Books: William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones presented in an unfamiliar light

Collaboration and contradiction in the Pre-Raphaelite world


After the death of his life-long friend William Morris in 1896, Edward Burne-Jones immersed himself in work. According to his wife Georgiana’s memoir, he found solace in the familiar task of designing cartoons for stained glass. Over the course of his career—he outlived Morris by two years and remained active until the end—Burne-Jones produced around 650 such designs, most of them made in partnership with Morris and fabricated by one of Morris’s companies.

The collaborative friendship between Morris and Burne-Jones spanned more than 40 years and shaped the careers and reputations of both men. The story of that relationship and its productive result is well known—and well loved—in the history of Victorian art. In William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones: Interlacings, Caroline Arscott offers a fresh perspective of the artists and their work by building her analysis on polarity and paradox, rather than the conventional themes of friendship and collaboration.

The central paradox that drives Arscott’s investigation is the conventional division between the fine and the decorative arts that was beginning to blur in the later decades of the 19th century. She rightly asserts that the defining characteristics of both artists’ individual work challenge that distinction. Burne-Jones’ oil paintings—“a melancholy meditation on the dying of history paintings”—exhibit the ornamental surface beauty long associated with the decorative arts, while the designs of Morris attempt “to encompass the cosmos and remake history in the form of ornament” and align him with the grand ambition of a history painter.

However, Arscott’s argument goes well beyond the premise that Burne-Jones was a decorative painter and that Morris brought new depth and content to the practice of design. Rather, she uses her investigations to reposition both men and their work in the complex world of Victorian thought and action, and her “frames of reference” range far beyond those of the art world to include science, technology, horticulture, anthropology, and physical training. The subtitle of the book, “Interlacings”, refers not to the twining threads of Morris and Burne-Jones’ collaborative endeavours, but to metaphors that build on the “overall assemblage of imaginative resources” of their society and their time.

She addresses each artist individually in alternate chapters that investigate a set of works or a medium within a particular frame of reference. Her discussion of the robust, organic patterns of Morris’ wallpaper designs is set in the gymnasium, and she uses the concept of building the body through exercise—specifically the ideas developed by Morris and Burne-Jones’ fencing master Archibald MacLaren for the British Army—as a means to explore the rationale that underlies Morris’ designs.

The contexts vary: horticulture for Burne-Jones’s “Briar Rose” series and anthropology for some of his caricatures, notably those of Morris and Emma de Burgh, the tattooed lady. However, describing these chapters in such simple terms does not fully capture the complexity and breadth of Ms Arscott’s erudite approach. Each chapter offers deep discussion of the selected frame of reference as well as a close consideration of the selected works within the context that she constructs.

In some of the chapters, Arscott’s approach is as insightful as it is innovative, such as her pairing of Morris’s deep reverence for the Thames and the fluid energy of his pattern-making for fabrics, with the angler’s feel for the river. But in others, such as the linking of the armour portrayed in Burne-Jones’s “Perseus” series with ballistic technology, the gap between the works and the frame of reference seems too wide to span.

Arscott’s crafting of physiological analogies to situate and explain Burne-Jones and Morris as polar opposites—sickness and health, epidermal and dermal skin, hard and soft tissue body-building—likewise show signs of strain. Her own scope of reference is impressive, but the range from Froissart’s Chronicles and Charles Darwin’s writings to Alois Riegl’s “Kunstwollen” and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s movies can be overwhelming.

This is not a book for everyone interested in Morris and Burne-Jones. The arguments are dense and often discursive, and the prose is written for a specialist reader with fluency in critical theory. But some of her close analyses, notably her attentive discussion of Morris’s pattern-making in terms of technique and aesthetic, are unmatched elsewhere.

Arscott includes just enough of the expected story of the artists’ friendship—and its familiar but well-worn anecdotes—to provide a framework for her analysis, so this is neither a dual biography nor an overview of the famous collaboration. Rather, it is a deep, complex, and sometimes problematic engagement with the intellectual, technological, and cultural issues of the Victorian world. Arscott makes a valuable contribution to the field’s scholarship, but some readers will yearn for less on bodies and bullets, and more on Morris and Burne-Jones.

o Caroline Arscott, William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones: Interlacings (Yale University Press), 260 pp, $75 (hb) ISBN 9780300140934

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Collaboration and contradiction in the Pre-Raphaelite world'