In 1450 the Cistercian artist monk Filippo Lippi painted a picture that centres on two young people. The man, in the attire of a knight, rests upon one knee, his head slightly bowed. He is almost a boy. He looks with care and respect at the woman who sits before him. Her head is also bowed, her eyes downcast, as if in modesty. The picture is divided into two halves, one inhabited by him and the other by her. He is on the outside. There is a tree, and he is kneeling on the grass amidst the little plants that grow there. She, in contrast, is in a room. She has a wall behind her. In the background to her profiled figure there is what appears to be a bed covered in rich fabric, so this is her bed chamber, and there is an open door with steps leading up. Her chair is set upon decorated tiles.
Filippo Lippi (1406-1469) 'Annunciation'. Tempera on panel (1449-1459). National Gallery, London.
These two figures inhabit the same picture and each is there because of the other, yet they are in quite different settings: her place of the feminine internal and his, external and masculine. Their meeting point is also their dividing point, that which may or may not be crossed by lovers in courtship. A small wall marks the point and upon it rests a vase of lilies, the flower that traditionally has symbolised purity and virginity.
This is a scene that portrays a sensitivity and respect that can only accompany the most intimate of occasions and one in which there is an offering and a sharing of something that has always been ordained but is only now about to be realised.
But this painting is not about a consummation between these two characters. He has wings and an oriole and is the Archangel Gabriel, she is the Virgin Mary. There is the hand of God there too, at the top of the picture, from which, in a spiralling trajectory towards Mary's womb, flutters down the Holy Spirit in the form of a white dove. She is not to be a wife for Gabriel; his role is as a divine messenger, his purpose The Annunciation; "Ecce Ancilla Domine".
Yet, if we take away from this picture its Christian symbols, and in this particular image there are comparatively few of these, if we remove the angel's wings, the orioles and the hand that hovers above, we have then a scene of two quite ordinary young people who exist in a delicate rapture as, still separate, they contemplate, perhaps with some awe, the possibility of emotional, physical and even spiritual union. It is a picture of courtly love.
Even in its formal sense, the painting is about conception, the loss of virginity, and so inevitably about a kind of sexual fulfilment. Less formally the artist has produced an imagery that allows two young figures a moment in which to contemplate a destiny of their own.
There is a quality of the Middle Ages that still exists in this early Renaissance picture. One of the elements is the simplicity of its piety. There is not the grandeur of imagery that can be found in many 15th Century works. The 1486 painting of the same subject by Carlo Crivelli is pictorially more ambitious but its sacred moment is rendered as spectacular rather than quietly intimate.
Carlo Crivelli (1430/45 - 1494), 'The Annunciation, with St Emidius'. Egg and oil on canvas (1486). National Gallery, London.
Medieval art conveyed humility. This is the case despite the most glorious, even gorgeous applications of gold leaf and Gothic decoration. Such decorations existed for the sake of a higher ideal than that of the personal skills of the artist. It was in fact, for the glory of God and the medieval paintings were almost exclusively produced as a service to Christianity. They would be installed and viewed as divine decoration and for visual contemplation in churches, chapels and cathedrals.
In such a Christian society, that most powerful of human drives, sexuality, was also often compressed and shaped to exist in a Christian world and its cultural manifestations articulated in ways that would show the same deference to a higher power. This Christian doctrine with its moral accompaniment was one of the most powerful components in the late medieval practice of courtly love, from the French expression 'amour courtois'. The noble man would be a servant to the love of his lady and in this he followed the Christian tradition that abounded in so many of the paintings of the time, the adoration of the Holy Virgin.
Gentile da Fabriano (1370-1427) 'The Adoration of the Magi' (Detail)(1423). Tempera on panel. Uffizi Gallery, Florence.
Of course, this form of worship still exists in Roman Catholicism today, as does the influence of courtly love in our wider culture. The pursuance of the woman by the romantically inclined man can still sometimes be referred to as 'courting' and if such a term is used, a content of dignity should at least be inferred.
It is worth conjecturing, that given the particular commission that brought about the creation of the Lippi 'Annunciation', one not from a religious source but a secular one, the Medicci family, Lippi had a bit more freedom to interpret the scene. Again, take away the relatively few religious symbols in the picture and it becomes a simple scene of boy meets girl except that in this instance it is a deeply respectful young man and a modest, yet contained, virginal young woman. The painting shows the essence of the ideals of courtly love.
For the medieval and early Renaissance artists, the portrayal of contemporary forms of male / female interaction was not really a sphere of interest or requirement. The scope of subject matter in art certainly widened, so that portraiture increased and the religious subject could mingle with other kinds of narratives, particularly from classical mythology, but the cultural tales of their own time were not a particular source of imagery for the artists. Courtly love was, though, celebrated and propagated through other kinds of artistic expression: the deliveries of the troubadour poets for instance, the tales told of the romance and chivalry in and around the court of King Arthur and of the escapades of Sir Lancelot du Lac. These narratives would be taken up as inspiring subject matter by artists hundreds of years later, but there is very little to see of courtly love from its own time, except in those forms of its essential ingredient that are repeated in images over and over again, in the iconography of its main Christian source, the adoration of the Virgin.
Filippo Lippi (1406-1469) Madonna
Here the female is cast as the quintessence of purity and grace, and whereas it is the worship of love itself and a subjection of the loving subject to his beloved object that motivates the romance of courtly love, in the religious paintings a similar quality of sacrifice and extreme estimation is expressed through the experience of Christian faith.
With the advent of the 16th Century and the Renaissance full blown, love had certainly become a favourite source for the artists, but this was no homage to the graceful resistances and deferments of courtly love; instead, there was a celebration of a pictorial sexual liberation. The Classical myths provided the narratives through which artists like Titian could move the viewer to wonderment and sensual awe. They still painted the blessed Virgin for their church patrons; for their secular clients they painted Venus often modelled by a courtesan.
Titian (1488/90 - 1576). 'Venus and Musician'. Prado, Madrid.
And so, like the legendary princess, spellbound and sleeping in an enchanted garden, courtly love was to rest, out of any real pictorial consciousness, for hundreds of years, waiting for a young knight or two to ride by on their quest and discover her, awaken her, and place her once more above them on the seat of perfection.
Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898) 'The Rose Bower' (1886-1890). From the narrative cycle 'The Briar Rose' (c1890). Based on the Sleeping Beauty fairy story. At Buscot Park, The Faringdon Collection Trust.
During the years 1883 and 1884 Edward Burne-Jones painted one of his finest and best-known pictures. It is called 'King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid' and is now part of the collection of Tate Britain. It is a painting of courtly love.
Burne Jones' notes show that he had a struggle with it, but then it is a major work, both in size and in execution, and there was also an ideal behind the narrative of the picture that was close enough to his heart and soul to require an exacting response.
The artist wrote: "I work daily at Cophetua and his Maid. I torment myself every day......But I will kill myself or else Cophetua shall look like a King and the beggar like a Queen, such as Kings and Queens ought to be".
If Burne-Jones had not discovered the writings on art of John Ruskin and the paintings and drawings of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, he may never have become an artist in the first place. He had set out to become a priest. His spiritual fervour remained though and most profoundly, came to be channelled through his love of the chivalric ideals of the medieval and their expression through art.
This is an extract from a letter that he wrote as a young man, to his family. He had just visited the ruins of a medieval convent Godstow, on the Thames near Oxford:
"....I came back in a delirium of joy....and in my mind pictures of the old days, the abbey, and long processions of the faithful, banners of the cross, copes and crosiers, gay nights and ladies by the river bank, hawking-parties and all the pageantry of the golden age - it made me feel so wild and mad I had to throw stones into the water to break the dream. I never remember having such an unutterable ecstasy, it was quite painful with intensity, as if my forehead would burst."
What makes a romantic? Likely ingredients are not obvious in the home and cultural environment of the young Burne Jones. Of Welsh parentage, born in 1833 in Birmingham, he grew up and lived there until he left for Exeter College Oxford, his aim, in accordance with his father's wishes, to become a priest. His parents were lower middle class, his father a picture framer and guilder. There seems to have been little artistic arousal in this family setting.
But it just happened that another young man joined Exeter College on exactly the same day. A remarkable synchronicity. It was the initiation of a chemistry between two personalities that throughout their lives would stimulate some of the greatest artistic achievements of the Victorian era. Burne Jones's new friend and influence was William Morris, there, too, to become a priest, but also a devotee of the romantic and the Medieval.
But another figure altogether was to provide the cathexis that would charge a potential in Burne Jones yet hardly thought of. Again, a chance occurrence; in this case the slightest of happenings with the most profound consequence. Looking at a book of poems by William Allingham, Burne-Jones saw a small wood engraving, an illustration just five inches by three called 'The Maids of Elfenmere'. It was by one, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The nascent romantic artist fell in love with this little picture and, in love, was born into Rossetti's poetic world.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti (after) (1828-1882). Wood engraving by the Dalziel Brothers (published 1855). Tate Gallery, London.
In a somewhat unromantic setting, at the Working Mens' College in Red Lion Square, Rossetti gave his services free to teach art. There Burne Jones came to meet the master and for a lesson. The charismatic personality attracts and can powerfully effect others and for those who gravitate into its orbit its range of influence can be from the creative transformation of a life, to its damage and destruction. The fantastically charismatic Gabriel Rossetti was an inspirer and an enabler. Inspirations may peak and trough, but enablement from an admired figure can be internalised and kept forever and Burne-Jones more than admired Rossetti.
In fact, on that first occasion, Burne Jones, perhaps too full of awe, failed to introduce himself. But he made a new acquaintance there and that led to an invitation to a bachelor evening the following night. Rossetti was also a guest and the meeting was made. Rossetti told the young theology student to bring him his drawings so that he could see them, and then he told him that he should be an artist.
After an anguished struggle with the choice, Burne Jones dropped out from his studies and from the structures and identifications he had been familiar with. Both he and William Morris chose that their futures lay in the arts. What an exciting and striking existential move this must have been, but now Burne Jones was a disciple of Rossetti and his admiration for this highly cathected figure would act as a transitional identification towards his new life.
Rossetti remained for him a figure of excellence, influencing him in his aspirations and also with actual teaching, enduring encouragement, and practical generosity; all facilitating his progress towards becoming his own man and certainly, for some, the greatest English artist of his generation.
Not that life was so easy then for a painter of the imagination. The dynamics between artists, critics and the viewing public have always retained a certain uneasy consistency. Burne Jones was one of the 'New Brits' of his time and his work caused all the controversy of a 'Sensation'. It could enrapture or enrage. One that particularly enraged was his 1870 watercolour Phyllis and Demophöon. The nakedness of the male figure and the forcefulness of the female caused particular indignation.
Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898). Phyllis and Demophöon (1870). Bodycolour And Watercolour With Gold Medium And Gumarabic On Composit Layers Of Paper On Canvas. Birmingham Museums.
In the last decade of his life, it was from higher echelons, free from the politics of art, that Burne Jones received his most substantial official recognition, a baronetcy from Gladstone in 1894. The aristocracy of the arts, The Royal Academy, had only managed to confer, after many years, in 1885, a measly Associate Membership, one that eight years later he returned to them.
The event that had helped Burne-Jones's career enormously had been the opening in 1877 of the Grosvenor Gallery in Bond Street. This new venue was intended as an alternative to the Royal Academy and came with a wish to clear the musty old vapours that drifted around the art establishment. Burne-Jones, who had been quietly and successfully supplying work to his private patrons, was invited to show in the new gallery and provided eight pictures. They were received with rapture. Henry James in his review of the exhibition wrote: "In the Palace of Art there are many chambers, and that of which Mr Burne-Jones holds the key is a wondrous museum. His imagination, his fertility of invention, his exquisiteness of work, his remarkable gifts as a colourist....all these things constitute a brilliant distinction."
In the years until the Grosvenor closed in 1887, Burne-Jones was a regular exhibitor and its star performer. His works were also changing hands on the private market for huge sums of money.
'King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid' was shown at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1884. This painting of courtly love, of fine and high ideals, raises the elevation of a betrothal to a plain of spiritual grace. There is none of the Christian iconography here so substantial in the paintings of the artist's beloved Quattrocento, but there is still that spiritual ethic of humility marking the transcendence over material wealth.
The original King Cophetua was, in fact, an African King of antiquity, but Burne-Jones has placed the scene firmly in a beautiful medieval setting. A literary inspiration for the picture came from an early 17th Century ballad by Richard Johnson, 'A Song of a Beggar and a King', and also a short poem by Tennyson called 'The Beggar Maid'.
Her arms across her breast she laid;
She was more fair than words can say:
Barefooted came the beggar maid
Before the King Cophetua.
In robe and crown the king stept down,
To meet and greet her on her way:
"It is no wonder,"said the Lords,
"She is more beautiful than day."
As shines the moon in clouded skies,
She in her poor attire was seen:
One praised her ankles, one her eyes,
One her dark hair and lovesome mien.
So sweet a face, such angel grace,
In all that land had never been:
Cophetua swore a royal oath:
"This beggar maid shall be my queen!"
In Burne-Jones' vision, the King, entranced by the Beggar Maid's beauty, has placed her sitting upon cushions in his palace, while he sits below her upon a cold stone step and gazes up at her, his crown held low between his knees. These elements of humility are not in fact conveyed in Tennyson's poem; this is the painter's imagination.
The display of a rich man's humility had been another great source of medieval and Renaissance Christian imagery: shown in the multitude of paintings of the nativity, kneeling in reverence, there figured the three kings who had travelled so far to worship a baby born in a stable.
No infant Jesus in the King Cophetua picture and no scene from the bible, but a picture instead of Courtly Love and as in the Christian ideal, the spirit rises above the material, this Beggar Maid is indeed a Madonna.
According to the traditional tale, King Cophetua, a man previously aloof to the attractions of women, has been smitten by the beauty of a lowly beggar maid and aims to make her his wife. In Tennyson's poem, amongst the eulogies, "so sweet a face, such angel grace", there is also response to attraction of a more physical kind: the pleasure at her pretty ankles and eyes, her dark hair and her "lovesome mien".
Burne-Jones does in fact show us a little bit of leg in the painting, yet really one can hardly imagine a rapture so void of physical attraction. Time seems to have absolutely stopped still. Even the two young chorister boys at the top of the picture seem to be singing in silence. Though Cophetua looks at her, she gazes not at all at him, but towards us and out of the picture and on forever. Can one imagine these two ever getting up out of their seats, let alone consummating a marriage.
The painting is instead a meditation, and the single transcendent moment of time that it portrays will go on for ever. It is also, rather than a celebration of a new love, an intensely melancholic picture, right to its fullest point of perspective, the near twilight skyline in that beautiful tiny little landscape seen through the window of the King's palace.
And strangely, there are anemones in the picture, flowers traditionally used as symbolic imagery for rejected love.
Wherefore this melancholy? The work had always been wistful; the androgynous, timeless figures, like beautifully crafted spirits from a parallel world. Was it disillusionment that set in? Disappointment certainly. As Christopher Wright, a most sympathetic writer on Burne-Jones points out, those who in Victorian times ceased to believe the word of Christianity, nevertheless held on to the idealism of a Christian life. Burne-Jones was devoted to the uplifting qualities of beauty, grace and sensibility, qualities that he found in bygone times; the chronicles of King Arthur and his knights, the poetical ethics in the notions of chivalry, and the tales of Chaucer, lovingly illustrated in his friend William Morris's breathtakingly beautiful editions.
Burne-Jones, in his own way, was a moralist. How he hated the coarseness of the Victorian industrial world, the relentless blackening of the cities, the tearing up of the countryside and the tormenting of the sweet nuances of an aesthetic life. He was driven further into his inner world and his paintings became increasingly sombre. Grace now betrothed to gravity.
And then, amongst other tortuous romances, there was Mary Zambaco, a Greek beauty, a model and a sculptor, whom the married Burne-Jones fell almost ruinously in love with in the 1870s. She is the head of Phyllis in the 1870 'Phyllis and Demophöon', and her recognisable features added to the scandalous reputation of the picture.
His last great painting was still unfinished at his death. Fittingly then, as the last work, 'The Last Sleep of Arthur in Avalon'. And, as previously his secular scenes could contain reflections of much popular themes from the scriptures, here too there is the trace of a Renaissance biblical favourite, the 'Pieta'. The crucified and lifeless figure of Christ lies across the vast lap of his mother in the monumental sculpture by Michelangelo, one that Burne-Jones may well have seen when he visited Italy.
Michelangelo (1475-1564). Pietà (1497). St Peter's Basilica, Vatican City.
In Burne-Jones' last great work, the dead figure is not Christ, but King Arthur. Man is born of woman and returns to the inevitable merger with the feminine on his demise. The circuit is completed. Just as King Arthur's symbol of righteousness and power, his sword Excalabur, must on his death be thrown, looping through the air, to the hand of a woman that will rise from the waters to catch it and take it down: the Lady of the Lake.
Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898). 'Last Sleep of Arthur in Avalon' (c1881-1898). Museo de Arte de Ponce, Ponce, Puerto Rico.
What makes a Romantic? It is perhaps worthy of note that like the artist who could be called England's other really great poetic Romantic, Samuel Palmer, Burne-Jones lost his mother in infancy. Such sorrowful desire for that place of the greatest feminine intimacy. Both Burne-Jones and Palmer conveyed deep nostalgia and longing for merger. Palmer in his twilight landscapes was in love with Mother Nature and the very land itself, intimate, rural and unspoiled; an all-encompassing continuity and presence, whilst Burne-Jones loved the spirit of an ancient, fabled time in which the slightest favour from a lady could be the greatest prize.
Samuel Palmer (1805-1881). 'The Harvest Moon (c1833). Oil on paper, laid on panel. Yale Centre for British Art.
The term Courtly Love beckons the imagination towards scenes of chivalry and honour. The participants are creatures of nobility and grace; morality is the container of passion and virtue is its sublimation. Such love inspires great deeds; the joust, the duel, the quest, and requires great abstinence. The deferment of a consummation, sometimes even in perpetuum, is the energy for its endeavour. Courtly Love is a passionate sublimation and a spiritual consummation may be its only relief.
This was a central theme that Burne-Jones' mentor, Dante Gabriel Rossetti found in the work of his beloved 13th Century, Italian poet and namesake Dante Alighieri. The 'Vita Nuova', ('The New Life'), a work that Rosetti himself translated from the Italian, reads emotionally like a lilting meditation towards absolute constancy; spiritually it takes an earthly attraction and through death converts its beloved to immortal transcendence. Beatrice, having died, becomes Dante's spiritual guide.
Rossetti caught the moment of transition in his painting of his own dead wife Elizabeth Siddall, placing her as Dante's beloved, 'Beata Beatrix'.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882). 'Beata Beatrix' (c1864-70). Oil on canvas. Tate Gallery, London.
There is something more complex in Rossetti's courtliness than in that of the enduring purity of Burne-Jones. The young Rossetti had painted watercolours dense with jewel like colour, packed with costumed figures, cramped with detail, like the illuminated manuscripts that he knew so well. And so often in these pictures, figured the pale slender red headed Lizzie. But after her death, the spiritual muse in Rossetti's vision had to make space for a new and more physical colleague. His mistress, house-keeper and model, the earthy and voluptuous Fanny Cornforth became 'the look'. More dynamic than plain incongruity, there is an interesting complexity to this.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882). The Blue Bower (1865). Oil on canvas. Barber Institute of Fine Arts.
Perhaps Rossetti's own poem, 'The Blessed Damozel', for which he also made a painting, the only time that he did illustrate his writing in this way, can clarify. The poem is a wonderful piece of cosmic imagination, encompassing both heaven and earth and evoking a vast distance between them, yet placing them in intimate causal relationship, near to each other through the thoughts of two lovers, separated by death.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882). 'The Blessed Damozel' (1875-1878). Oil on canvas. Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight, England.
The blessed damozel leaned out
From the gold bar of heaven;
Her eyes were deeper than the depths
Of waters stilled at even;
She had three lilies in her hand,
And the stars in her hair were seven.
It was the rampart of God's house
That she was standing on;
By God built over the sheer depth
The which is space begun;
So high, that looking downwards thence
She scarce could see the sun.
She, The Blessed Damozel, is newly ascended to heaven, and looks over a balustrade at the very edge of the holy place, as if she is in a palace high in the universe. Yet she looks down and sees, and thinks of her lover, as he, lying on earth beneath a tree in autumn, reminisces of her, wistfully and sadly. But her thoughts are of when he will join her in heaven so that they will be spiritually united. But not just this, it seems that physical love can happen in heaven too. She imagines her lover with her in heaven as she introduces him to the Holy Mother and then to Christ himself:
"Herself shall bring us, hand in hand,
To Him round whom all souls
Kneel, the clear-ranged unnumbered heads
Bowed with their orioles:
And angels meeting us shall sing
To their citherns and citoles.
"There will I ask of Christ the Lord
Thus much for him and me: -
Only to live as once on earth
With Love, - only to be,
As then awhile, for ever now
Together, I and he."
Rossetti, in his art, inhabited a space which he filled with both symbols of the spirit and concrete representation of the physical. The man, the artist, has an earthly life as well as a spiritual one and the raising of the spirit can never be at the cost, the denial, of his life as a man; spiritual growth rests upon physical foundations.
And in the hundreds of pictures of women that Rosetti made, there mix the reflections of a soul that aspires and the drive that desires.
For both Rosseti and Burne-Jones, initially so charged with the quattrocento, there was an increasing influence from its voluptuous historical younger sibling, the 16th Century High Renaissance. But whereas the figures of Burne-Jones filled out, they remained ethereal; Rossetti on the other hand, increasingly became a portrayer of the femme fatale. His mythological female figures coolly assumed the beauty of voluptuous orchids, extravagant and sumptuous in their colour and detail. The small watercolours of his early Pre-Raphaelite period had nearly always told a story. The text was there to recall or to read; sometimes it could even be read on the frame of the picture. But now the narrative content changed; his female subjects could be figures from stories, yet their presence told no tale at all. They served no purpose but as contemplations upon their own beauty.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882). 'Lady Lilith' (1866-1868, 1872-1873). Oil on canvas. Delaware Art Museum, Wilmongton, Delaware.
It was this tilting away from courtly virtue and towards a certain decadence that in 1871 exposed Rossetti to the stern admonitions of a contemporary writer and reviewer, Robert Buchanan. Buchanan, in an article in 'The Contemporary Review', raged at the moral corruptness of what he termed the "Fleshly School of Poetry". It was a ferocious critical blast and its main targets were Rossetti and those in his circle of writers and artists. About Rossetti, Buchanan meted out - "Whether he is writing of the holy Damozel or of the Virgin herself, or of Lilith, or of Dante, or of Jenny, the street walker, he is fleshly all over, from the roots of his hair to the tips of his toes. Never spiritual, never tender; always self-conscious and aesthetic".
Rossetti, who had always been deeply sensitive to criticism, was lacerated by the attack and Burne-Jones was within in its range too. It was a greater injustice to the idealistic Burne-Jones. He had travelled in Italy and his adherence to medievalism had become complemented by his experiences of seeing the great works of the High Renaissance: Michelangelo, Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese: all who painted gratifyingly large and naked gods and goddesses. He was now, at times, participating in a great tradition.
The criticisms of Buchanan had more point of contact with the work of Rossetti. In fact, Rossetti had hardly ever painted a 'fleshly' nude; yet his female figures increasingly became heavily sensual: the aesthetic articulation of the full lips, the luxurious profundity of hair, curvaciousness of neck and shoulder, the voluptuous folds of fabulously rich garments, the props, ornate and exotic, all suffused with perfume from the masses of flowers. These are no longer the figures of innocence and courtly love, but knowingly sexual creatures, deeply ensconced into the collective imaginative history as chimeras of ubiquitous sexual power.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882). 'Pandora' (1871). Oil on canvas. Private Collection.
In 1855, the twenty-two-year-old Edward Burne-Jones had travelled to the Working Men's College in Red Lion Square for an art lesson and to meet his hero Rossetti. In fact, he failed to introduce himself, but he had managed to see Rossetti the following night. The meeting was made; change came into a life, and the history of British and European art was given an expedient nudge forward.
In 1891, thirty-six years later, a strikingly strange looking young man of eighteen journeyed, along with his sister Mable, to North End Road, Fulham, with the intention of visiting his own hero. Theirs was a somewhat presumptuous visit; no arrangement had been made and the gentleman who was the object of this excursion knew nothing of his visitors or of their plan. On their arrival, a servant answered the door and their admission was politely refused. They turned and walked away, but a moment later found that they were being called. The owner of the house had hastily emerged and the invitation was there for them to enter. In this way the kindly, gracious and esteemed artist, Edward Burne-Jones, invited into his home the young clerk with a passion for drawing, Aubrey Beardsley. Beardsley described their initial encounter thus:
"I had hardly turned the corner when I heard a quick step behind me, and a voice which said, 'Prey come back, I couldn't think of letting you go away without seeing the pictures, after a journey on a hot day like this.' The voice was that of Burne-Jones, who escorted us back to his house and took us into the studio, showing and explaining everything. His kindness was wonderful as we were perfect strangers, he not even knowing our names."
As Rossetti had been to him, Burne-Jones was generous. He looked at the samples of work that Beardsley had brought with him and recognised the talent. According to Beardsley's own account he was told: "....Nature has given you every gift which is necessary to become a great artist. I seldom or never advise anyone to take up art as a profession, but in your case I can do nothing else."
Aubrey Beardsley (1872-1898). Line block illustration from Le Morte d'Arthur, by Sir Thomas Mallory, published by J M Dent (1893)
The visit developed into a Summer-time tea in the garden, shared with some other guests who were more officially present, Oscar Wilde and his family. It was of course a much smaller world in those days, but like osmosis the qualities of human enterprise will find their level and place of expression, and at such a place will be others of their kind. Wilde and Beardsley would collaborate in the future as two of the most notable names amongst those of the aesthetic and decadent movements.
It was a dynamic lift off for the aspiring and ambitious young draughtsman and there was a continuity in Burne-Jones' support. At his recommendation Beardsley attended art school once a week, for a while at any rate, and he continued to produce his pen and ink drawings in the style of his mentor. It must have been with some approval then from Burne-Jones, that Beardsley began a large and exciting commission, his first job as an artist, illustrating a new edition of Morte D'Arthur, the holy grail to the courtly painters.
The commission came from J.M. Dent who was the proprietor of the Everyman Library. Dent was a friend of Frederick Evans who owned a second-hand bookshop in Cheapside. Beardsley was a great bibliophile and had become friendly with Evans through his visits there.
Beardsley commenced his work on Morte D'Arthur with an excited enthusiasm and the work flowed; a mass of drawings was produced in the Burne-Jones style. But there was not to be the gentle and extended separation from the mentor that paced the process of Burne-Jones' maturity. The audacious and precocious Beardsley soon tired of these images couched in chivalry, and the work changed. Beardsley was a rebel, and it was perhaps inevitable that he would need to disappoint the inspiration and father figure. As the illustration to Morte D'Arthur took its increasingly Beardsleian course, Burne-Jones became disaffected and the friendship between the two men waned. William Morris, who had also seen the work, was more than disappointed; the sacrilege outraged him.
ibid. Morte d'Arthur Chapter heading.
Aubrey Beardsley was outstanding in his originality. He died of tuberculosis in 1898 at just twenty-five years old, but in his very short time as an artist he showed a talent supreme in its individuality. There has never been anyone else like him. He was bound to develop his own imaginative constructions from Mallory's elevated tale. So here, mingling with the Knights of the Round Table and their chaste and elegant ladies, was a spectre of the future. A thin dark prince had slipped through Burne-Jones' door and into the 'Palace of Art'. Amidst the Art Nouveau swirls and curls and the elaborate, illuminated manuscript style decoration, there was emerging a pattern of perversity and a singular and darkly erotic new edge. Beardsley was doing it his way, and it was modern. Burne-Jones and Morris were, above all, seekers after a beautiful truth. Beardsley increasingly courted the aesthetics of decadence. His next commission was to illustrate the English version of Oscar Wilde's Salome. He was playing his very significant part in a movement that expressed the anxieties and excitements of the turn of a century and a very quickly changing world. The dreams of nostalgia were now disturbed by an awakening to modern possibilities and the new dawn would not be rising over the mystic spires and enchanted forests of a fabled antiquity.
Aubrey Beardsley (1872-1898). 'The Peacock Skirt' (1892). Illustration for Oscar Wilde's Salome.
The spirits of duality that abounded in Victorian art had found their own special donor when the unifying ideals of early Pre-Raphaelitism faded and Rossetti's personal vision of the soul showed as a flower of both spiritual and sensual passion.
In 1864 Rossetti painted a watercolour that was akin to his work of the previous decade. It was called - 'How Sir Galahad, Sir Bors and Sir Percival were Fed with the Sanc Grael, but Sir Percival's Sister Died on the Way'. Colour thrives in this picture, red and green, their mutual unease mitigated and the scene luxuriated by the use of gold. What a difference to the pale washes sometimes promoted as the true use of the medium. It is unnatural and gorgeous colour and the picture defies naturalism in its design too. It has no perspective; it is medievally flat. But instead, it provides a fascinating rhythm, the bars of which trip, laterally, horizontally from head to head, from one scarlet angel's wing to the next, whilst the four foreground figures join hands to do a graceful and soulful hokey-kokey.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882). 'How Sir Galahad, Sir Bors and Sir Percival Were Fed with the Sanct Grael; but Sir Percival's Sister Died by the Way.' (1864). Watercolour and gouache on paper. Tate gallery, London.
It is an image from the tale of the most chivalrous and spiritual of quests. The essence of courtly love is there too, as the priestess, a fair maiden, proffers the cup, the Holy Grail, to the young knight Sir Galahad, given and received in the same grace as in the Philipo Lippi painting of 'The Annunciation'.
Sir Galahad was the most integrous of King Arthur's knights, his name, even nowadays, synonymous with courtly values. The Pre-Raphaelites had often used those from their own circle as models for the subjects in their pictures. Who was to model for the figure of Sir Galahad? Rossetti chose a young poet who had become a friend, indeed, was to be a live-in guest at his house, one Algenon Charles Swinburne, and in doing so he chose to pose for the figure of the noblest and most principled of knights, an alcoholic who was a typhoon of anti-morality, a creature of literary infamy, whose collection of poems would be published in 1866 and promptly banned. Swinburne wrote not of 'The Blessed Damozel', but of 'Dolores'.
Cold eyelids that hide like a jewel
Hard eyes that grow soft for an hour;
The heavy white limbs, and the cruel
Red mouth like a venemous flower;
When these are gone by with their glories,
What shall rest of thee then, what remain,
O, mystic and sombre Dolores,
Our Lady of Pain?
The gentle mythical light was certainly fading. Twilight would come, ironically so; it can be the best time for Romantics. We can leave Burne-Jones' knights to guard as well as they can that which went before, long ago, fabled and imagined.
In a picture painted between 1893 and 1894, there is at its centre, a loving couple. There is no narrative here that we know of, but the painting is of a mood and the mood touches the imagination. A young man and girl in medieval costume huddle close together. Clearly they face adversity, yet we know that he will never leave her, she will never desert him. Around them lies the rubble, the undergrowth, the broken and discarded artefacts of a bygone time. The picture is called 'Love Among the Ruins'. And as the lovers, the knights and damsels of Burne-Jones' world draw their own cloaks around them, they protect the vision of the artist whose main and undying aim was to paint beauty, because for him, in an increasingly cynical and materialistic society, beauty was to be preserved as the living countenance of goodness and truth and femininity was to be courted as its embodiment.
Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898). 'Love Among the Ruins' (c1873). Watercolour, gouache and gum arabic on paper. Private Collection.