It’s easy to be sniffy about the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a bunch of bohemian Victorians obsessed with mythology and romanticism, who spent their days painting big, silly pictures of King Arthur and sleeping with each other’s wives.
They claim their highly decorative works harked back to the days before art became formalist and aloof, when creativity sprang directly from the heart, often in the form of emo paintings of mermaids. Critics at the time hated them – Charles Dickens was furious about John Everett Millais’ painting Christ in the House of His Parents, saying he had made the Virgin Mary look ugly, a real diss given the sitter was Millais’ sister-in-law. And critics still hate them today. Well, I do.
But this Tate Britain exhibition achieves something remarkable: it made me enjoy an exhibition about a Pre-Raphaelite. Don’t get me wrong, I still have little time for Edward Burne-Jones, but the gallery at least leans into the theatre of his works with some gorgeous curation.
A room dedicated to his paintings of Sleeping Beauty hangs the four main pieces on each of the walls, alongside his smaller “filler” paintings, which add slivers of detail – glimpses of forest, curls of thorns. The paintings themselves are nothing special – lots of dozing knights and wenches – but seeing them in panorama, against a plush plum paint job, complimented with gold lettering as per the artist’s original vision, is rather wonderful.
His stained glass work is backlit and hung against deep, woodland green, while his ornate, painted piano, populated by demonic-looking cherubs with sinister widow’s peaks, stands in the midst of a roomful of wall-sized tapestries – it makes the whole exhibition feel like an absurdist installation. Everything is gilt-framed and extravagant and overwrought and ridiculous.
There are also some examples of his work with William Morris, the one true genius of the Pre-Raphaelite movement. The decorative book they produced together, the Kelmscott Chaucer, is a legitimate masterpiece. Burne-Jones’ own decorative work is also impressive – I spent more time admiring beautiful baroque borders than I did looking at Perseus clutching the severed head of Medusa, despite the latter appearing on at least four occasions.
This exhibition won’t change your mind about these fancy lads and their daft paintings, but it’s a lesson in how good curation can make even the most unbearable of shows sing.