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The Last Pre-Raphaelite: Edward Burne-Jones and the Victorian Imagination

The Last Pre-Raphaelite: Edward Burne-Jones and the Victorian Imagination

by Fiona MacCarthy

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While still a student at Oxford, Edward Burne-Jones formed a friendship and made a renunciation that would shape art history. The friendship was with William Morris, with whom he would occupy the social and intellectual center of the era's cult of beauty. The renunciation was of his intention to enter the clergy, when he-together with Morris-vowed to throw over the


While still a student at Oxford, Edward Burne-Jones formed a friendship and made a renunciation that would shape art history. The friendship was with William Morris, with whom he would occupy the social and intellectual center of the era's cult of beauty. The renunciation was of his intention to enter the clergy, when he-together with Morris-vowed to throw over the Church in favor of art. In Fiona MacCarthy's riveting account of Burne-Jones's life, that exchange of faith for art places him at the intersection of the nineteenth century and the Modern, as he leads us forward from Victorian mores and attitudes to the psychological, sexual, and artistic audacity that would characterize the early twentieth century.

In MacCarthy's hands, Burne-Jones emerges as a great visionary painter, a master of mystic reverie, and a pivotal late nineteenth-century cultural and artistic figure. Lavishly illustrated with color plates, The Last Pre-Raphaelite shows that Burne-Jones's influence extended far beyond his own circle to Freudian Vienna and the delicately gilded erotic dream paintings of Gustav Klimt, the Swiss Symbolist painter Ferdinand Hodler, and the young Pablo Picasso and the Catalan painters.

Drawing on extensive research, MacCarthy offers a fresh perspective on the achievement of Burne-Jones, a precursor to the Modern, and tells the dramatic, fascinating story of this peculiarly captivating and elusive man.

Editorial Reviews

Rosemary Hill
This magnificent and deeply felt biography brings with it a sense of completion, not least in its account of one of the greatest and most fruitful Victorian friendships, [between William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones].
Jan Marsh
Fiona MacCarthy writes so easily that even a doorstep biography of this size is a true pleasure to read, unfolding events at an enjoyable pace and skillfully structured to avoid the drag of one-thing-after-another... a triumph of biographical art.
Jackie Wullschlager
The signal achievement of Fiona MacCarthy's captivating biography The Last Pre-Raphaelite is to make a case for Edward Burne-Jones, most regressive and dreamy of all Victorian artists, as a painter with significance for modernity as well as for his own times.
Judith Flanders
[W]ith deft assuredness, MacCarthy takes on the naysayers, making a good case for 'the queer silence of [Burne-Jones's] work, its suspended animation', its cryptic lushness and beckoning sense of immobile potential. Burne-Jones was, she writes, the 'licensed escapist' of the Victorian age, and in this accomplished biography she allows the Houdini of the canvas to take centre stage once more.
The Guardian - Michael Holroyd
Wonderful...This is a perfect coming together of biographer and subject.
Times Literary Supplement - James Fergusson
The best real biography I read this year was Fiona MacCarthy's Edward Burne-Jones: The Last Pre-Raphaelite, a masterpiece of control.
Times Literary Supplement - Karl Miller
A narrative feat which gives a detailed account of the Victorian immersion in its great lake of sentiment, mystic feelings and good cheer, and in the period waters of duality.
New York Review of Books - Richard Dorment
Aimed at the general reader, [McCarthy's] thoroughly researched biography changes our perception of the man and his art by exploring in depth aspects of his life that an art historian might only consider in passing. In recognizing the undertow of melancholy and sexual frustration embedded in work of hypnotic visual power, she articulates what the illustrator George du Maurier called the "Burne-Jonesiness of Burne-Jones."
Wall Street Journal - Henrik Bering
[An] impressive biography of Burne-Jones...MacCarthy paints a lively portrait of Burne-Jones's circle, including the dark sides...Even Burne-Jones's detractors will find that The Last Pre-Raphaelite skillfully probes the fascinating recesses of the Victorian mind and that MacCarthy achieves her goal of getting Burne-Jones out from under [William] Morris's shadow.
Washington Post - Michael Dirda
MacCarthy's The Last Pre-Raphaelite is one of those books one can happily live in for a week.
Boston Globe - Matthew Price
[An] acute biography...MacCarthy gives us a full, fair, and splendidly rich portrait of Burne-Jones the artist and man.
Choice - P. A. Stirton
[MacCarthy] explores Burne-Jones's work in relation to the history of his life and friendships… This is an insightful biography by an author who understands the art history but is equally adept at explaining the motivations of the late Victorians.
Books & Culture - Edward Short
In her superb new biography, Fiona McCarthy, the author of the definitive life of William Morris, captures the richness of the artist and his epoch with enviable verve. No one interested in the English 19th century should pass it up...McCarthy presents [Burne-Jones] with such marvelous fidelity by capturing his abounding charm, his chivalric kindness, his wonderful sense of the ridiculous, and his horror of anyone and everything that smacked of the bumptious...[A] wonderfully unputdownable biography.
Library Journal
This detailed, engaging, and thoroughly researched biography is the most recent work on the English Pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones. Versed in the artistic culture of Victorian England, respected biographer MacCarthy (William Morris: A Life for Our Time) covers Burne-Jones's life from his early days in Oxford to his ascent as a respected artist. She explores his relationships with contemporaries such as fellow Pre-Raphaelite Dante Gabriel Rossetti and especially Arts and Crafts designer William Morris—Burne-Jones collaborated with Morris's interior design firm, Morris & Company, on numerous stained glass windows, tapestries, and illustrations for books (also published by Morris's Kelmscott Press). This work examines Burne-Jones's personal correspondence with these artists as well as with the women in his life: e.g., his wife, Georgie MacDonald; his mistress, the exotic Mary Zambaco; and other love interests, models, and inspirations for paintings and other artwork. VERDICT A highly recommended biography for anyone interested in the art and culture of Victorian England.—Sandra Rothenberg, Framingham State Univ. Lib., MA
Michael Dirda
MacCarthy's The Last Pre-Raphaelite is one of those books one can happily live in for a week…
—The Washington Post

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6.10(w) x 9.30(h) x 2.00(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 13: The Grange, Two


Burne-Jones returned from Italy with a surge of energy. His own optimistic record of the designs and paintings on which he was working in 1872 is now in the Burne-Jones papers at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. There are thirty-four projects on the list and they include ideas and early versions of many of the paintings that are now considered quintessential Burne-Jones. The Sleeping Beauty series; The Days of Creation; The Beguiling of Merlin; The Golden Stairs; an enlarged oil version of Le Chant d’Amour for William Graham. These were all conceived in what seems an unstoppable outpouring of ideas. This work-in-progress list gives us a fascinating insight into his way of working. He liked to have a multitude of projects, in varying stages of completion, on the go at once. ‘I have sixty pictures, oil and water, in my studio and every day I would gladly begin a new one,’ he wrote exultantly soon after he was home. He moved easily from pencil drawing to oil and watercolour painting, shifted almost without thinking from one scale to another. He was concentrating on the niggling detail of a little triptych of Pyramus and Thisbe painted in watercolour on vellum. At the same time he had started on the first of his large-scale decorative cycles, returning to the story of ‘Cupid and Psyche’ for the dining room of the Howards’ new house, 1 Palace Green. Burne-Jones was the master of the uncompleted project and many of these works took years and years to finish, often going through numerous versions. The Golden Stairs, for instance, was not finally completed until 1880. The Troy Triptych, the pictorial epic of the Trojan Wars which had started life at Red House and to which Burne-Jones now returned with a new vigour, even producing a large quasi-Renaissance three-dimensional model, never saw the light of day. William Morris gave up waiting for Burne-Jones’s contribution to his new long poem Love is Enough, though ‘Many designs’ for it are listed in the records. Love is Enough was published in 1872 without Burne-Jones’s illustration.

This was not, of course, the way to make a living as an artist and although Burne-Jones by this time had opened his first bank account, introduced by William Morris to his own bank, Praed’s of Fleet Street, he found it convenient to ignore financial realities. He told Fairfax Murray on his return from Italy, ‘all my affairs are in their accustomed muddle’. It was to be many years before the family became financially secure.

Meet the Author

Fiona MacCarthy is one of Britain’s most acclaimed biographers, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, and the author of numerous books, including William Morris: A Life for Our Time.

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