Pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones (Exeter, 1853) was romantic to the point of modernism, argues Fiona MacCarthy.

Edward Burne-Jones fits the definition of the ultimate Pre-Raphaelite. He was the undoubted leader of the second generation of Pre-Raphaelite artists who followed on from Rossetti, Millais and Holman Hunt. But after five years of research for his biography I’ve come to regard him more and more as a precursor of the modern, an artist of unsettling sexual and psychological exploration.

I am not alone in seeing Burne-Jones as a great visionary painter whose influence seeped through to affect the development of twentieth-century European art. An important exhibition at Tate Britain in 1997 – The Age of Rossetti, Burne-Jones and Watts – showed convincingly how closely he related to continental Symbolist ideas and decorative styles. But a close look at his life can take you a stage further in revealing just how far Burne-Jones’ art was a reflection of his own intense and frequently tormented emotional state.

He arrived in Oxford from Birmingham in 1853, aiming to be celibate. Both he and William Morris, his closest friend at Exeter, were originally intended for the church. The young Burne-Jones was an ardent follower of theologian John Henry Newman. Ideals of monastic communities attracted him. But Oxford at that period was a bitter disappointment. Burne-Jones and Morris gave up on religion and refocused their ambitions on a brotherhood of art. It appeared that Burne-Jones soon abandoned celibacy as a practical ideal. Even in those early days there were “heartaches and love troubles” as Burne-Jones’ susceptibility to women first erupted. He and Swinburne would soon be defining Heaven as “a rose-garden full of stunners”. A stunner was an ideal Pre-Raphaelite beauty, frizzy haired, a bit mysterious, a Victorian version of the medieval dame lointaine.

For Burne-Jones, art was life. The features of the women that he loved became imprinted on his artist’s imagination, so that a sequence of his paintings can tell us a whole emotional history. Sometimes the features of Burne-Jones’ desired women strike one as strangely interchangeable. In 1856, once he had moved to London, Burne-Jones became engaged to the fifteen-year-old Georgiana Macdonald, daughter of a Wesleyan minister. He had known the family since they had lived in Birmingham and went to school with Georgiana’s brother. Throughout what became a frustratingly long engagement, since Burne-Jones had no means of supporting a wife, he was drawing and painting her. They were not married until 1861. Often, tellingly, he makes her his model for the Virgin. Georgie’s decorous, sweet features can, for instance, be identified in the central panel of the Burne-Jones triptych in the chapel at Lady Margaret Hall.

It was part of the whole ethos of Pre-Raphaelite art to draw and paint from people near at hand, part of the intimate domestic circle, in preference to using professional models. Burne-Jones himself was particularly fond of using Georgiana’s sisters as his models. Agnes, Alice and his favourite Louisa can be identified in his pen-and-ink drawings of this early London period. There was a certain clinginess in his attitude to women, possibly related to the loss of his own mother, who died when he was just a few days old. Drawing and painting them was how he laid his claim. Burne-Jones was devastated and indignant as, one by one, Georgie’s sisters announced themselves engaged. There was nothing unsuitable about the men they married. Far from it: Alice’s husband was the sculptor and art school director John Lockwood Kipling and their son Rudyard became the famous writer; Agnes married Edward Poynter, painter and leading figure of the arts establishment; Louisa married the wealthy ironmaster and MP Alfred Baldwin and their son Stanley finally became prime minister. But these defections left Burne-Jones inconsolable. He had a lifelong tendency to see himself as abandoned and bereft.

In the late 1860s a new face begins to appear in Burne-Jones’ pictures: the more exotic and sexually alluring Maria Zambaco. She was a young Greek woman, born Maria Terpsithea Cassavetti. Her mother was an Ionides, a member of one of the leading Greek merchant families in London, a clan so cohesive and interlinked by marriage they were often described as ‘the Greek colony’. Maria had impetuously married a Greek doctor, Demetrius Zambaco, a specialist in venereal diseases whose practice was in Paris. Zambaco was accused within the Cassavetti family of being involved in child pornography.

For whatever reason, the marriage failed. Maria had now returned to London, a wealthy, wilful woman with her own artistic aspirations. Burne-Jones gave her lessons in his studio at his house in West Kensington, The Grange. Maria soon became for Burne-Jones what first Elizabeth Siddall and then Janey Morris became for Rossetti: the visual obsession, the model and the muse. This was his first overwhelmingly sexual experience. Georgie, though conventionally pretty, was no siren. When Rossetti wrote his limerick on “Georgy, whose life is one profligate orgy” he was clearly being ironic. The Burne-Joneses had in any case ceased sexual relations to avoid having more children in addition to their small son Philip and infant daughter Margaret. A third child had been stillborn and Georgie was not strong. Maria was already well known as a pursuer, with an uninhibited physicality unusual in women in London at that time. She was a striking figure with “almost phosphorescent” white skin and come-hither glorious red hair. Burne-Jones believed himself to be shy, gauche and unattractive. His self-cartoons portray him as abjectly undesirable. Targeted by Maria, he did not stand a chance.

He dispensed with most other models now, in favour of Maria Zambaco’s delicate, distinctly Grecian features, her large expressive eyes, well-sculpted nose and neatly pointed chin. From the artist’s point of view she had the virtue of mobility. He told Rossetti that Maria “had a wonderful head, neither profile was like the other quite – and the full face was different again”. She appears in many guises in Burne-Jones’ paintings. There she is in his series Pygmalion and The Image, the statue created to be worshipped by the artist; there she is as his enchantress in the The Wine of Circe; his goddess in Venus Concordia and Venus Discordia; his temptress in The Beguiling of Merlin, the pursuit of the ancient magician by the sexually predatory Nimuë. If he saw her as Nimuë, then he himself was Merlin. He was conscious of his own succumbing to enchantment: “I was being turned into a hawthorn tree in the forest of Broceliande.” In his final revision of the painting, Nimuë has become a Gorgon, snakes entwined in her enticing Pre-Raphaelite hair.

Burne-Jones’ pursuit of loveThe affair could not end well. “Poor old Ned’s affairs have come to a smash altogether,” wrote Rossetti, the part sympathetic, part sardonic commentator on Burne-Jones’ fraught emotional life. Maria was putting pressure on Burne-Jones to run away with her and live on a Greek island, the island known as Syra described in Homer’s Odyssey. They could reclaim her classical heritage together. But Burne-Jones had a streak of bourgeois caution. There were turgid scenes of drama in 1869, with Maria pursuing him along the narrow lane leading north from Kensington High Street, proposing a suicide pact. When Burne-Jones refused to take the poison she had brought, she threatened to drown herself in Regent’s Canal. They were rolling about together on the parapet when, in a scene that could have come straight from a Wilkie Collins novel, the metropolitan police arrived.

The story was not over. The Zambaco affair erupted into public scandal in 1870, when Burne-Jones’ painting Phyllis and Demophoon was shown in the Old Watercolour Society’s annual exhibition at its Pall Mall Galleries. The picture, like so many of his paintings, is of a love chase, an episode from Ovid’s Heroides in which Phyllis, daughter of the King of Thrace, apparently betrayed in love by Theseus’ son Demophoon, kills herself and is turned by the gods into an almond tree. Burne-Jones illustrates the moment when Demophoon returns to be reclaimed by Phyllis, who clasps him around, enticingly, while still part of her own tree. The scandal arose not just because the heads of both the female and male figures bear the unmistakable features of Zambaco. Still more controversial was the nudity of Demophoon. When the harassed Society president suggested that his genitals could be temporarily chalked over, Burne- Jones indignantly removed the painting and resigned.

In 1872 Maria unexpectedly moved back to Paris. There were innuendos about another lover. She was later to throw herself at Rodin, still in search of a substitute ‘cher maître’. New research indicates the degree to which Burne-Jones continued to pursue her. He made visits to Paris. He and Maria may even have been in Italy together. In the 1880s she was reportedly renting a London studio next door to his. In a previously unpublished letter of 1888, now in a Cassavetti family collection, Burne-Jones addresses Maria as his “Dear and ill-used friend”. He says, “You must believe a bit that I never forget you.” And indeed how could he forget the woman who had moved his art onto a new level of transfixing and alarming erotic consciousness?

Through the years of public scandal Georgie had behaved with dignity and stoicism. She said stoutly, “There is love enough between Edward and I to last out a long life.” There needed to be. After Zambaco he was never not in love. The story of his complicated sexual history has been hampered by the lack of accessible documentation. There is still no published collection of his letters. In researching his biography, I’ve been the more dependent on the mass of his amorous correspondence still in private collections and the fixations revealed in his own art.

First in the 1880s, Burne-Jones became obsessed with a number of beautiful and self-possessed young women from the artistic and liberal elite: Frances Graham, daughter of his patron William Graham; Mary, William Gladstone’s daughter; Margot and Laura Tennant; Mary Stuart Wortley. These are the girls assembled on Burne-Jones’ aesthetic movement masterpiece The Golden Stairs. In the following decade his emotional focus was his daughter Margaret, the unawakened princess in his Sleeping Beauty paintings, whom he loved with near-incestuous devotion. But Margaret, like the other girls, got married – to his enormous chagrin.

Late in life Burne-Jones found himself embroiled in parallel adorations for an old love, Frances Graham, now Frances Horner, and new love, Helen Mary Gaskell. Both were sophisticated, spiritual women in their forties at the centre of the intellectual clique ‘the Souls’. But these were married women. There were limits. Both affairs were ultimately unsatisfactory. His late painting The Wizard, for which Frances was a model, is painfully autobiographical, suggesting an old man’s sexual frustrations. “I suppose I have learnt my lesson at last,” he wrote to Mary Gaskell three years before he died. “The best in me has been love and it brought me the most sorrow.”

Love was certainly the stimulus for the finest examples of Burne-Jones’ art: Nimuë pursuing and tantalising Merlin; Phyllis clasping Demophoon in that desperate embrace; Pygmalion kneeling daunted at the foot of his own work, the living, breathing women the sculptor has created; the mermaid dragging a lover to the unknown depths of a cruel ocean. These are images of passion but in the end bleak pictures of the incompatibility of men and women.

It is this bleakness of vision that relates Burne-Jones to a twentieth-century art of psycho-sexual exploration. His influence extended to Freudian Vienna, Egon Schiele and the ornately erotic dream paintings of Gustav Klimt. You can find the echoes of Burne-Jones’ search for love, beauty and sexual fulfilment in the work of the Swiss symbolist painter Ferdinand Hodler. There is evidence of the strong impression made by Burne-Jones on the young Pablo Picasso and the early twentieth-century Catalan painters. His preoccupation with sex was to be echoed in the work of Eric Gill and Stanley Spencer. Of all British twentieth-century artists, it is Spencer, with his unrelenting candour and the strangeness of his vision, who relates most closely to Burne-Jones.