirring.
After savoring this fantastic book, MacCarthy’s readers will feel like they knew the man, and they’ll never look at his various works the same way again. This is biographical writing of the highest order – it’s enthusiastically recommended.