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Hush! do not say a word :
The truth is perilous ;
And this were wrong for us. It may seem strange to some for words such as these to be used of Art, which would be more intelligible in reference to philosophy, or science. But in Art, as in Music too, new schools are born flying a new banner, about the placing of which on the highest turret top there is often keen and prolonged contention.
Mr. Burne-Jones is a strange genius of the kind we have spoken of, working out new developments in the painter's art. With the claims made for him by his crowd of followers, with the onslaught made by those who challenge his novel methods, he does not busy himself at all; he is a retiring painter living in the dreams and exercise of his art, and not at all in the bustle and contentions of art-criticism, which is as different in kind from art itself as a pair of eyeglasses being adjusted for its focus is different from a water-lily lying on the placid water in which it lives its life.
Mr. Burne-Jones conforms, apparently with some unwillingness, to the fashion of the times when he sends his pictures to exhibitions, exposing himself to the notoriety and gabble which such a public act involves; his ideal would seem to be rather that of the simple-minded mediæval painters, who, when their picture was done, turned it out of the studio into the next room, whither anyone might find his way whom the attraction of the pictures that had gone before, or the private repute of the artist, might have drawn.
Edward Burne-Jones was born, on the 28th August, 1833, in Birmingham, a city whose hapless library, now rising again from its ashes, might fitly adorn its walls with some reflection at least from the splendid flames of Mr. Burne-Jones's conception of the Burning of Troy.
The boy's parents were Welsh by origin, his great-grandfather having been a poor Welsh schoolmaster. Several earlier members of the line were the same, quiet, inoffensive men who have bequeathed to their descendant the powers of patience and of application.
Living in Birmingham, among inartistic people and surroundings, the child had not much to foster a disposition towards art and especially towards ideal art. But there was an innate tendency, how inborn who shall say ? and the child of four found it natural to think in drawing, and to revel in little childish sketches. The time was not so far advanced in appreciation, or rather in the recognition of the place and mission, of beauty, as the present. Ruskin's influence, which has since spread with such noiseless multifold footfall, was then unknown. As the boy grew up, his aspirations may have been a little nipped. His father's circumstances were narrow, and probably, to the mind of the district at that time, a boy might as well idle altogether as dream of being a painter by profession.
Burne-Jones went to school in Birmingham, at King Edward the VIth's School, then under the charge of that excellent schoolmaster, the late Dr. James Prince Lee, afterwards Bishop of Manchester. From this school the youth passed to Oxford, where he found a chum with whom he has been on terms of the closest friendship ever since, and who afforded him that brotherhood of sympathy which he needed. Half a year younger than himself, William Morris came to Oxford under not very different circumstances from his own, and as full of aspiration. Morris's family was perhaps rather more fully endowed with this world's goods than his friend's, but any impetus that he had received towards an artistic career came solely from within himself. The two young freshmen entered Exeter College together, and within a few days met and began that friendship which has ever since meant so much, and been so much to both.
Morris had written no poems, Burne-Jones had never attempted colour. Together they studied carvings, antiquities, and forms of beauty in art and legend at Oxford. There Morris wrote his first poem, which is still in manuscript only; and Burne-Jones in the middle of his Oxford course met with a picture which helped him to make definite the career that he had decided on. He had had no help cr training, but had sketched by himself, and had not felt moved towards the English painting of the time, when Landseer was dominant and Maclise popular. A picture of Rossetti's, one of the cycle of Dantesque subjects, was to him as a light to tinder, and enabled him to see and choose his way for himself. The picture was that one of Dante kneeling, drawing the face of Beatrice, on the anniversary of her death, when, as Browning described :
Dante once prepared to paint an angel,
We and Bice bear the loss for ever. Men who were youths five and twenty or thirty years ago, consider it would be difficult for the present younger generation to realise what a dearth of imaginative painting there was at that time. Into the dull pond of that period Dante Rossetti seems to have thrown a stone, the rippling circles from which caught poetic minds bent on art, as by a charm.
Burne-Jones felt-perhaps only dimly at that time—that he wanted to be shown how what has been the glory of literature could be put into painting. Biographical painting, dramatic painting, there had been, but
poetical painting, corresponding in its own domain to the work of Chaucer, Spenser, Shelley, Keats in the province of literature, had not been in England until Rossetti inspired a new school with something of the old Florentine feeling. Burne-Jones was ready and ripe for this touch, and Morris and he studying in sympathy together, the one finding poetry in word painting, the other in the field of the brush, were able to work out some preparation for a life. The routine of an academy course might have rendered Burne-Jones's career an easier one in some respects, but while insuring more scholastic correctness, it might also have somewhat quenched the glow and impaired the free individuality of his poetico-pictorial conceptions. Holman Hunt was a painter who for a short time now also strongly affected Burne-Jones. His " Light of the World,” his picture of the “Druidic Circle,” and his “Two Gentlemen of Verona ” had their influence upon the young man's fancy.
The college to which Burne-Jones and Morris belonged was a large one and slightly fast; and probably the pair of friends had not very much in common with the average undergraduate, and consequently lived rather a secluded life amid their hopes and dreams. Four years they were at Oxford together, and then came to London, which now in the concentration of its aggregate of genius and the variety of opportunities which it offers to the student of every kind, may fairly be styled the greatest university in the world. Morris came to London with Street the architect, who was then migrating from Oxford, and Burne-Jones and he established themselves in lodgings together, where they lived for two or three years. Swinburne was also at Oxford with Burne-Jones, overlapping his last term or two by his own freshman term, and has been a friend ever since, dedicating to him “affectionately and admiringly " his first series of “ Poems and Ballads.”
Burne-Jones now (1856) turned seriously to painting as a profession. He obtained an introduction to his hero, Rossetti, who met him with great kindness, and has been his only master. Of his debt to Rossetti, who is only about five years his senior, he is accustomed to speak as if it were beyond reckoning. The younger man not only received the technical and spiritual enlightenment he needed by watching the other, a whole summer through, at his work on a picture from beginning to end, but he also received that which with his extremely sensitive nature he sorely needed in the inception of his own work, the kindly attention and fostering encouragement, the exercise of which really constituted Rossetti his father. For some time his work was in the obedience of a young nature an imitation of Rossetti, but in a few years his own expression was attained. His method and manner of work came by degrees ; with different subjects and his own fancy came different treatment, until now there is a considerable gap between them, Rossetti clinging more to
realistic life, while Burne-Jones inclines to ideal work and abstract forms of beauty.
From the time when he began to work until now, Mr. Burne-Jones has laboured incessantly, with scarcely any intervals for rest. That such has been the case will be manifest to any one who thinks of the magnitude and importance of the work done, and reflects on the fact that the painter is still full four years short of fifty.
In 1857-8 Burne-Jones was associated with Rossetti, Morris, Prinsep, and others in the production of a series of fresco paintings in distemper upon the walls of the Oxford Union Debating Room, illustrative of the cycle of Arthurean romance. This work arose out of a suggestion made by Woodward, the architect, and was originally intended to be a slight matter, to be done in about a fortnight. It is sad to think that owing to the walls not having been properly dried or prepared, the paintings are rapidly becoming spoiled.
In 1861 was the beginning of the now well-known house of Morris and Company, Mr. Burne-Jones being one of the originators. It was then hoped that the scheme would embrace fresco painting, it being the intention to do representations of legends for the walls of public buildings or other places. This project has never been developed in the way of ordinary business; Burne-Jones, however, designed many stained glass windows, for which the firm gained honours.
Mr. Burne-Jones is the polar opposite of the “slick " painter, or the painter who works to order, or to supply a popular demand. This fact introduces a peculiar difficulty in speaking of his pictures in anything like the order of a catalogue. Of some of his works the entire conception is on so large a scale that a group of inter-related pictures is required for its full exhibition. Of these, perhaps, three or four were painted a dozen years ago, while the rest are only to be seen in the various studies made for them, or in a partially finished state. We have, therefore, to bear in mind that the painter is at the present time in the full middle tide of his life's work, and that any general analysis would be unfair, until he shall have fully worked out his purposes.
We may turn, however, to a few pictures that have been exhibited, and then say a word upon what is to be seen in that enchanted region which one day of the week so generously opens its doors, that many of the many visitors must often wish that, without interfering with the vanished artist's work, it were possible for it to be always Sunday afternoon.
“Green Summer” was exhibited in 1863, and was one of the earliest of Mr. Burne-Jones's pictures that attracted marked attention. It is a work almost in monochrome, for in the picture is a circle of women all in green, in varying harmony with the landscape. Nothing but their faces shines out of the green colour.
About 1866 came “The Story of Dorothea,” perhaps the first important picture. The moment has been chosen when Theophilus is just entering his house, and is looking back on the forum whence the body of Dorothea is being carried out after her death. Snow is all about. Some girls are at a frozen fountain. The Emperor or proctor is leaving the awning from which he has been watching the execution. Theophilus is smiling sadly, in mingled feeling of the folly and grief of the scene and of bis thoughts; of the girl losing her young days, and of what she had said to him. She had scorned his apprehensions regarding death, and had said gaily, “I will bring you roses and apples from the garden I go to.” As he moves to turn away, he sees the heavenly messenger, bearing a basket filled with the roses and apples of Paradise.
In 1869 was shewn “ The Wine of Circe," a golden-looking picture. The enchantress, robed in saffron, is pouring into cups a thick, black distilment. Two transformed panthers, black leopards of strange aspect, are looking up at her, and crouching about her. A golden awning spreads over the upper part of the picture, and a band of deep, yellow sunflowers is at the back of the spread table. Behind, again, is a streak of fair green sea, on which are seen the Greek ships coming up. The colours here have their meaning, as generally is the case in Mr. BurneJones's pictures, where the symbolism and relations of colour form as separate a part of the design as the structural imagination of it. Circe is the child of the sun and the sea, and has her attributes about her.
Mr. Dante Rosetti's sonnet "For The Wine of Circe,' by Edward Burne-Jones," will help to kindle our memories of the picture :
Dusk-haired and gold-robed o'er the golden wine
Where the dishevelled seaweed hates the sea. In 1870 “ Phyllis and Demophoon” was exhibited in the gallery of the Old Water Colour Society. This is a subject taken from the Metamorphoses of Ovid. Phyllis dies for love of Demophoon, who leaves her. She weeps herself into an almond tree. One day as he passes under the tree, it breaks into blossom, and flings its arms around him for a moment with the words,