When it was announced that one of our greatest writers of biography, Fiona MacCarthy, was preparing a biography of Edward Burne-Jones there were many who waited eagerly for its publication - the book, which took 6 years to write, does not disappoint. Indeed, it is probably one of the very best biographies in our time of an artist, of the same insightful quality as the author's own prize-winning biography of William Morris William Morris: A Life for Our Time
. It is fitting that it is Fiona MacCarthy who now tells us about the other side of a friendship, between Morris and Burne-Jones, which began when they met as students in Oxford. It is no exaggeration to say that this friendship completely changed the face of English art and design. Although she asserts early in the book that Burne-Jones was the greater artist while Morris was `unarguably the greater man', by the time that you finish this book you realise that this is only a relative judgement because Burne-Jones was also a great man. He was much loved and admired: Kipling said `He was more to me than any man here... The man was a God to me.'; Henry James said `He was a wonderfully nice creature'; and the American poet Emma Lazarus considered him `so gentle, so kind and earnest and so full of poetry and imagination that he shines out of all the people I have seen, with a sort of glamour of his own.'
But Burne-Jones was a very private man and a challenge to a biographer. Luckily, his devoted wife Georgiana wrote a wonderful, sensitive and loyal account of him soon after he died Memorials of Edward Burne-Jones, Volume 1Memorials of Edward Burne-Jones, Volume 2
, of which MacCarthy makes much use, together with the hundreds of letters he wrote and received - now scattered around the world and largely unpublished. She also travelled to places, especially in Italy, that meant a lot to Burne-Jones. This helps to make the book especially vivid. But in the end she says that her main source has been his incredible output of paintings, stained glass windows, tapestries, embroideries and painted furniture: `the life is there, self-evident, embedded in the art'.
As you read this gripping story, you become aware of two strong driving forces in the life of Burne-Jones: the quest for beauty and the quest for love. The first is the more public face of the man, who believed `only this is true, that beauty is very beautiful, and softens, and comforts, and inspires, and lifts up, and never fails.' His art reflects the continued quest for beauty and that is one of its great attractions, together with an indefinable quality of mood and feeling. The more private quest, that for love, is sensitively dealt with by MacCarthy who describes his friendships with numerous women and indeed with young girls. One gets the feeling that he very much needed love and also to give love. He had a special attraction to vulnerable women and in some cases this lasted a life-time. Perhaps the best documented example is his attachment to May Gaskell, so movingly told in the book by Josceline Dimbleby A Profound Secret: May Gaskell, her daughter Amy, and Edward Burne-Jones
, to whom he wrote more than 700 letters over a two-year period.
It is impossible to do justice to this extraordinarily rich book in a short review. Reading it, I was amazed at how much research MacCarthy has done and how well she integrates it into a highly readable story that puts Burne-Jones in the context of Victorian England. There are many fascinating insights into Burne-Jones's paintings and, although the book has more illustrations than usual in a biography, you will want to have access to the internet or to the excellent book by Wildman and Christian Edward Burne-Jones: Victorian Artist-dreamer
in order to see the paintings. One small quibble: why didn't the publisher put references to the illustrations within the text?
Without doubt, this is the definitive biography of Burne-Jones and it is likely to remain so for a long time. I urge everyone who likes his works to read it and so enrich their understanding of the man and of his work.