20 December 2013

Art for Advent (20): ‘Love and the
Pilgrim,’ by Edward Burne-Jones

‘Love and the Pilgrim,’ by Edward Burne-Jones

Patrick Comerford

As our pilgrimage through Advent moves into its closing days, I have chosen as my work of Art for Advent this morning [20 December 2013] the painting Love and the Pilgrim by Edward Burne-Jones, and now in the Tate Gallery.

The design dates from the early 1870s, but the painting was not started till 1877 and Burne-Jones laboured over it for the next 20 years – I suppose we could call it a labour of love – and he completed it only in 1896-1897. This is his last major work completed before his death in 1898.

Burne-Jones found the idea of Love guiding a Pilgrim on his quest in The Romaunt of the Rose by the mediaeval poet Geoffrey Chaucer, a book that Burne-Jones had read while he was a student at Oxford.

Although this painting does not illustrate a particular episode in the story, the figure of Love is based on Chaucer’s description:

And also on his heed was set
Of roses rede a chapelet.
But nightingales, a ful gret route,
That flyen over his heed aboute.

This is a strange and sombre, yet compelling, painting. In a bleak landscape, the stooped pilgrim is torn by thorns and still half-tangled in them as Love with an out-stretched arm helps him to step out and onto clear ground as Love steps forward with one foot on solid ground.

Although the theme of the painting is clearly not religious, the depiction of Love as a winged angel and the questing figure as a pilgrim recall religious imagery. Love’s wings are surrounded by a flock of birds, symbolising liberation and the flight to freedom.

Love is leading the hunched figure of the pilgrim through the thicket, out towards the hallowed plain. The dark wings of the angel are pre-Raphaelite in detail, with authentic eagle’s wings.

The painting is one of three illustrating a journey that begins with The Pilgrim at the Gate of Idleness. In this series, a personified Love escorts the Pilgrim from the Gate of Idleness, through a grey, eerie landscape in Love Leading the Pilgrim, eventually bringing him to his goal in The Heart of the Rose.

The use of mediaeval subjects and love-related themes is typical of Edward Burne-Jones and his work, and the paintings present a complex statement about love, in which the experience of love brings both pleasure and pain.

When he exhibited the painting at the New Gallery in 1897, Burne-Jones added two lines from Algernon Swinburne’s ‘Tristram of Lyonesse’ (1882) in the catalogue:

Love that is first and last of all things made
The light that morning has man’s life for shade.

These lines speak of the confusion of hope and despair, yet struggle to find hope in despair.

The painting sold for £5,775, and it was later acquired by the Duchess of Sutherland. By 1943, the taste for works by Burne-Jones had faded so much that the National Art Collection bought this painting for £94 10 s, and gave it to the Tate.

Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones (1833-1898) is the most important painter among the second wave of Pre-Raphaelites. He is closely identified with the later phase of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, and he worked closely with William Morris on a wide range of decorative arts as a founding partner in Morris, Marshall, Faulkner, and Company.

Burne-Jones was closely involved in the rejuvenation of stained glass art in England. I first came to know his work in 1970 when I first visited Saint Editha’s Church in Tamworth, Staffordshire. I was there to see the Comberford Chapel in the north transept and was captivated by his stained glass windows in the neighbouring chapel, Saint George’s Chapel, where the east windows were designed by Burne-Jones.

These windows, ‘The Angels of Creation,’ connect the story of the creation of humanity with the story of the incarnation. The glass was in the workshop of William Morris in 1874, and the windows are a memorial to Robert Peel, MP for Tamworth, who died in 1872. Saint Editha’s also has windows by William Morris and by Ford Madox Brown.

I have also gone to see stained glass windows by Burne-Jones in Saint Philip’s Cathedral and Saint Martin in the Bull Ring, Birmingham, the Chapel of Jesus College, Cambridge, All Saints’ Church, Jesus Lane, Cambridge, Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, Saint Carthage’s Cathedral, Lismore, and Fisherwick Presbyterian Church, Belfast.

Two windows showing ‘Prudence’ and ‘Fortitude’ was originally intended as part of a three-light window for Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin. His design for the central light was never completed and the window was never executed.

Edward Coley Burne Jones (he later hyphenated his name) was born in Birmingham on 28 August 1833. He went to King Edward VI Grammar School, Birmingham, from 1844 and the Birmingham School of Art from 1848 to 1852, before studying theology at Exeter College, Oxford, where, as an Anglo-Catholic, he intended to seek ordination in the Church of England.

At Oxford, he became a friend of William Morris, and with a small group of friends from Birmingham they formed a close and intimate society that they called “The Brotherhood.”

The members of the Brotherhood read John Ruskin and Tennyson, visited churches, and idealised the Middle Ages. At the same time, Burne-Jones discovered Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur which became influential throughout his life.

Morris and Burne-Jones were also influenced by the work of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and they commissioned him him as a contributor to their Oxford and Cambridge Magazine founded by Morris in 1856.

Burne-Jones had intended to become an Anglican priest, but under Rossetti’s influence both he and Morris decided to become artists, and Burne-Jones left Oxford in 1856 before taking a degree to pursue his career in art. Morris went to work with the architect George Edmund Street, while Burne-Jones moved to London to study with Rossetti.

In 1859, Burne-Jones travelled to Italy with John Ruskin where he saw and greatly admired the early Italian Renaissance painters like Botticelli, da Vinci, Michelangelo and Mantegna, whose work provided much of his inspiration. In all, he would make four visits to Italy, travelling from Venice to Rome, Florence, Siena and the hills and towns of Tuscany.

In 1860, Burne-Jones married Georgiana ‘Georgie’ MacDonald (1840–1920), the daughter of a Methodist minister and one of the MacDonald sisters from Wolverhampton. She was 19, he was 27, and they were married on 9 June, the anniversary of the death of Dante’s Beatrice. Later, Burne-Jones was an uncle by marriage of the Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, and of Rudyard Kipling.

Although his early paintings were heavily inspired by Rossetti, by the 1860s Burne-Jones was discovering his own personal style and developing his own distinctive approach, using mediaeval models but invigorating them with fresh and modern looks.

In 1861, Burne-Jones and William Morris co-founded the decorating firm that became Morris & Co. Their work was deeply influenced by the architecture of AWN Pugin and the Anglo-Catholic Movement. They made several thousand stained-glass windows in their workshops and the biblical scenes designed by Bourne-Jones, as well as his arrays of saints and angels were endlessly recycled, ordered from the catalogue presented to the clients of Morris & Co.

Two significant secular commissions helped establish the firm’s reputation in the late 1860s: a royal project at Saint James’s Palace and the “green dining room” at the South Kensington Museum (now the Victoria and Albert Museum) of 1867 which featured stained glass windows and panel figures by Burne-Jones.

In 1871, Morris & Co installed the windows at All Saints’ Church, Cambridge, designed by Burne-Jones for Alfred Baldwin, his wife’s brother-in-law. But for much of the 1870s Burne-Jones did not exhibit, following a spate of bitterly hostile attacks in the press, and a passionate affair with his Greek model Maria Zambaco that ended with her attempted suicide.

Like many young intellectuals of his age, he lost his faith at one stage. “Belong to the Church of England?” he once asked. “Put your head in a bag!” But he never lost his love of what he described as “Christmas carol Christianity,” with its colour and joy, and much of his work was commissioned for churches such as his creation and annunciation scenes in Saint Editha’s, Tamworth, or his ‘Angels of the Hierarchy’ and ‘Annunciation’ windows in the Chapel of Jesus College, Cambridge.

He was given the title of baronet in 1894, although he was unhappy about accepting the honour, which disgusted his socialist friend Morris and was scorned by his socialist wife Georgiana.

Morris died in 1896. Burne-Jones was devastated and his health declined substantially. In 1898 he had an attack of influenza, and had apparently recovered, when he was again taken suddenly ill, and died on 17 June 1898.

Six days later, at the suggestion of the Prince of Wales, a memorial service was held at Westminster Abbey. It was the first time an artist was honoured in this way. He was buried in the churchyard at Saint Margaret’s Church, Rottingdean.

Tomorrow:Cossacks’ by Wassily Kandinsky.

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