review by BRIAN LYNCH
BIOGRAPHY: The Last Pre-Raphaelite: Edward Burne-Jones and the Victorian Imagination, By Fiona MacCarthy, Faber, 656pp. £25 excerpt:
Ned liked to represent himself, in MacCarthy’s phrase, as a pitiable object. But he had what Turgenev said the poet Belinsky possessed, “the timid sternness peculiar to nervous people”, and in his soul there was, in the words of his nephew, Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, “iron and granite”. The man to whom Burne-Jones deferred all his life, William Morris, was undoubtedly a greater genius as a personality, and yet, perhaps because of his superiority as a draughtsman (in itself a gift that, for proper use, requires moral strength), Burne-Jones did not succumb to Morris’s socialism – when he was offered a knighthood he took it, but only, he said apologetically, for his son’s sake. The hereditary part of a peerage, he hardly needed to say, is pretty much its whole point.
Another way of getting away from the red revolutions of politics and sex was humour, an avoidance technique Burne-Jones used from an early age. Any time his nanny – he was wary of her “potentially overwhelming fondness” – asked what he was thinking he always had the same answer: “Camels”. This constant jokiness is very English: Ned, after all, is a character in The Goon Show, and an avatar of Prince Charles. But Irish humour, in the portly person of Oscar Wilde, also appealed to Burne-Jones. At the artist’s first and only one-man show, the playwright wore a bronze-red coat, the back of which was cut in the shape of a cello. As Wilde’s commerce with prostitutes was revealed, Burne-Jones referred to him as “that horrible creature” and lamented that “he hadn’t had the common courage to shoot himself”. But, as MacCarthy intelligently points out, what upset the sexually tolerant artist was “his perception that Wilde had betrayed the cause of beauty . . . a heinous crime”. In any event Ned relented: before Oscar was released from prison he said, “I should shake hands or bow to him if I saw him.”