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The Last Pre-Raphaelite: Edward Burne-Jones and the Victorian Imagination Hardcover – February 29, 2012
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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]. (Rosemary Hill, The Guardian)
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. (Jan Marsh, The Independent)
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. (Jackie Wullschlager, The Financial Times)
[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. (Judith Flanders, The Telegraph)
Wonderful...This is a perfect coming together of biographer and subject. (Michael Holroyd The Guardian 2011-11-26)
The best real biography I read this year was Fiona MacCarthy's Edward Burne-Jones: The Last Pre-Raphaelite, a masterpiece of control. (James Fergusson Times Literary Supplement 2011-12-02)
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. (Karl Miller Times Literary Supplement 2011-12-02)
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." (Richard Dorment New York Review of Books 2012-02-23)
[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. (Henrik Bering Wall Street Journal 2012-02-11)
MacCarthy's The Last Pre-Raphaelite is one of those books one can happily live in for a week. (Michael Dirda Washington Post 2012-02-22)
[An] acute biography...MacCarthy gives us a full, fair, and splendidly rich portrait of Burne-Jones the artist and man. (Matthew Price Boston Globe 2012-02-19)
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 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...A highly recommended biography for anyone interested in the art and culture of Victorian England. (Sandra Rothenberg Library Journal 2012-03-01)
[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. (P. A. Stirton Choice 2012-08-01)
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. (Edward Short Books & Culture 2012-11-01)
About 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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Burne Jones was born plain Edward Jones in the industrial city of Birmingham. Never receiving much formal art training, he exhibited his great artistic ability from an early age. Falling under the spell of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the other Pre-Raphaelites, he began painting in and adding to their style, encouraged by several long trips to Italy and France. He fell in love with and eventually married a lovely girl several years his junior, Georgiana Macdonald, whose large family made him brother in law to the painter Edward Poynter and eventually uncle to Rudyard Kipling and Stanley Baldwin. Fortunately Georgie was patient and long suffering, for she had to share her husband with a number of women in semi-platonic relationships. Most of these women were part of the Souls, making them part of the larger artistic world. Burne-Jones' fame increased throughout most of his working life, though by the time of his death in 1898 he had fallen a little out of artistic fashion. In the years since he and the other Pre-Raphaelites and Aesthetes have waxed and waned in popularity, and they are now enjoying a new and much deserved renaissance.
Fiona MacCarthy's biography is scholarly but engaging and lively. It is beautiflly designed and copiously illustrated, though I wish more of Burne-Jones' own works had been included. The Last Pre-Raphaelite should become one of the essential works on Burne-Jones and his associates and the glorious artistic period in which they lived.
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/2 Vols in 1, 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 May and Amy: A True Story of Family, Forbidden Love, and the Secret Lives of May Gaskell, Her Daughter Amy, and Sir 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.