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4.4 out of 5 stars
4.4 out of 5 stars
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on 11 May 2017
An ex-library book with labels which was not made clear (hence 4 stars) but apart from this in excellent condition and at an unbelievable price. I look forward to dipping in to this.
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on 13 September 2011
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much use, together with the hundreds of letters he wrote and received - now scattered around the world and largely unpublished.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.
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on 14 January 2013
This is a thorough, well researched biography. We are taken chronologically through Burne-Jones' life, with all the major events described and the contemporaries he encountered.

And yet, something is missing. The first is context. The author, Fiona MacCarthy, does not really make clear the impact Burne-Jones' paintings had when they were first exhibited; it really is not enough to say they were a reaction against the crass materialism of the age. The phrase 'Victorian imagination' is used in the biography's sub-title, yet we are told little about what constitutes this 'imagination'.

Secondly, we are not given enough information about the paintings themselves, more particularly the techniques Burne-Jones used.

The list of sources consulted runs to five pages, yet one of the most intriguing ones, the record of conversations between Burne-Jones and his assistant Thomas Rooke, receives scant attention in the text. It might also have been interesting to read MacCarthy's views on why Burne-Jones took so long to finish his paintings, sometimes spending years on a canvas without completing it.

Enjoyable, but it needed more analysis.
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on 13 November 2011
I bought this book because I had recently read the author's biography of William Morris, which I loved, so I leaped at the chance to read about his life long friend, Burne-Jones. I have given the book five stars although I did not warm to it as much as I did to the William Morris volume, because I personally prefer Morris, who is in some ways more straightforward and/or did not leave so many clues to his personal feelings. However, on finishing the book I felt I had gained insight into Burne-Jones himself (and liked him better), plus insight into the times he lived in and another context for Morris in the person and life of his best friend who was yet so different from him. The book paints a picture of the era without ever losing sight of the fact that it is about one man's trajectory through it.
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on 17 March 2015
A masterpiece. Clearly this will be the definitive biography of Edward Burne-Jones for many years to come. The result of prodigious and painstaking research, beautifully written and a model of clarity and straightforward writing. Perhaps we would expect nothing less from this wonderful author, Fiona MacCarthy, who already has a number of excellent works to her credit.
The author takes us in a chronological sequence through the different periods of the life of Burne-Jones, often in two or three year sections (apart from the first 19 year section of his childhood in Birmingham). These are characterised by his formative trips abroad, for example to Italy (five trips) or by the various places he lived, The Grange, Fulham or Rottingdean, Sussex, or by circles of interest, for example Little Holland House. Throughout MacCarthy makes us aware of the development of the artistic skill of Burne-Jones and his expanding interests from watercolours, to oils, and, under the influence of his lifelong friend and close collaborator William Morris, stained glass and designs for tapestries. The prodigious output of Burne-Jones must be daunting for any biographer but MacCarthy takes us through this maze carefully highlighting the key works and their inspiration. Despite his horror of social events Burne-Jones had a huge circle of friends and acquaintances and these characters appear and recede as the story progresses but are always well-rounded and real in the narrative. MacCarthy does not balk from dealing with Burne-Jones’ affair with Maria Zambaco or his numerous other infatuations and flirtations with women young and very young but these are never allowed to become overly suggestive or lewd, a clear sense of proportion and appreciation of Victorian values being maintained.
The family that Burne-Jones married into, the Macdonald family of his wife Georgiana (Georgie), was extensive and gave rise to a number of famous figures who were all frequent visitors to the Burne-Jones household either as adults or children. These figures include Rudyard Kipling, Angela McInnes, Edward Poynter and Stanley Baldwin and their vivid recollections provide a valuable source of information for this book. Likewise Burne-Jones was a frequent letter writer and thankfully many of these survive and give an excellent insight into the mood and thinking of the artist. Always uneasy with the Establishment but not so radical as William Morris; witty and with a wonderful imagination and love of ancient legends; easily attracted by beauty but sensitive to a fault to the feelings of others, this is the story of a wonderful man and amazing artist who has found exactly the right biographer.
This book contains a family tree, and many colour and black and white photographic and some printed illustrations and is recommended without reservation to all those interested in Victorian art and the pre-Raphaelites.
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on 23 December 2011
The best biography I have read in a long time. I enjoyed Penelope Fitzgerald's book on Burne-Jones, written over thirty years ago and didn't know how this one would compare, or if it would just go over the same ground. Happily it was as different as could be while covering the same subject. The author obviously had access to additional material and has produced a fast-paced entertaining account of the life and values of one of Victorian England's greatest and most visionary artists. I literally couldn't put it down and was very sorry when I finished it.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 22 January 2013
Burne-Jones sought lifelong escapism into the world of mythical romance as a reaction to the ugliness of a childhood in industrial Birmingham. When his deep friendship with William Morris was finally fractured by the latter's involvement with active socialism, Burne Jones wrote of his desire to take refuge in the artistic work which he could control.

He had some strokes of luck: Rossetti found commissions for him to design stained glass - often for the very wealthy industrialists responsible for the world he hated; Ruskin paid for a couple of trips to Italy where he discovered at that time little-known painters such as Botticelli or Piero della Francesca who were to influence his work, and despite his uncertain income Burne-Jones seems to have been welcomed by her parents as a fiancé for Georgie Macdonald. His repayment for her loyalty was a steamy affair with the flamboyant Greek artist Maria Zambaco, the muse for some of his most famous paintings, as were also some of the pale and interesting younger women with whom he liked to flirt. Highly successful and made a baronet in his lifetime, Burne Jones was a prolific artist, despite his disorganised approach.

It is understandable that Fiona MacCarthy's encyclopaedic knowledge, the result of six year's spent researching Byrne-Jones, led her to produce a work of 536 pages, excluding notes, so heavy that it splits at the seams as you read it (although a Kindle version is available) but I found it on balance a laborious slog not only because of the length but also the structure. The decision to base each chapter on a different location linked to the artist's life in chronological order leads to a fragmentation of themes and repetition of some points. I wanted less description and more analysis and insight that was more than vague suggestions of what might have been the case. What exactly was the goal or philosophy of the Pre-Raphaelites and what was their impact, how did Burne-Jones fit into the group, what was his method of painting and so on? I would have liked more focus on a few major works, illustrated in the text, with a full discussion of each one. I gleaned little more about the painter's personality than may be found in the preface.

If some of the peripheral detail e.g. on the painter's cronies had been omitted, there would have been the space to develop some neglected aspects.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 20 September 2012
This is a thorough and very well-written biography of Edward Burne-Jones (1833 to 1898). He comes across as a sweet-natured, loving and lovable, witty, sensitive, and workoholic person, extremely susceptible to the charms of young women and pre-pubescent girls whom he referred to as his "pets", and deeply upset when they married. He also had a serious and fraught love affaire for a time with Maria Zambaco. All that put a great strain on his wife Georgiana, who endured all this stoically and would, after his death, write an affectionate two-volume memoir of his life (omitting all mention of Maria Zambaco). We are told that all these women were at one time or another models for Burne-Jones' paintings and designs, though I must say that the faces of the women in his pictures look almost indistinguishable one from another - see for example all the maidens in one of his most famous ones, "The Golden Staircase", for whom Fiona MacCarthy provides a partial key. Even when he draws them, beautifully, from life, they mostly look quite similar to each other. (Incidentally I have been able to find only a single drawing of a young man, and that was his son. When he drew the children of his friends, it seems he drew only the daughters, never, as far as I can tell, their brothers.)

Burne-Jones also had a warm and touching relationship with his friend and colleague William Morris, and the biography brings out very well how very different they were: Morris short and dumpy, Burne-Jones more ethereal; Morris becoming politically increasingly radical, while Burne-Jones' temperamental liberalism sat rather uncomfortably with the high society in which he increasingly moved and which Morris despised; Burne-Jones loving Italian art while Morris increasingly turned against Italian art and found inspiration in Nordic mythologies. But they had brealkfast together almost every Sunday, and Burne-Jones worked for Morris' company in a huge variety of media, designing tiles, tapestries, stained glass windows, and illustrations for Morris' Kelmscott Press. Of course there is a full account of Burne-Jones' huge artistic output which made him in the second half of his life the most famous English artist, although near its end (he died in 1898) his work was falling out of fashion and only relatively recently have the pre-Raphaelites in general and Burne-Jones in particular recovered some respect.

Burne-Jones and Morris joined the founders of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood when they were all still quite young, and so this biography has a good deal about the complicated lives not only of Burne-Jones but of Rossetti and Millais and about their advocate John Ruskin.

If there is one minor criticism I would make of this splendid book it is that there is almost too much detail about the daily lives of Burne-Jones and all the people around him in the 536 pages of the text. I would have preferred the author to have given us instead more of the stories behind the paintings she mentions (usually without dates): even more than is the case with other pre-Raphaelites, Burne-Jones' pictures allude to mythologies which are little known these days, though they can of course all be looked up on the Internet, and on Google Images we can find almost all the works the author mentions. Reading this book has been a most rewarding experience.
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on 31 January 2015
This is a beautiful book. It looks like a doorstep and it reads like a dream. Ms MacCarthy has dug deep into the cultural and artistic life of the late Victorians, and produced this riveting biography of Edward Burne Jones. Although the book is about a lot of people who were too clever for their own good, Ms MacCarthy's limpid prose makes this an easy read, and gives a clear account of their ideas, the things they argued about, and the great issues of the time. The book has not been written to 'dish the dirt', but Ms MacCarthy is keen to get at the inner truths of people's lives, and there is a strong whiff of sexual and political intrigue as well as an enduring marriage and friendships (especially with William Morris). One of many strengths of the book is the immense number of fascinating quotations from Burne Jones, his wife and his friends - some deeply moving, some very funny and some amazingly cutting and sarcastic. There is a huge bibliography for people who want to get stuck in to the subject of Burne Jones himself - a visionary and workholic artist who has left a legacy of extraordinary paintings, stained glass and tapestries, and has influenced many other srtists since, throughout the world. Modern computer game graphics, for example, are full of design elements - especially in the sword and sorcery genre - which hark back to the works of Burne Jones.
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on 29 December 2013
The author is witty, and immediate, in that she makes the frankest and often unsettling comments on the artists and those associated with them. eg women . It is fascinating how human nature expresses itself regardless of the time and place. Who would have thought Victorian England had such a 'modern' caste, yes, with the 'e', of people? Having read Van Gogh's biography recently I can see the social tendencies for young male artists on both sides of the channel are not so dissimilar. The writer also conveys enthusiasm about the artists' development of their skills and the challenges of creating specific paintings. The private life is also illuminated, concurrent with the artistic life. she is very clever. Her immediacy of style and pace makes it very interesting and sometimes eye-popping. Very well done, Fiona! I felt I was sitting sharing a drink with you, while you chatted and I listened, absorbed!!
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