A Mystical Lady, a Profound Secret and a Drowning Maiden
With the simultaneous opening of the exhibition Edward Burne-Jones. Pre-Raphaelite Visionary in London (Tate Gallery, 2018-2019) and Love and Desire. Pre-Raphaelite Masterpieces from the Tate in Canberra (National Gallery of Australia, 2018-2019), the moment is ripe for a fresh evaluation of an art movement that revolutionised the very understanding of art in Britain.
The extensive London exhibition, dedicated solely to Burne-Jones, is astounding in its depth and scope, offering a chance to ‘walk through’ a sample of his entire career. It is a matter of some pride that the Tate requested one work from an Australian collection, and it is not difficult to discover why they made this choice.
Edward Burne-Jones has long been well represented in Australian collections, with an excellent Wheel of Fortune and Garden of Pan (National Gallery of Victoria), an impressive St. George Killing the Dragon (Art Gallery of New South Wales) and the splendid Christ and the Two Marys, and Perseus and Andromeda (Art Gallery of South Australia) and Aurora (Queensland Art Gallery). In 2005, however, our collections were significantly enriched by the important purchase for Melbourne of his Portrait of Baronne Madeleine Deslandes, painted in 1895-1896.
This work has a dual significance to our understanding of Burne-Jones’s work and his intellectual milieu. First, it is a superb portrait in its own right, one of his best, and one of relatively few. Second, it is invaluable because it introduces us to one of the leading figures in his artistic world, and to an important patron. The title of the London exhibition identifies him as a Pre-Raphaelite, but we do need to remember that Burne-Jones’s career continued late into the century, well after the brief interlude of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood had passed. The epithet ‘visionary’ reminds us that his work does also have elements in common with the works of the Symbolist painters in France and Belgium. The French Symbolist painter Gustave Moreau admired him, and his colleague Pierre Puvis de Chavannes was proactive in inviting him to exhibit his works in Paris, specifically asking that he send his Wheel of Fortune to the Paris National Society of Fine Arts exhibition in 1891. (This painting was one of his most popular works, which explains why there are multiple variants of it, for example in the National Gallery of Victoria, the Musée d’Orsay and the National Museum of Wales.) This sense of an affinity with European Symbolism was, for me, only strengthened by viewing the London 2018 exhibition: Burne-Jones’s paintings are steeped in mythology and literature, and they do have a hazy, poetic, suggestive quality quite comparable to the works of the Symbolists.
It is particularly significant that the subject of this portrait, Madeleine Deslandes, was much more than a patron in the usual commercial sense of simply buying his works: she was herself an author who was active in the Symbolist literary movement in Paris. Art historian and curator Ted Gott reminds us that Deslandes was a published novelist in Symbolist circles. She also ran an eminent ‘salon’ (a gathering of literary and artistic figures in her private home) that included the Goncourt brothers, Oscar Wilde and James Tissot. Moreover, Deslandes was proactive in writing a critical evaluation of Burne-Jones’s work: she crossed the Channel to interview the artist in March 1893, and published the first dedicated article on him in French in Le Figaro in May of the same year.
Out of this meeting came the project for a portrait of the baroness. From her point of view, Burne-Jones was the ideal candidate: his skill in representing dreamy heroines in mythological settings could surely be transliterated to a mystical portrait of his patron. Indeed, this would not just be a ‘portrait of a Symbolist’, but a ‘Symbolist portrait’, in the sense that it would capture the inner spiritual life of the sitter. Deslandes was one of many upper class Parisians who turned their backs on the modern world of the Third Republic and sought solace in inner states, visions and alternative religions, all common to the Symbolist movement.
It is not at all clear how willingly Burne-Jones might have undertaken this project: in her memoirs, Deslandes gushed that the artist absolutely insisted on making her portrait, even though he usually had a great aversion to this genre. Ted Gott suggests, more realistically, that she might well have had to use a great deal of persuasion to get him to agree to the commission. This said, Burne-Jones did do a wonderful job: Deslandes is posed in a deep blue dress – for the French Symbolists, the colour of higher intellectual thought – and sits utterly still. She does not look at the viewer: her eyes are slightly downcast, and give the uncanny effect that they are looking inwards on some deep spiritual state. Burne-Jones eschews his usual vocabulary of symbolic objects – these would have been a clutter and a distraction here – and limits himself to a laurel tree in the background and a crystal ball on her lap, both of them references to the visionary powers of the prophetess.
As with all great retrospective survey exhibitions, this London exhibition offered fresh insights by placing Melbourne’s painting in the context of Burne-Jones’s other work. First, there were not many portraits, confirming Gott’s belief that the artist did not enjoy painting this genre. Nonetheless, the Melbourne painting was put in the context of two other portraits, with which it shared strong similarities.
His little-known Portrait of Margaret Burne-Jones (1885-1886, Private Collection) revealed one of his trade secrets: the artist had actually developed this portrait formula, the pose and the mood, nearly a decade earlier, when he executed this portrait of his own daughter in a similar dark blue dress. The only difference is that her eyes are more sentient, and do not have the inwards look cultivated by Deslandes. Reading between the lines, I suspect that if Burne-Jones took on this commission unwillingly – and probably only because Deslandes was such a valuable supporter – he simply defaulted back to this earlier formula in almost every detail, and then easily met his patron’s requirement to make her look a little more visionary and mysterious.
The second portrait shown in the London exhibition proved to be even more intriguing. The Portrait of Amy Gaskell – yet another little-known gem winkled out of a private collection – was painted in 1893, prior to the Melbourne work. It too shares the formula of a figure in a dark dress against a dark background, but this time turning to her left, and the face in profile.
For some time, it was presumed that this girl must have simply been the daughter of some friend or patron, until the discovery of a bundle of Burne-Jones’s letter revealed a much more extraordinary story attached to this work. It seems that the eminent and respectable Mr. Burne-Jones was not without his secrets. Journalist Richard Dorment describes how the writer Josceline Dimbleby came across a bundle of letters that revealed an unknown love affair, which she described in her book A Profound Secret. Dorment explains the background to this painting:
“For the picture is the fruit – a Freudian would say the offspring – of a passionate love affair, not between the artist and the sitter, but between the artist and the sitter’s mother. In 1892, the 59-year-old Burne-Jones, who was married with two grown-up children, met and fell in love with Amy’s mother Helen Mary (May) Gaskell. She was a vivacious but unhappily married society hostess who belonged to the aristocratic circle of friends known as the “Souls”. He was the elder statesman of Victorian art […], and now the idol of the French Symbolists. Reading the letters Burne-Jones wrote to May Gaskell, by turns fey and heartfelt and often illustrated with deliciously comic drawings, there is no doubt that his love for her was all-consuming. But the relationship had no physical dimension. The surviving material wonderfully evokes a late-Victorian world of drawing-room flirtations and of courtly love, a world in which loving intimacy could develop between a man and a woman without necessarily becoming sexual. May’s eldest child Amy was, we learn, a troubled and complex young woman. Hers was an inward-looking and somewhat morbid personality, capable of captioning a photograph of herself lying in bed “Dead”. Most portraits of pretty young girls show them in becoming frocks. By choosing to paint Amy in black, Burne-Jones hints at the difficulty she had coming to terms with life. For Burne-Jones was a man of strong intuitions and generous friendships.”
For those of us not planning to go to London to see Burne-Jones, it is most gratifying that the best of London can come to us. The Tate has certainly not held back in their selection of works for the National Gallery of Australia. The Canberra exhibition will provide a wonderful opportunity to see many of the seminal works of the Pre-Raphaelite movement. Millais’ Ophelia (1851-1852, Tate Gallery), for example, is one of his most celebrated works, and exemplifies the Pre-Raphaelites’ dual commitment to pictorial realism in the depiction of the natural world and to dramatic scenes taken from literature and mythology. This painting, too, has a fascinating story behind it.
In the first case, Millais was adhering to the injunction of the influential art critic, John Ruskin, to study and to depict nature in close detail. Accordingly, Millais took himself to the Hogsmill River near Ewell (Surrey) and recorded a stretch of the river, executing the actual painting in front of the landscape. In the era before Impressionism, this was an unusual procedure: in the 1850s, artists commonly did preparatory sketches in the open air, but would usually take these back to execute the actual painting in the studio. This may help explain the extraordinary sense of life and growth in this landscape. He also worked on this landscape for an unusually long period – some five months – as he laboured to achieve the desired meticulous detail. This too was unusual: traditionally, the landscape was considered secondary to the figures placed in it, whereas Millais lavished far more time on the landscape background than he did on the figural composition. Art historian Simeran Maxwell notes that the unfortunate painter was vexed by the territorial behaviour of some nesting swans, as well as the belligerent attentions of a bull in a nearby field.
This realism did not, however, prevent Millais from including in the scene a number of plants that naturally bloom at different times of the year, which was possible because of the long duration of his stay at the site. He was also realistic in depicting some leaves as being dead or browning, a natural detail that would not have been welcomed in a traditional floral still-life painting. There was already a well-established symbolic code for flowers: Millais included wild roses as an allusion to Laerte’s description of Ophelia as a rose. The poppy she holds is a symbol of her imminent death. The weeping willow was a symbol for forsaken love.
At the same time, Burne-Jones has scrupulously illustrated the details of Ophelia’s death, as described in Act 4, Scene 7 of Hamlet. Driven to insanity by the murder of her father by Hamlet, she falls into the river while picking flowers on the bank, and resigns herself to drowning. Millais’ illustration of the scene is all the more powerful because it could never have been actually represented on Shakespeare’s stage, and is present only by the following description:
“Laertes: Drowned! O, where? Queen Gertrude: There is a willow grows askant the brook, That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream. Therewith fantastic garlands did she make Of crowflowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples That liberal shepherds give a grosser name, But our cold maids do dead-men’s-fingers call them. There on the pendent boughs her crownet weeds Clambering to hang, an envious sliver broke, When down her weedy trophies and herself Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide, And mermaid-like awhile they bore her up; Which time she chanted snatches of old tunes, As one incapable of her own distress, Or like a creature native and indued Unto that element. But long it could not be Till that her garments, heavy with their drink, Pulled the poor wretch from her melodious lay To muddy death. Laertes: Alas, then she is drowned? Queen Gertrude: Drowned, drowned.”
To achieve the desired verism, Millais arranged for his model, Elizabeth Siddal, to don an appropriate costume and to lie in a bath in his studio at Gower Street. Millais had found this fine dress in a secondhand shop. He noted: “To-day I have purchased a really splendid lady’s ancient dress- all flowered over in silver embroidery-and I am going to paint it for ‘Ophelia’…it cost me, old and dirty as it is, four pounds.
The story is well-known that the unfortunate young woman became seriously ill when the lamps placed under the tub to warm the water went out, and she was obliged to lie still in the cooling water for some time. Elizabeth’s father was outraged, and only saved her by calling in a doctor; he then presented the contrite Millais with some fifty medical bills to pay.
It is also notable that Millais made remarkably few preparatory sketches for the figure of Ophelia. There is a study of her face only (1852, Birmingham Art Gallery), a second sketch of her head and torso (1852, Pierpont Morgan Library) and one overall pencil sketch of the composition (1852, Plymouth City Council).
In technical terms, Millais made strong use of the technique of the white ground, which tends to increase the luminosity of the colours that are placed upon it. He first used lead white paint as a basic ground, and then added a second layer of zinc white paint to intensify this effect. It is also possible that he might have applied a third layer of white paint to each area of the canvas as he painted it, meaning that he would have been painting wet-on-wet, and achieving thereby greater luminosity. He achieved the gem-like colours by first avoiding mixing his colours, so they remained vibrant, and by applying just one layer of paint for each colour.
The Tate Gallery curators further explain: “Millais was able to buy tubes of paint mixed by art material dealers that he could use straight away. New pigments were developed throughout the nineteenth century. Millais had a wide choice of pigments that came from minerals, precious stones, rocks, vegetables, insects and plants. Some of the new colours he used came about by the advances of modern chemistry. He used: lead white, zinc white, ultramarine ash, vermilion, chromium oxide, zinc yellow, chrome yellow, cobalt blue, Prussian blue, burnt sienna, Naples yellow, madder lake, ivory black and bone black. Millais’s greens were mixed greens of chrome yellow and Prussian blue, possibly from a tube of green paint.”
Herein lies the secret of the glowing, gem-like intensity of Pre-Raphaelite paintings: in many cases, natural light passes through the surface colours, responds to the white underneath, and radiates back out. To get a sense of the difference this makes, we might try looking at any traditional Victorian-era painting, and it will seem very dark by comparison. We might well need to prepare ourselves for the visual ‘shock’ of seeing these Pre-Raphaelite canvases in the flesh. Their subjects, of course, are very well-familiar to us, if only because these images have been commercialised on a thousand art cards and art prints. What art reproductions cannot quite do, however, is to replicate the sheer brilliance of the paint on canvas. For this reason alone, a visual feast awaits us in Canberra.
A few examples of works on show:
The Love and Desire. Pre-Raphaelite Masterpieces from the Tateexhibition is open from December 14, 2018 to April 28, 2019, at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra.
Single tickets are at a cost of $25 adult, $22.50 concession and $20 NGA member.
Dr Michael Adcock is social and cultural historian who specialises in the field of modern France. He has published works on the French Revolution with Cambridge University Press. Michael has over ten years’ experience in leading residential study tours in Paris and France. He has a strong interest in the interpretation of the arts in the context of the political and social moment in which they were created. Michael holds a Bachelor of Arts (Combined First-Class Honours in French and History), a Master of Arts (French History) and a Doctor of Philosophy (French History), all from the University of Melbourne. Michael led his first Academy Travel tour to Paris in 2006 and speaks fluent French.