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“Love Among the Ruins”, 1870-73  by Edward Burne-Jones (©PRIVATE COLLECTION)

The Pre-Raphaelites called the girls they painted “stunners”. Edward Burne-Jones’s women were different. They were sirens, sylphs, seraphim, strange and otherworldly waifs. English roses with divine Italian grace: Botticelli bodies, Mantegna profiles, Giotto pleats. His men are ailing knights-at-arms, alone and palely loitering.  His women are blessed damozels or belles dames sans merci. John Ruskin wrote of Burne-Jones’s “pet witches”: kittenish and cruel.  He painted Galahads and Guineveres, miracles and mazes, knights, monks, hawks, fading pageants and forests of thorns. His lovers are tragic and star-crossed: Phyllis and Demophoon, Nimue and Merlin, mermaids and seamen. His titles speak of dashed hopes and prophecies fulfilled: Love Among The Ruins (1870-71), The Heart Desires (1878), The Wheel of Fortune (1883), The Rock of Doom (1888). In the age of Dorothea Brooke, Bathsheba Everdene and Daisy Miller, Burne-Jones painted gorgons, fairies and Andromeda chained to her rock. The Way We Live Now? Dull, squalid, sooted. Born in industrial Birmingham in 1833, Burne-Jones said in later life that “the more materialistic science becomes, the more angels shall I paint”. His subject was the way we lived then. The then of Avalon and Ilium, of Malory's Morte d’Arthur, Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, Ovid’s Heroides, Keats’s realms of gold and Chaucer’s Romaunt of the Rose. He could not stomach Chaucer’s fabliaux, with their cuckolds in bathtubs and pokers up bottoms. “Lust does frighten me, I must say,” Burne-Jones told his pupil Thomas Rooke. “It looks like despair — despair of any happiness.” Burne-Jones sometimes talked of joining a monastery. There he could be safe from Sidonia, Circe and Nimue, from rushing blood and hot palms. His painted ladies are pure and unattainable or hypnotic and enslaving. There is a certain listless languor to his heroes. You look at the moping magus in The Beguiling of Merlin (1872-7) and think: cheer up, man.

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