Edward Burne-Jones: sources of inspiration

June 18, 2012 at 7:49 pm (Anglophilia, Art, books)

  When you’ve been immersed in a massive, intricately detailed biography, you feel a sense of loss at its conclusion. You bid farewell not only to the book’s specific subject, but to the cast of characters that enlivened the story, and in many cases, to an entire era. This happened to me with Candace Millard’s riveting Destiny of the Republic, with Donald Worster’s lovely homage to John Muir, A Passion for Nature, and most recently with Robert K. Massie’s magisterial biography of Catherine the Great.

Last night I finished reading The Last Pre-Raphaelite: Edward Burne-Jones and the Victorian Imagination. Fiona MacCarthy’s sweeping depiction of  a now vanished world has for weeks held me in its thrall. I said good-bye with a heavy heart.

One of the many gifts given me by this book has been an insight into the wellsprings of Edward Burne-Jones’s unique and inimitable genius. Early in his creative life, he fell under the spell of the great artists of Europe’s Middle Ages, especially those who flourished in Italy:

Coronation of the Virgin (San Marco Altarpiece) – Sandro Botticelli

Frescoes in the Arena Chapel, Padua, by Giotto di Bondone: Marriage at Cana

Frescoes in the Arena Chapel, Padua – Giotto di Bondone

Te next two works, by Luca Signorelli,  are from the fresco cycle in the San Brizio Chapel of the Orvieto Cathedral:

Coronation of the Virgin – Fra Angelico

Detail from Fra Angelico’s Coronation of the Virgin

The following two works are illustrations of the life of St.Ursula, by Vittore Carpaccio:

Arrival of the English ambassadors (detail)

Departure of the English Ambassadors

Below are two detailed views of the Sistine Chapel ceiling frescoes, by Michelangelo:

The following are from the fresco cycle in the Cappella Maggiore of San Francesco in Arezzo, by Piero della Francesca:

The Queen of Sheba

The meeting of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba

These works were specifically commended to Burne-Jones by his mentor and friend, the great art historian John Ruskin. It is easy to see how Edward Burne-Jones came to hold beauty as a value worthy of the  highest esteem. (For more on these great painters, I recommend the Web Gallery of Art.)

I’ve already done one post on the life and work of Edward Burne-Jones. There is more to come – and more about other riches contained within the pages of The Last Pre-Raphaelite.


As a result of this recent reading, my fascination with Victorian Britain has been reawakened. I’ve written before of the pleasure I derived from listening to The Teaching Company’s course by that name, as presented by Professor Patrick Allitt.  In the past, I’ve borrowed this item from the library. Now, however, I have purchased these fine lectures and the richly informative material that comes with them. Once again I am immersed in all things Victorian, starting with the Queen herself!


  1. Lorraine S. said,

    I’m midway through the Last Pre-Raphaelite and decided to stop and buy my own book. Can you imagine in this day of the Kindle? I have a new copy of a library book but enjoy it so much I want my own. You may also enjoy May and Amy by Josceline Dimbleby (Jones’ relationship with his muses) and A Strange Eventful HIstory: The Dramatic Lives of Ellen Terry, Henry Irving and their Remarkable Families by Michael Holroyd.Thanks for the links.

  2. Yvette said,

    I’m adding this bio to my list, Roberta. I have CATHERINE THE GREAT here, my daughter gave it to me for Christmas – waiting for the right moment to read it. For non-fiction, I have to be in a certain sort of mood. But I know I’ll be reading it before the year is out.

    I’m adding THE LAST PRE-RAPHAELITE to my list since you’ve made it sound like something not to be missed. DESTINY OF THE REPUBLIC, too, is on my list. So many books, so little…well, you know. The truth of this little homily rises up and bashes me over the head. Ha!

    Loved the pix you included of the Renaissance frescoes. I’m adding a couple to my Pinterest art board. Are you on Pinterest yet, Roberta? I find it a great place to keep all the pix that I can’t keep on my blog or elsewhere. It’s handy and also plays into my instinct for order and design. 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: