In Letters to Katie, the editor John Christian arranges the series with an interesting choice of letter to lead: one that crosses over between his public and his private life. The sketches included in most of the letters are childlike or rather child friendly, being often of animals or birds, or of Burne-Jones himself. However, this first letter in the book includes what Burne-Jones describes as ‘a sort of boy’.[1]

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Burne-Jones, Briar Rose Series: The Briar Wood (begun in 1871 and only finished in 1890, Buscot Park)

The letters are, of course, written to Katie but they often have a dual audience in mind. For example, the letter he wrote to Katie later on in the series was directed at Elizabeth Lewis, Katie’s mother.[2] Here Burne-Jones makes reference to a painting he was working on which was one of The Briar Rose series now in situ at Buscot Park. The five cartoons he included for Katie show Burne-Jones ‘in despair’ and he requests Elizabeth to write him a ‘letter of comfort’. The last picture in the letter shows Burne-Jones climbing through a canvas which as Christian notes that Elizabeth may ‘not even have grasped the full import of these drawings, in which the artist is seen literally climbing through the canvas into the enchanted world of his imagination’.[3] It is clear that through his private correspondence Burne-Jones is seeking adult affirmation and comfort about his public art, and about one of his most impressive and enchanted series.

Burne-Jones is renowned for his stylised and androgyne figures, many of which can be found in his enchanted world. The Briar Rose series has many classical forms that wax and wane in curves that are drawn from Michelangelo and yet obviously Pre-Raphaelite in their construction. The women all share a certain soft look to them and their bodies are draped variously throughout each scene. Even the ‘men’ of the series are identified as men through their costume rather than their facial features. We cannot identify either gender in the series as overtly having one look, and although we are comfortable with the concept of gender fluidity nowadays these terms would not have been used during the 1870s We can identify our modern day language to convey the ideas perhaps but should more appropriately use the term androgyne here which conveys the asexuality of Burne-Jones’ figures, rather than a moving between or through genders. Burne-Jones’ enchanted world is about youth where the differences between traditional man / woman genders are less marked. The magical sphere of his aesthetic worlds are a place where youth and beauty are key, not gender politics despite their gentle introduction. Many of Burne-Jones’ angels are androgyne and this gender blurring is more aligned to the theological anomalies of displaying and quantifying how an angel looks. Androgyne being one means of resolving such theological debates.

Burne-Jones, ‘A sort of boy’ (British Museum)

I suggest that the ‘sort of a boy’ in the first letter I mentioned is also part of this enchanted androgyne world. It is Burne-Jones who declares him to be androgyne by describing him as being only ‘sort of a boy’. The torso of the figure appears male in as much as there are no breasts, and Burne-Jones has covered the genitalia (presumably out of decency for the young girl Katie). The feet of the figure are a little strange though and it is actually unclear whether they are feet or whether they may in fact be trotters, like those of the mythical being the Satyr. A satyrs own body is only ‘sort of ‘something and inevitably therefore, also ‘sort of ‘something else. This blurring of recognisable forms into an open ended amalgam of potentials is maintained through the accoutrements of the figure: and I use the term accoutrement deliberately as a means of conveying the complex and yet ambiguous religious identity of the figure.

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Burne-Jones, Days of Creation (1876, Havard)

The boy’s (I use this term for shorthand) accessories give further evidence about his place within Burne-Jones’ oeuvre, for although he is holding a bow and arrow he is weighted down with bird-like feathery wings. The bow would traditionally indicate Cupid but the wings are like the angels of those in Burne-Jones’ Days of Creation series (now at Harvard) which were completed circa 1876 – a mere three years before he was first writing to Katie. These self-confessed and self-conscious androgyne qualities and the feathery wings show a type of angel which matches those we find in many of Burne-Jones’ paintings. If we accept this reading we have good reason for employing the word accoutrement, as it gives us a means of identifying ‘typical religious dress’ of, in this case, an angel. This angelic reading is further underscored by the roses next to the figure. Roses are often used in Pre-Raphaelite art alongside the Virgin Mary in images of the Annunciation, which inevitably means they appear alongside an angel. An example of this is in Burne-Jones’ triptych The Annunciation and Adoration of the Magi (1861, Tate) where roses appear beside both Gabriel and Mary in their respective panels.

Burne-Jones, The Annunciation and Adoration of the Magi (1861, Tate)

By reflecting upon the boy’s wings and his relationship to the roses we can then determine his place within the ministration of other angels in Burne-Jones’ enchanted world. The written contents of the letter also suggest these ambiguities are inherent and part of Burne-Jones’ exploration. He writes how he has been ‘learning’ to draw all day and how it is ‘Mrs. Art’ who teaches him.[4] He acknowledges how it is ‘difficult’ to learn to draw and despite having brought a figure with her for him to copy that teacher and student disagree on the success of the results. His teacher says the result ‘wasn’t like’ whereas Burne-Jones suggests that it ‘was very like’ the figure. He acknowledges their difference in expectations and the fact that he ‘can’t do it all right at once’. This is particularly interesting, not just because it impresses upon young Katie a valuable lesson to keep trying, but because it tells us that there is no one solution to presenting the angelic body and that exploring it involves reaching back to ancient and classical myth. It is evident that Burne-Jones was preoccupied with the figure of the angel throughout much of his public career, but the fact he was simultaneously exploring the angelic body through his light-heartedly private letters is not something which has been observed.

 

Images via British Museum, Tate and Berkshire History

[1] Edward Burne-Jones, Letters to Katie from Edward Burne-Jones (London: British Museum Publications, 1988), p. 30.

[2] Ibid., p. 80.

[3] Ibid., p. 24.

[4] Ibid., p. 31.

 

 

 

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