Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Burne-Jones in Australia

I am always surprised and occasionally delighted by what found its way into the columns of the comparatively enormous number of well-written nineteenth-century Australian newspapers. This was, it seems to me, not often the result of any formal processes of syndication flowing from the imperial capital to distant colonies. It was far more probably the fruit of desperate cherry-picking by single-handed editors industriously toiling under deadline, and referring to a stack of six month-old London weeklies near at hand. For example, the following excerpt of an article in the Fortnightly Review about Edward Burne-Jones by the eighth Duke of Marlborough appeared in the Brisbane Courier on Monday, January 2, 1893, on page 6. There are numerous points of emphasis that alert one to the existence of a completely alien ordering of what we would probably call “cultural priorities, above all the recurring sense of going head to head with German art more, say, than French or Italian, but also the telling concentration upon Burne-Jones’s brilliance as a colorist; the pairing of Corot (famous) with Hook (now almost completely forgotten); the use of an analogy built upon the accepted notion that mid-Victorian legal Latin usage was stylistically terrible; and the crazy idea that Lorenzo de’ Medici would have understood Wagner, but been scandalized by Leighton. True, this is the Duke of Marlborough speaking, so a margin of comprehensibility (or otherwise) was presumably dictated by the effects of compression produced by the House of Lords Robing Room, White’s, or Badminton. Still, I wonder what on earth they made of all this at the height of the wet season on the soggy verandahs of New Farm, Paddington, or Sandgate:

The late [George Charles Spencer-Churchill, eighth] Duke of Marlborough affirmed we are not without an interpreter of the spirit of the school of mediæval romance. In the Fortnightly Review he says:—“The greatest living painter of this school, and perhaps of any other in this field of romance, is undoubtedly Mr. Burne Jones. The public may not be aware of the quiet retiring prophet who is living in their midst, and who can reproduce on canvas this field of conception. Were it this alone that Mr. Burne Jones represents he would not be destined to become the founder of a great English school of thought and realization. Others have tried to tread this road and have made no perceptible mark on public taste. With Mr. Burne Jones it will be different. He has imparted the sacred fire of dramatic instinct into all his works, and with it all a laborious and patient technique of the most refined character. His scheme of color is a revelation to this age. Let the merest tyro in pictures see a work of his hanging in a gallery by the side of one by any other artist; his work stands out solid and brilliant, with beautifully selected tones such as an old fifteenth-century German artist might have been proud of. Such pictures, too, will last. No vanishing into the canvas here. The intense delicacy and refinement of his art does not depend solely on his choice of composition. Other artists, such as Mr. [Alma-]Tadema, have cultivated archaeology, and some of these compositions as such are most beautiful and scholarly. The qualities whereby Mr. Burne Jones will live are his scheme of color and the infinite pains he has given to everything he has produced. He has, in his work, the serious purpose of an early German or Italian, together with the instinctive love of a poet for the whole field of chivalry and romance. He gives us just sufficient of the nineteenth century daintiness to render his work delightful to all beholders or possessors of his pictures. I bring this instance of a great artist forward with due humility for venturing to praise him. To me he is the Wagner of modern painting, and, in the truest sense of the word, a great artist whom England maybe proud of. I have seen nothing in any other country which bears any resemblance to his work. Neither France nor Germany has attained his power of color or mastery of design. You may say, my reader, that you do not understand this form of art. So it was with Wagner in music. Yet you may thank the Fates that you lived in an age when you could hear the mystic rhythm of the Lohengrin and the grand epic of the Siegfried and the Tristan und Isolde. It is not given to all of us to understand these things, and there will always be an exoteric and an esoteric school in art. The Egyptian priests alone understood the drama. For the rest of the world comedy is sufficient. A Lorenzo de’ Medici would have understood Wagner. He would have also understood Burne Jones. He would not have understood [Jean-Baptiste-Camille] Corot or [James Clarke] Hook, while Sir Frederic Leighton would have shocked him, as much as some of our celebrated Judges and professors of the last generation would have shocked Cicero or Tacitus if they had recited to these eminent Roman writers any of their Latin prose and poetry.

1 comment:

  1. "This was, it seems to me, not often the result of any formal processes of syndication flowing from the imperial capital to distant colonies." Interesting.

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