Keeping up with the (Burne) Joneses
In the latest in his series on Camden Victorians, Neil Titley considers the artist Sir Edward Burne-Jones
15 August, 2019 — By Neil Titley
Sir Edward Burne-Jones
ONE of the most successful of Tate Britain’s recent exhibitions ended in February 2019 and featured the work of the Pre-Raphaelite artist Sir Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898).
Deeply unfashionable for most of the 20th century, Burne-Jones’s invention of a medieval world shrouded in static dreaminess now commands critical reverence. It is a far cry from the time when James McNeil Whistler advised Oscar Wilde that if he ever felt seasick: “throw up Burne-Jones”.
Born in an undistinguished suburb of Birmingham, “Ned” Jones proved to be a bright pupil but one whose family finances were insufficient to fund a university place. In response, his father turned their home into lodgings. Both father and son lived in one room until enough money had been saved to send Ned to Exeter College, Oxford – “the poorest student there”.
While at Oxford Ned was strongly influenced by John Ruskin’s socialist beliefs and also became a lifelong friend of fellow artist William Morris. Moving to Camden, he shared a house with Morris and Dante Gabriel Rossetti at 17 Red Lion Square from 1856 till 1859.
In 1860 Ned moved out of Camden after his wedding to Georgiana “Georgie” Macdonald, one of four sisters all of whom married interestingly. (In time Ned was to become uncle-by-marriage to both the poet Rudyard Kipling and the future prime minister Stanley Baldwin.)
His life with Georgie was generally harmonious but on one occasion Ned strayed into infidelity. One abiding complaint about Burne-Jones’s paintings is that many of the females look much the same; to wit, they look like his Greek model called Marie Zambaco – and it was with Marie that the affair occurred. It was not a happy experience. When Ned tried to end it, Marie suggested that they carry out a suicide pact instead. Ned was not keen on the idea.
Marie responded by attempting suicide alone and tried to throw herself into the Regent’s Canal. By chance, this happened to take place outside 19, Warwick Crescent in Little Venice, the residence of the poet Robert Browning. Browning owned some pet geese whose loud cackling sounded the alarm. The police arrived to find Ned and Marie struggling on the ground as Ned tried to prevent Marie’s leap into the water.
Marie Zambaco, the muse and mistress of Sir Edward Burne-Jones
Burne-Jones, chastened by the experience, became much more reserved in his behaviour. When the Rani of Sarawak brought the actress Sarah Bernhardt to visit him, Sarah greeted Ned by taking half of her posy of flowers and pushing them down her cleavage. The other half she thrust into the top of his waistcoat.
Ned, unnerved by this flirtatiousness, cautiously offered the two ladies afternoon tea. Seeing that things were not going well, the Rani deliberately dropped her teaspoon under the table and, when both she and Ned bent to retrieve it, their heads met. The Rani whispered: “Kiss her.”
A shocked Ned hissed back: “No!”
“Her hand, I meant”, retorted the Rani.
Light dawning, Ned did as requested – and a mollified Bernhardt resumed tea.
The Burne-Jones’s were a hospitable family and delighted in parties. Ned also liked people to visit his studio and view his new work. He sometimes hid behind the studio door so that he could overhear any comments. This habit once led to him being squashed flat against the wall by a visitor hurling open the door in an over-exuberant entrance.
During one dinner, Ned was highly amused when a dignified (but short-sighted) grand dame sitting next to him gently patted his thigh and said: “Good dog.”
Ned: “I didn’t know whether it was better to keep still or waggle enthusiastically.”
Despite their now thoroughly bourgeois life, both Ned and Georgie remained staunch Ruskin-esque socialists. But his egalitarian principles came under heavy strain from his social-climbing son. Philip Jones, aspiring to join the Prince of Wales’s set and in search of a more impressive surname, demanded that his parents adopt the double-barrelled “Burne-Jones.”
An even greater difficulty arose in 1894, when Ned was offered a knighthood. He was reluctant but again Philip insisted that he accept it. Georgie was scornful of the idea and Ned was nervous about how his great friend (and proud socialist) William Morris would greet the news. Ned wondered to a friend whether he could pay the butlers of London £5 a year to announce him as plain “Mr Jones.”
He also suffered from the resoundingly upper-middle class worry of problem servants. He once hired a Neapolitan maid who only stayed with the family for one month and was almost totally silent during her stay, speaking only on four occasions.
At the end of week one, she burst out with: “I was born on a burning mountain!”
After the second week, she confided: “I love Fabio”.
After the third, she went a little further with: “I will kill Maria!”
Finally, at the end of the month, as Ned paid her off, she seized his arm and, with a worried frown, whispered:
“You are good man. I tell you secret – for your own good. Do not eat the blue ices!!”
• Adapted from Neil Titley’s book The Oscar Wilde World of Gossip. For details go to www.wildetheatre.co.uk