Wednesday 25 March 2020

Burne-Jones: Forms Divinely Beautiful

Recently I visited an exhibition I’ve been looking forward to since I first saw its announcement. That one of my favourite local places; Newstead Abbey, was having a Pre-Raphaelite exhibition was a surprise to say the least! Having traveled across the country to see Pre-Raphaelite artworks and exhibitions for the past 10+ years this one is certainly the closest to home I’m ever likely to visit!

After a few weeks of waiting for the initial rush to have made their visit I could wait no longer and headed off to Byron’s pile to see some Edward Burne-Jones!
The exhibition is a little different to most Pre-Raphaelite exhibitions in the sense that what’s on display isn’t a collection of paintings, but is actually a folio of Photogravure prints. As a printer this interests me greatly as the value of etchings and prints are often played down and under appreciated by so many.

The folio on display is one of 200 which were commissioned by Burne-Jones’ son, Philip, to celebrate and showcase his fathers work. It was created by the Berlin Photographic company using photogravure, a technique using a photographic negative to create an etched plate to print from. This skilled technique produces high quality prints which at the time was a very popular method of reproduction and sharing art. Interestingly the Pre-Raphaelites were one of the first art movements to make use of photography in creating their work and to draw on this new technology, so it’s interesting to see how new and changing technology and techniques have been embraced in other ways.

Having seen lots of Burne-Jones paintings over the years his often very muted palette lends itself well to black and white reproduction, something which might not be said for more vibrant artists within the movement (Millais perhaps). The pieces on display are, to me at least, beautiful works of art in their own right. The depth of tone in these monochrome prints is truly stunning, and you don’t lose anything from these dreamy visions due to their lack of hue.

Learning from Rossetti gave Burne-Jones a similarly unique view and creative flair to his idol. The flowing hair, plump lips and long necks of Rosetti’s recurring female aesthetics all shine through in Burne-Jones work. All be it his own ideal of female beauty and perfection, but Burne-Jones style and stylisation of themes is unique in the movement, with a distinct nod to Rossetti.

Burne-Jones, like Waterhouse, is a great portrayer of myths and legends in his work. With many of his pieces focusing on tales and stories rather than the more religious tendencies of earlier Pre-Raphaelites. These later members of the movement were masters at depicting incredible far off places where heroes and monsters reign and damsels and their tantalising beauty await rescue. Burne-Jones escaped the real world through his art, and shared this beautiful world with us all in turn.
For me, Burne-Jones style only heightens the sense of ethereal, mystical realms and long forgotten times of our ancient past as he steers away from the photorealism of the movement and towards a more stylised portrayal of scenes.

My favourite piece on display, 'The Beguiling of Merlin' is captivating. Merlin's eyes pierce out at you from the paper, so wild and alive. They seem to follow you and hold your gaze in an eerie, haunting way, stirring emotions only art can make us feel.

This exhibition seems to have been quietly understated among the artistic community. Nobody I speak to knows about it, and online information is scarce. I understand that the current pandemic has caused the closure of Newstead temporarily, but the exhibition is still available to view virtually here: 
and when it reopens I urge everyone to go and immerse themselves in this dream world for just a time. Not that I think it will take any encouragement to get people out and visiting galleries and beautiful places again once this is all over!

My only criticism of the exhibition was I was hoping to buy a book, print, postcards, anything! But there was nothing sadly.

Tuesday 10 March 2020

Five Wells

Recently I spent some time compiling all my research into the best local Neolithic and Bronze Age sites to form a list of where I hope to visit in the near future. A number of local sites I have already visited. But that doesn’t mean I don’t intend to return, especially to see different seasons from these amazing sites.

One place high on my list was the Neolithic burial Cairn of Five Wells, located near Chelmorton, just south of Buxton. After seeing a few photos of this site and reading a little information I was impressed how intact the Cairn was compared to many and how visible the chamber was to visitors, so it went high on the list of where to go next.
In early March a perfect opportunity arose to visit Five Wells, so off I went on a 30 mile drive to discover another amazing piece of Derbyshires ancient history.

After some map consultation I parked near Chelmorton church and set out following a trail uphill in the general direction of the tomb. The villages original wellspring is en route and signed as a point of interest on the way.

The landscape is largely farmers fields and grazing livestock, but a strange, what I presume to be, natural rocky feature runs along the ridge of the hill as a seam dividing the space in two.  It’s quite rugged terrain and I imagine what the whole landscape would have looked like before agriculture moved in.

At a crossroads I managed to wander into a nearby farm, (still following a public footpath) when actually I should have turned left to find the Cairn in fields behind the farm. A little correction later (after thinking I was going to be savaged by dogs!) and I spotted the Cairn on the horizon at last.

It’s structure is quite imposing on the hillside. Like jagged teeth reaching out to the heavens it sits prominent and protruding. The moment I laid eyes on it, I loved it. The rugged and weather beaten hillside and these great stones erupting from the earth. It had an incredible feeling and atmosphere I wasn’t expecting, but wholly embraced.

One of the tombs is slowly being consumed by the earth, as much is covered by a thick layer of moss, while the more intact chamber exists like a miniature shelter missing its roof. Great upright pillars of the entrance give the feeling you are entering a mysterious and incredible time. As ever with these ancient places I stand and wonder what happened, were rituals performed when these people were buried in this great tomb? What did this place in the landscape mean to these people? The rolling landscape surrounding the Cairn is certainly one I’d be quite comfortable to spend my eternity in.

I'd be lying if I said I didn't find Five Wells to be an incredible, moving place. Though I will not attempt to provide any real reasoning why. For me personally these sites often seem to create an overwhelming sense of connection with our history and the traditions of our ancestors. Although this window into the past is only fleeting, for me it strengthens the feeling that these people, their values and respect for and use of the land is incredible, admirable and frankly far better than our own. These people had so many things right that we do not. They worshiped the land for the life it gave, we merely abuse it. For me, Cairn sites in particular always give a sense of ancestors rooted in the earth. For them, in life and death the landscape was clearly so important. I only wish I could know more about their lives and understand more about their world ...