The Dartington Ways With Words literary festival came to the end of its packed two week programme last weekend, and I went along on the Saturday to see two speakers: Fiona MacCarthy talking about the Victorian artist Edward Burne-Jones, about whom she has written in her most recent biography, and his friendship with William Morris, the subject of one of her previous biographies; and Susannah Clapp talking about her friend Angela Carter, for whom she acted as literary executor, and about whom she wrote the recent memoir A Card From Angela Carter. MacCarthy spoke in the medieval Great Hall of the Dartington estate, and commented upon how appropriate the setting was for her subject. She said that she’d always been interested in utopian artistic movements, having written about William Morris and his attempts to revive a tradition of noble artisanship in the face of industrialisation and mass production, and about Eric Gill and his attempts at communal living based around spiritual and artistic practices on Ditchling Common and later at Capel y Ffin. She thus felt an affinity with the Dartington experiment, set up by Dorothy and Leonard Elmhirst in 1926 with the intention of fostering a thriving and fulfilling local rural culture, with arts, education and agricultural labour all interlinked.
Burne-Jones and Morris n 1874 - Frederick HollyerMacCarthy began by highlighting the unlikely nature of Burne-Jones and Morris’ friendship, given that, in so many respects, they possessed entirely opposing qualities. Burne-Jones was tall and gangly and often in poor health, whereas Morris was short and squat and always bursting with boundless energy. Burne-Jones came from a fairly humble Birmingham background, his father a picture framer, whereas Morris was from the prosperous Southern counties, the son of a very wealthy family. His father was a bill-broker in the City, the kind of capitalist he would later affect to despise when he turned to radical Socialist politics. Morris was outgoing and a natural leader, whereas Burne-Jones could be withdrawn and lugubriously melancholic. MacCarthy made it clear, however, that he could quite suddenly ‘switch on’ and become the epitome of solicitous charm and the most engaging of company. Morris was very outward-looking, always concerned with the state of the world and the effect his work could have upon it. Burne-Jones’ art tended to drift off into interior dream worlds, full of personal symbolism and suffused with a languid, sensuous atmosphere. But despite (or perhaps partly thanks to) all of these differences they were close and inseparable friends for many years. MacCartney suggested that the names Morris and Burne-Jones were akin to those of the conjoined pairings of the great Victorian department stores such as Marshall and Snelgrove or Debenham and Freebody – forever associated with one another. Given their contrasting stature, Laurel and Hardy might also be an appropriate comparison. She portrayed the friendship as a romance, with intense feelings expressed in correspondence from both sides, although she hastened to add that there was no sexual component to the relationship.
They met at Exeter College, Oxford University in 1853, where they quickly discovered a shared fascination for romantic literature and medievalism, both of which were refracted through the poetry of Tennyson, who would prove an abiding influence. They were initially both intent on becoming clergymen, and enjoyed passionate discussions about the nature of religion. But a trip through northern France in 1855, during which Morris was awed by the Gothic architecture, and Burne-Jones by the Renaissance and Medieval art in the Parisian galleries, affirmed them both in a life dedicated to art – albeit art pursued with a religious devotion and sense of the sacred. MacCarthy related an incident which took place in the Louvre, in which Morris got Burne-Jones to close his eyes and guided him to a position immediately before Fra Angelico’s painting the Coronation of the Virgin. He then bade him open his eyes, and Burne-Jones was duly overwhelmed by the sudden revelation of the painting in all its vivid colour and splendour.
The Oxford Union with murals restoredMacCarthy commented on the lightness and frivolity with which Burne-Jones and Morris and their circle would often address each other. It was part of the foolish and tenderly sentimental side of the Victorian character which is often subsumed by the perceived sobriety of the age. Burne-Jones was Ned, and Morris Topsy, after his unruly mop of curly hair. They would also dress in colourful, bohemian clothing, playing the part of the artist to the hilt. MacCarthy commented on the portrayal of the pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, of whom Morris and Burne-Jones would become a peripheral and late arriving part, as raffish, rebellious rogues in the TV series Desperate Romantics, lamenting the fact that it failed to capture their essential seriousness, their dedication to their art and the philosophies which underlay it. In 1857 Burne-Jones and Morris, along with their new London friends Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Algernon Swinburne and a few others, managed to gain a commission to paint murals on the ceiling of the debating room of the Oxford Union. The summer they spent doing this was one of those magical periods of lightness and effortless gaiety soundtracked, as MacCarthy pointed out with her sense for the telling detail which brings the scene alive, by the popping of soda bottle corks. There was plenty of larking about, with the shambling, bearlike Morris often bearing the brunt of the humour. MacCarthy related an incident in which he became trapped in the medieval helmet from the suit of armour he’d had designed for himself, and stumbled back and forth roaring to be released. The decoration of the Oxford Union firmly sealed the friendship of Morris, Burne-Jones, Rossetti and Swinburne. It scarcely seemed to matter that the paint almost immediately began to flake away, the murals swiftly fading into spectral shadows.
Self-parody - William Morris Reading Poetry to Burne-JonesMacCarthy highlighted Burne-Jones’ mastery of caricatures, which he produced regularly throughout his artistic life. It was a side of his art which was diametrically opposed to the ethereal dreaminess and solemnity of his paintings. This was suggestive of a personality with many different and divergent facets, which were also reflected in the wide range of artistic directions and media he explored. These included the design of stained glass, tapestries and interior furnishings and designs. He worked on the Green Dining Room at the South Kensington Museum for the firm of Morris and Co., painting the panels with the signs of the zodiac and creating the stained glass for the windows. You can still eat there today, in what is now the Victoria and Albert Museum, as indeed I did a couple of weeks ago, enjoying a tasty fruit scone and a refreshing cup of Darjeeling tea underneath one of Ned’s panels. MacCarthy noted that he even had some suggestions for a more pleasing design of piano. Burne-Jones’ caricatures were often of the friends he’d worked with on the Oxford murals, with Morris frequently portrayed in an affectionate but far from flattering light as a comical bumbler. MacCarthy pointed to an underlying element of cruelty and hurtful mockery in these caricatures, which hinted at a certain rivalry between the two friends. Perhaps this was inevitable in two who were so close and who had dedicated themselves so completely to the pursuit of their art. Each wished the other success, but not to a degree wholly incommensurate with their own. Burne-Jones was himself a perfect subject for caricaturists, especially after he’d achieved widespread renown. His thin, languorously drooping figure and doleful mien made for an ideal contrast with Morris’ rounded form. Burne-Jones also shared or inherited Rossetti’s fondness for wombats, and his cartoons of the rotund marsupials often bore an undeniable resemblance to Morris.
Georgiana MacDonaldIn 1857, Burne-Jones and Rossetti went to a small theatre in Oxford and met a young woman named Jane Burden. Actually they spotted her in a theatre box, and later bumped into her in the street, and at some stage asked her to model for them. She would go on to become the ultimate model and muse for the Pre-Raphaelites and the Aesthetics, and the object of chivalric, self-punishing devotion for Rossetti after she’d married Morris in 1859. After their marriage, Morris had his ideal of a romantic, late medieval home, the Red House, built in Bexleyheath, now a distinctly unromantic London suburb, but then a fairly undeveloped part of North Kent. It was designed by Philip Webb and decorated and furnished by Morris, Burne-Jones and Rossetti, all of whom would go on to be the core of Morris and Co., the design and manufacturing company which defined the style of the arts and crafts movement. Burne-Jones married Georgiana MacDonald in 1860, having first met her at her house in Handsworth back in 1852 when he was still living in Birmingham. They would visit the Morrises at the Red House for weekends or lengthier stays, with other friends also sometimes in residence. The place took on the pleasurable and convivial familial commune, with friends always welcome. It was from this stable base that Morris planned the business which was to revive the ideal of quality handcraftsmanship in the applied arts. This was in reaction to the rapid growth of industrialised mass production, which Morris opposed so vehemently as representing a cheapening of life, both in the nature of the goods and the means of their manufacture. Burne-Jones was to be his key partner throughout at Morris and Co., specialising particularly in the design of stained glass. MacCarthy recalled that she had visited countless churches across Britain in order to view his work close-up and at first-hand. Such peregrinations are a sure indication of a dedicated biographer.
Family days at the Red House - The Morrises and Burne-Jones photographed by Frederick HollyerThe Burne-Joneses moved into their own ideal house in 1867, The Grange in Fulham, and Morris regularly came round for Sunday breakfasts and lunches, where current projects would be discussed and news and views exchanged. It was during the years at the Grange that Burne-Jones began his own romantic folly, an affair with Maria Zambaco, the daughter of wealthy Greek family living in London. It would last until she left the country in 1872, during which time she provided his ideal model of feminine beauty and dangerous allure; his Venus and Nimue. At the same time, he rather hypocritically disapproved of Rossetti’s infatuation with Jane Morris, which put a strain on their friendship. Georgiana (or Georgie, as she was known to Ned) somehow managed to stoically turn a blind eye to her husband’s affair, just as Morris affected to ignore his wife Jane’s intense romantic friendship with Rossetti. Burne-Jones would later use his daughter Margaret, with whom he was very close, as a model, although MacCarthy assured us that there was no incestuous element to their intimacy – a relief to hear from the biographer of Eric Gill. He would also go on to have many close but platonic friendships with younger women. As MacCarthy comments, ‘he was never not in love’. To his credit, he was one of the few who stood by the artist Simeon Solomon, who had been part of the Rossetti and Swinburne circle, after he’d been arrested for soliciting in a public toilet and charged with the crime of sodomy, and event which started him on the long descent into destitution and alcoholism, ending in early death.
Portrait of Maria Zambaco, 1870The Grange would become one of the centres of the Aesthetic Movement, a place which attracted visitors such as Oscar Wilde and Ralph Waldo Emerson, as well as Georgie’s nephew, a small boy called Rudyard Kipling. Burne-Jones was considered a key member of the Aesthetic Movement after the triumph of the opening show at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1877, which attracted a huge amount of publicity, and in which several of his major paintings were on display. The attracted widespread acclaim and also caught the public fancy, and he was soon well known beyond the usual artistic enclaves. His success launched him on a swift upwardly mobile trajectory which culminated in his earning a baronetcy, which he accepted despite previously expressed republican views. At the same time, Morris was becoming increasingly involved in radical politics, joining the Socialist Democratic Party in 1883 and subsequently breaking away to form his own Socialist League in 1884 (leftist politics was then, as now, rife with divisions). The ever-solicitous Ned was worried that the socialists might be taking advantage of his friend’s naivety and idealism, and more particularly, of his wealth. He talked about him having crossed the ‘river of fire’ into revolutionary politics, suggesting that there was now a significant and unbridgeable divide between them. Morris, for his part, was deliberately turning his back on the kind of wealthy patrons (and often artistic subjects) of the Aesthetic Movement. These were exactly the sorts of people whose company Burne-Jones was new enjoying. Morris held the Aesthetic Movement, with its art for art’s sake credo, in contempt, now believing that, on the contrary, art should have a definite social purpose. He decried ‘an art cultivated professedly by a few and for a few, who would consider it necessary – a duty if they could admit to duties – to despise the common herd, to hold themselves aloof from all that the world has been struggling for from the first, to guard carefully every approach to their palace of art’.
The Curious Room, which gathered together Carter’s Collected Dramatic Works, and which has an introduction by Clapp. Also in the study were a pile of journals which Carter had kept since the 60s, writing in exercise books covered in cut-out pictures and doodled designs. These included a number of poems which she’d written in her 20s, and which anticipated some of the fantastical and fairy tale themes she would go on to explore.
Granada in Tooting, a real old cinema palace full of extravagant Moorish and medieval architectural fancies, which her father had regularly taken her to as a child, wasn’t available as it was now in use as a bingo hall (an occupation which might not seem ideal for the film-lover, but which may well have saved the building from destruction). Hopefully it might be open again during this year’s London Open House weekend. If so, go and have a look. It’s quite astonishing, and it’s easy to see how Carter would have been enchanted by its gaudily fake theatricality. The memorial evening was based around Angela’s Desert Island Discs choices, with a number of friends invited to hold forth. The designs for the invitation cards (reproduced in the flyleaves of A Card From Angela Carter) and the screen which stood at the back of the stage were designed and drawn by Corinna Sargood, a good friend since Angela’s time in Bristol in the 60s who also provided the illustrations for the Virago Book of Fairy Tales which Carter edited. When it came to the end of the evening, her desert island luxury was revealed, her partner Mark and son Alexander turning the screen around to reveal…a zebra. A zebra on a desert island. It offers a picture of fantastic, absurd and slightly sad incongruity which sums up Angela Carter’s writing and the vibrant imagination, energy and engagement which led her to live life so fully, and gather so many friends along the way. Clapp made it clear what a privilege and a pleasure it was to be drawn into her welcoming orbit. She wouldn’t be pinned down as to what was her favourite of Carter’s books, but she did say that one of her favourite things about her was her lengthy, enjoyably rambling phone calls and her loquacious nature in general. One of her rhetorical mannerisms was to say ‘may I digress?’ It was not so much a request as a statement of intent. Clapp’s book follows this discursive, free-flowing associative approach, as did the talk, offering a series of intimate, revealing and surprising insights in the life and character of a writer who continues to speak directly and personally to so many.