This is a lively and accessible biography of a major Victorian artist. It is a substantial illustrated book enabling the reader to follow the hugely productive career of Edward Burne-Jones (1833–98).
He worked in several media, exhibited to great acclaim at the Grosvenor Gallery in the heyday of the Aesthetic movement and was crucial to the success of the firm that became Morris & Co – working alongside William Morris and other Pre-Raphaelites in developing the idiom of the Arts and Crafts movement.
MacCarthy has the challenge of writing in the wake of the marvellous 1904 biography by Georgiana Burne-Jones, which, for all its reticence about his romantic entanglements with other women, is penetrating and knowing with respect to her husband’s strengths and weaknesses.
MacCarthy includes many of the anecdotes and details that Georgiana assembled and is alive to their significance. Consequently she gives a vivid portrait of a mercurial character with a brilliant mind who had the utmost dedication to his artistic mission.
She also matches the insights that gave depth and verve to Penelope Fitzgerald’s 1975 biography, where Burne-Jones’s idiosyncrasies were brought to bear on the character and emphases of his artworks to great effect.
This new biography will be an important resource because it is satisfyingly systematic in establishing the phases of the prodigious output of the artist. It is also much more informative than previous biographies in terms of the social circles and networks that Burne-Jones inhabited, including his patrons, supporters and detractors.
It comes into its own when the serial intimacies of the artist are discussed, catching the tone and assessing the stakes from careful and sympathetic reading of the vast numbers of (so far uncollected) letters that he sent to his treasured confidantes.
This is a gripping and welcome new publication.
Caroline Arscott is author of William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones: Interlacings (Yale University Press, 2008)