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Edward Burne-Jones (left) with William Morris, photographed in 1874 by Frederick Hollyer (©National Portrait Gallery London)

He had no formal artistic training. As a lonely, only child, brought up by his frame-maker father after his mother died a few days after giving birth — “oh, what a sad little home ours was” — the boy Ned had drawn coffee pots and hobgoblins. After King Edward’s Grammar School he went to Exeter College, Oxford, where he met William Morris, a once-and-future-king-figure to whom Burne-Jones was a willing, adoring page. Together they founded Morris & Co — “the Firm” — designing wallpapers, furniture, tapestries, painted panels and illustrated books. In the 1860s, Morris and Burne-Jones lived with their wives at the Red House in Kent. Later, they parted ways. Morris banged the drum for Socialism; Burne-Jones retreated into dreams, myths and quests for holy grails. Morris was drawn to the Norse sagas, to “raw fish and ice”; Burne-Jones to Italy and the “old miracles” of Fra Angelico and Piero della Francesca. Morris grew stout, and Burne-Jones, who had a horror of fatness and deplored Peter Paul Rubens’s double-cream nudes, renamed his friend “All More-Arse”. The mermaid in Burne-Jones’s The Depths of the Sea (1888) is eel-slim. She wraps her arms around the six-pack of a drowned sailor. The thinness of Burne-Jones’s figures suits narrow, vertical frames. He excelled at slender stained-glass saints in lancet windows.

In King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid (1898), the maid has the features of his wife Georgiana. She is fragile and hollow-eyed. Notice her toes, reflected in the brass floor. Burne-Jones was fascinated by reflections. In The Baleful Head (1885), Perseus holds the mask of Medusa above a well. He and Andromeda contemplate the face and its snaking ringlets in the water. Many of Burne-Jones’s scenes are frozen as if in a Medusa glare. Knights swoon in enchanted rest, thorns tangle over bowers, princesses sleep for a thousand years, a marble Galatea waits for Pygmalion to make her flesh.

George du Maurier wrote of Burne-Jones’s “special glamour”, and his oils and watercolours do have the shimmer of a mirage. He rebelled against the age of steam and steel with briarwoods and gold chalices. While Whistler and Monet painted low smogs over the Thames, Burne-Jones saw an ancient river flowing down to Camelot. 
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