It’s plain that The Guardian’s art Critic, Jonathan Jones, did not like the Edward Burne-Jones exhibition at Tate Britain: ‘Almost everything else in the exhibition is art that disdains life.’ and ‘Burne-Jones proves how boring beauty can be.’ (22nd October 2018). It’s easy to see what he means: all those vapid, etiolated, interchangeable figures reclining or drooping about in some kind of pure Arthurian reverie. This from a contemporary of Degas, Manet and Gaugin, who was painting in a period that overlapped Impressionism and Post-Impressionism.
But there are things to make the trip down to Millbank worthwhile. The room of portraits is a relief from the acres of allegory. Despite his tendency towards a pale and enigmatic beauty, Burne Jones shows his subjects as individuals with inner feelings and largely eschews social status. His undoubted skill as a draughtsman is also displayed in a series of tender, beautiful and exquisite pencil sketches made in preparation for the big exhibition pieces. Sadly the transfer is rarely an improvement: a mischievous upturned head becomes the knowing face of the mermaid in ‘The Depths of the Sea’. Throughout I’m impressed by Burne-Jones’s technical skill (and I’ll admit to being impressed easily by such things), not least the ability to make water colours look like oils in his early work. But, as Jonathan Jones wrote, ‘What Burne-Jones needed, apart from a slap in the face with a wet fish, was to read more Oscar Wilde.’