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Book Review: "Edward Burne-Jones" Edited by Alison Smith

Adele Cosgrove-Bray is a writer, poet, and artist who lives on the Wirral peninsula in England.

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What's It About?

Burne-Jones was a prolific artist and designer. The high-quality reproduction photographs of his works are generously illustrated in this book along with a detailed narrative not only about the creative works themselves, but the artist's working methods and life-long career progression.

Edward Jones, as he was originally named, was born in 1833 in Birmingham, in the English midlands. His father was a Welsh frame-maker, and his mother, Elizabeth Coley Jones, died six days after Edward was born. He attended a local grammar school then went on to study at the Birmingham School of Art before reading theology at Exeter College, Oxford.

Fully intending to enter the church, it was here that Burne-Jones met William Morris who also hoped to follow a similar vocation, but their attention was captured instead by fine art. The two went on to found the design company Morris & Co, and it was mainly through the sales of his stained glass window designs that Burne-Jones earned a steady income throughout his adult life.

This book follows the life of Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones, from his humble beginnings to his becoming a member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and a herald of the Aesthetic Movement.

Who is the Editor?

Dr Alison Smith has worked as a curator at Tate Britain and is currently the Chief Curator at the National Portrait Gallery in London. She has a degree in the History of Art from Nottingham University, and an MA and PhD at the Courtauld Institute of Art in History of Art.

She has lectured in the History of Art at University of Birmingham and Sotheby’s Institute and went on to join Tate Britain in 2000, becoming lead curator of 19th-century British art where she was responsible for acquisitions, collections research, exhibitions and displays relating to the Victoria era. One key exhibition in which she was involved was the first major survey of Sir Edward Burne-Jones' work to be held in London for over forty years.

Contributing Authors

Smith has written, or co-written and edited, twelve other non-fiction books on art, specialising in Victorian art including the Pre-Raphaelites.

The contributing authors to Edward Burne-Jones are Tim Batchelor, Suzanne Fagence Cooper, Colin Cruise, Charlotte Gere, Elizabeth Prettejohn and Nicholas Tromans.

What's to Like?

This is a truly beautiful book.

I have the hardback, which has a gold cloth cover printed with a crimson tendril of foliage. It's a large and heavy book, and intelligently designed so that the illustrations are usually on the same page as the narrative.

There is a wealth of visual material on offer here, from humorous cartoons to sketches and studies through to finished works and photographs, which have all been carefully selected to show the gradual progression of the artist's skills and areas of intellectual focus, and the development of his distinctive style.

The reproduction quality of the paintings and other items is excellent. They are of reasonable size, including many full-page.

The narrative demonstrates considerable research from both the editor and contributing authors. There is an extensive bibliography plus a biographical chronology at the back of the book.

So much has been published about Burne-Jones and the Pre-Raphaelites, but the text does not simply repeat well-worn material. Even the most die-hard enthusiast will find some new information here or be offered a new slant on even familiar paintings. Many years ago now, I based an Art & Design course module on the work of Burne-Jones, and went on to earn a Grade A for my research into his works. Even so, Smith's book brought together much that was new to me, as well as allowed me to revisit some much-loved favourites, such as his briar rose series.

What's Not to Like?

I am struggling to find anything to find anything negative to write about this impressive and delightful book.

Perhaps some of the large paragraphs could have been divided into shorter segments, therefore making the text more easily read.

Perhaps a few more details about Burne-Jones's personal life might have been woven into the otherwise detailed narrative. For example, near the end of the book, on page 207, there is a quote by Herbert Asquith who refers to the artist's "difficult life" without the text offering any explanation of what those difficulties may have been.

But these a very minor issues, and this is truly a fabulous book and one I am very pleased to add to my library.

Alison Smith Explores Art from 1840-1890

Sources

The biographical and bibliographical information in this article came from:

  1. https://www.tate.org.uk/context-comment/blogs/watercolour-take-tour-curator-alison-smith
  2. https://www.npg.org.uk/research/staff-research-profiles/dr-alison-smith

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© 2019 Adele Cosgrove-Bray

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