So many words obscure the light

This is my review of The Last Pre-Raphaelite: Edward Burne-Jones and the Victorian Imagination by Fiona MacCarthy.

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.

⭐⭐⭐ 3 Stars

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