« PreviousContinue »
ground-indeed, the whole of the background itself is doubtless a conception of early date.
Take, again, the "Mirror of Venus," or the "Chant d'Amour." Of the former the small oil version was begun in 1867, and was finished, together with the large replica (begun 1873), in 1877. The watercolour of the "Chant d'Amour" was begun in 1865, the large oilpicture in 1868, and the latter was not finished until 1877. The "Hours" series, begun in 1870, did not leave the easel until 1883; and instances might be multiplied even to weariness.
These long intervals did not mean that, like Holman Hunt or Madox-Brown, Burne-Jones was content to devote the greater portion of ten or eleven years' work to a single picture, nor were they altogether due to mere commercial reasons. Instead of preparing a small finished drawing that might beguile or be comprehensible to a wary purchaser-as most of Rossetti's circle were in the habit of doing-he frequently laid down a design from simple want of technical knowledge, taking it up again when he felt sufficiently strong. This was, of course, most frequently the case in early days.
A design which (perhaps for reasons of association) appeals to me almost more than any other-the "Merciful Knight-actually had its background painted in the year 1857 or thereabouts. At that date Burne-Jones's education was in so rudimentary a stage that he was still engaged in copying drawings of Rossetti, and did not dare to attempt the human figures, which, in this case, were added by degrees until the picture was finished in 1863, after his return from the land of Carpaccio and Simone Fiorentino. This, again, is perhaps somewhat of an extreme case. Obviously enough, such a work as the "Hours" was not laid aside from any lack of skill.
But, although it is difficult to trace any ordered development by means of individual pictures, it is not impossible to recognise certain broad outlines and certain isolated facts of Burne-Jones's artistic career. Without touching again upon the earliest stages of all-the stages of pen-and-ink drawings and so on, which continued, say, till 1859 one might class together the "von Bork" designs (1860), the "King Rene's Honeymoon" (1861), the designing of the "Laus Veneris" (1861), the "Chess Players" (1862), and the "Merciful Knight" (1863). The early works of this period are characterised by a certain "crowding" of the composition, obvious faults rather than mannerisms of drawing, and brilliant but not invariably harmonious colouring. The "Chess Players" and the "Merciful Knight," however, seem to mark a transition stage. The composition begins to grow less complicated, the colour more assured, and the influence of Rossetti, which is still apparent in the "Chess Players," has nearly disappeared from the "Merciful Knight." When we come to the first
and second water-colours of "Cupid and Psyche" (1865 and 1867), the "Wine of Circe" (1863-9), the designs for the "Mirror of Venus" (1867), the "Chant d'Amour" (1868), and the water-colour "Annunciation" (1870), we feel that the artist has reached a sure footing of his own. His colour during that time remains bright, rich, and harmonious; at times, as in the King's Wedding" (1870), it becomes remarkably brilliant. This drawing, though by no means faultless, is yet tolerably assured, and his composition, though frequently experimental, does not leave much to be desired.
From this date onwards we may consider that the later BurneJones had been reached, the Burne-Jones of the "Love among the Ruins," the Briar Rose," the "Pan and Psyche," the Venus," and all the other masterpieces.
Later modifications are, of course, to be noticed. In the early 'seventies, for instance, we begin to notice the elaboration of the draperies which Burne-Jones so much affected. I must confess myself not wholly enamoured of this feature of his later work. Perhaps painful childish memories of precious holiday mornings spent, pressed into service in a studio, and bidden to wet butter-muslin and drape it haphazard, again and again, on certain small wax models, may have biased me against it.
Again, towards the end of the 'seventies disinclination for bright schemes of colour begins to manifest itself in a number of the pictures. We have works like the "Golden Stairs" (1876), which is practically a study in pale whites; the "Fortune" (1877-84), which is comparatively sober in tone; and so on until we reach a time when monochromes in pale blues and purples seem to have formed the artist's chief output.
I should be inclined to ascribe this change to a development of personal congeniality; but Mr. William Rossetti has given me another and a sufficiently startling reason. Towards the middle of the 'seventies Mr. Holman Hunt was vigorously agitating the subject of the durability of artists' colours, and Burne-Jones seems to have taken the matter very much to heart. In one of his letters to MadoxBrown he asks anxiously what has been that painter's experience of certain colours and certain colourmen. The letter is not dated, but it must have been written before 1873. Mr. William Rossetti is of opinion that the alarm which Mr. Hunt raised, acting upon the fear which Burne-Jones had already conceived, led him to develop a liking either for pale keys of colour or for monochromes. In both cases slight changes of colour would not be absolutely disastrous, whereas monochromes might be trusted to change "all over," or might be executed in colours of proved trustworthiness.
I offer the theory for what it is worth. Such as it is, it has in favour of it the fact that William Morris, Burne-Jones's staunch friend and trusted adviser, was, as we know, much given to the study of materials of all kinds. It is possible that the habit of using colours of a certain class and key, formed in the desire for stability, may have become a second nature. I must confess that in some cases-for example, the Sea Nymph" of 1880, or the replica of the "Depths of the Sea" of 1887-when Burne-Jones attempted to strike a brighter note he was not wholly successful. He seemed at times to miss, at the best, absolute harmony, and, at the worst, to deteriorate almost into garishness, as if he had forgotten some of his old skill. That this was not always the case such a masterpiece of colour as the "King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid" (1880-84) might go to show.
On the other hand, advancing years-which, as a rule, bring no greatly increased love of things bright, whether colours or what not
or even possibly a modification of the visual powers, may have worked the change. I believe that much of the change in Millais' technique, to give but one other instance, was brought about in some such manner as this. Be that as it may, the change is very observable, and I think it can scarcely be considered to be due to outward influences.
Without doubt Burne-Jones owed to Morris, among many other things, his constant tendency to attempt new methods of what is called decorative art. Besides such more or less unsuccessful attempts as the "Perseus" subject, in which figures in gold and silver were set upon a background of painted panels, he executed work in gesso, designed, and sometimes modelled, monumental tablets in various metals, and painted piano-cases. His designs for tapestry, executed by Morris & Co., are, of course, well known. Those for stained glass I have already mentioned. To these must be added his drawings for the Kelmscott Press series, drawings to which he devoted his Sunday mornings for many years. A mere catalogue of all these works would occupy a considerable space.
of almost as great In these he sometimes attainment. Studies of
Another department of his art which is importance as any is formed by his studies. reached an absolutely wonderful level of drapery, of armour, of children, of heads of men and women, and of the hundred and one things that there are to study, seem to flit into one's memory as one thinks of "A Study by Sir E. Burne-Jones." Take those in pencil for the "Masque of Cupid," the "Studies of Armour," which were exhibited at the Burne-Jones Exhibition at the New Gallery; or, again, the pencil head of Paderewski. It would be difficult to find drawing as accurate in the artist's finished works.
Indeed, in some of them, he shows a sense of style and exercises a power over the emotions that not even Michelangelo's studies can surpass.
It is difficult-nay, almost impossible to define, with any approach to scientific accuracy, what were the distinguishing characteristics of Burne-Jones's work as a whole, so unequal and apparently unrelated were his successive works. He dissolved and amalgamated in the crucible of his individuality styles as opposed to each other as the Romanesque, the Medieval, and the Renaissance. Archaic his work was not, yet it was even less modern. He gave his life to the search for beauty, and he seemed to find it in every age, but never in the hours that were passing.
All his reading, as far as it affected his art, was that of the days before us: he loved the old myths with a passionate devotion, and gave his thoughts to the heroes of the "Nibelungenlied," the " Morte d'Arthur," and Chaucer. Doubtless, if Borrow's luckless translations from Daffyd ab Gwyllym had ever seen the light, Burne-Jones and Morris would have pored over them as they did over Meinhold.
Burne-Jones has been acclaimed as the ideal illustrator of Chaucer. He certainly caught a part of his spirit, and, plastically, hymned as Chaucer did that season of "soote schoweres," when the fevers and unrests of love fall upon us.
"Spring am I, too soft of heart
wrote Morris beneath his friend's portrayal of Spring.
But he does not catch the lustiness of Chaucer-the infectious brightness, the sturdy Philistinism of the master. He has no Diana like the goddess of Palamon and Arcite, nor in the procession of his knights does there ride a Sir Balen. Nor, indeed, has his Sir Tristan, like the knight of Thomas Douce, "a barbour reddie, his chinne it was rowe."
Burne-Jones's men are of a race akin to their author's. They are lithe, lissom, pensively amorous, and somewhat blackavised I have in my mind the knight of the "Chant d'Amour "—but they are in no way effeminate. They are of that type that the big-limbed, fairhaired hard-hitter deems of the carpet until he comes to try conclusions with them. Then, as like as not, they bring into play a delicate science and a passion that are fatal enough. In fact, they wield a Carpaccio against a Tintoret, and it is the Ruskin that is foiled in the end.
When we come to inquire why it was that Burne-Jones failǝ1
interpret the bright quaintness of Chaucer, or even the lustiness of Morris-why, in fact, the artist was called decadent, cloying, unhealthy—we must, of course, avow his aversion for anything savouring of realism, whether it were the straight-seeing, "healthyminded" realism of Millais, or the cynical realism of Degas. For him the Pre-Raphaelism of Holman Hunt had no great charm, whereas he paid homage to that in Rossetti's which suggested a departure into less sternly outlined regions. In him there was none of the rough strength nor any of the asceticism of the mediæval. What classical feeling he had was rather of the order of "Dares and Dictis" than of Euripides. The hold that his work had upon us was due not to flawless and arresting perfection, but to subtle, clinging frailty. His drawing has been stigmatised as hypocritically faulty; it has been called purposedly mannered. But it is assuredly neither the one nor the other. Draughtsmanship is as largely a matter of temperament as of training. Late as Burne-Jones's training began, no man ever worked harder, and had his eye and hand been capable of recording the ideal form flawlessly, he would assuredly have done so. He was sincere in his art: not fanatically or inhumorously, but quietly and subtly. Unlike Rossetti, he was not instinct with Southern passion; he underwent none of those violent reactions that caused the painter of the "Ecce Ancilla Domini" to jeeringly style it that "blessed white eyesore." But he was none the less able to see that his work was caricaturable, and not infrequently he allowed himself to mock himself.*
The face that looks out upon us from the canvas of G. F. Watts's portrait of Burne-Jones is mobile and restless, with eyes very observant, having room in them for a certain twinkle. It was just this unforgetfulness of the humorous side that saved Burne-Jones from the platitudes of his imitators, that drew the line between the work of genius and the banal.
In a work and an age in which the voice of the Anglo-Saxon sounds predominant, Burne-Jones's was a Celtic voice, making itself heard in the pauses for breath, and at last, by virtue of persistence, making itself heard through the volume of sound. This Celtic element in him seems to me to account for much that would otherwise be a mystery in his work. The Celt has all his qualities-his wit, his persistence, his subtlety, his mysticism, and his vein of fancy; above all, he is assimilative in a peculiar way. It has been pointed out that Mr. George Meredith, another Celt, is more English than many
Many, out of a number of early letters from Burne-Jones that I possess, are decorated with whimsical sketches caricaturing himself and whatever work he happened to have on the easel, and he addressed similar letters to most of his friends in the early days.