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.

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