Konstandinos Mahoney the poet and I stand in front of the most marvellous paintings. Otherworlds in maroons, autumn browns, golds and that powdery mid blue that is neither bright nor dull. We’re in the heart of the Edward Burne-Jones exhibition at the Tate Britain. These are the supernatural pictures of mythological alabaster giants, characters stepped out of ancient myth. They are incredible close up, full of the power that you hope painting will have in real life. They shine. Ideal. Unreal. Hyper-real. Bright in unearthly beauty. It’s a mesmerising experience.
Dino and I have met to discuss his first published collection of poems, Tutti Frutti. He won the Sentinel poetry prize for the work which begins with a number of autobiographical poems about his childhood in Fulham. He explains how he has always felt an affinity with Burne-Jones as an artist working locally to where he grew up. Burne-Jones and his family lived in The Grange in Fulham for thirty years. It is an odd thing to say in a way as there feels nothing local about these paintings which appear fantastical and to have more in common with science fiction narratives than any real place on this planet.
Yet nothing comes from nowhere. What we see has its stimulus in what Burne-Jones saw and encountered during his life. I am myself particularly struck by the number of women playing musical instruments that are depicted. There is ‘The Golden Stairs’, gilded vision of a winding staircase on which a lively gathering of women holding mediaeval instruments descend in a complex formal composition. I learn that most of the faces are based on women he knew, including his own daughter Margaret and Mary Gladstone, the daughter of politician W. E. Gladstone There are many other pictures with women holding ancient string instruments. I learn from the exhibition notes that his wife Georgiana (Georgie) played the piano. There is a gilded panel painted by him for her piano from the early days of their marriage. This relationship of arts practitioners across performing and visual arts is something that is familiar to both myself and Dino from the London scene.
In a small ink sketch in the corner of the room we see an unfamiliar side of this epic artist. An affectionately humorous line depicts skinny Burne-Jones slumped on a chair while portly, bearded William Morris reads verses from a long poem, clearly tiring his good friend. The arts come together again. In the room which concentrates of Burne-Jones as designer rather than painter there is a huge tapestry with lines written by his friend embroidered into the edges.
Dino explains to me how he used to read poems by William Morris at an annual event organised by his brother. After a few years he had to resort to reading the same poems. There just weren’t many good ones to pick from. It wasn’t Morris’s forte. Dino should know. His poems are to the point, insightful, full of tenderness. I’d call them exquisite but they are more human than that. They’re bold, telling tales, talking directly and evoking scenes and people. He has this in common with Burne-Jones. He casts people from his life as figures from ancient myths, as gods.
His father’s passing is commemorated as ‘Death of Poseidon’. The sadness of his son, the fear of his broken power of his dad is eerily and honestly portrayed. He recalls being too scared to go close to the ‘iron god in rust’. I too was terrified by the breakdown of my father’s body at his death. It kills the spirit to see your parents go, even when it is a complex thing. Those parents that are abusive are mourned. Dino remembers his London-Irish father at the end, unable to eat at a family gathering, but wanting to sing. He sung the song of ages, the song of the exile, waiting to be called back to the ancient homeland, ‘Danny Boy’.
Burne-Jones paintings call you in to a world you have never known. An ideal place where people are beautiful. It is a homogeneous world, everyone has skin that shines white, they are all unscarred, perfect. He has a particular thing for feet, and there are long toes pointing towards me. I wonder if I notice them more as I am small but they seem to be almost at eye level. You can see he loved the construction of feet, perhaps even more than hands. There are no black people only white bodies. These faces and figures shine white. There is perhaps a hint of middle eastern features in a shadowy Jesus. Mari Burne-Jones painted the people he knew, immortalising them as if in a fresco.
The most famous of his models is his lover and the Anglo-Greek model Maria Zambaco. From a wealthy family, and already a widow when she met the painter, she is remembered as an independent, spirited woman who insisted on being unchaperoned while unmarried, flaunted etiquette and who struggled to be unbound from society’s conventional mores. She was the model for his controversial work, ‘Phyllis and Demophoön’. This is a painting that has ensnared us both in since early adulthood, like Merlin was ensnared by the traps of Nimue, another great related thematic story explored by Burne-Jones. In the Athena posters that were on many a wall, including ours, Phyllis reaches from the tree to embrace the partner that had rejected her. Burne-Jones saw his own predicament in that of the hero. For him, and for us today, Maria is Phyllis. The scandal in which Maria entreated him to commit suicide with her by laudanum overdose in the Little Venice canal made his pictures even more talked about.
Women are strong. Men are beguiled. Is there proto-feminism here? The struggle between the sexes is all around us. Dino points out that as a young man he could have these photos of beautiful young naked men on his wall as there were women in the pictures which diverted any possible criticism. The homo-eroticism is unmistakeably. The female figures feel physically strong, their rendering influenced by the muscular bodies of Michaelangelo’s women. Whatever the reading, these figures challenge conventional Victorian morality and certainly rebuke prudishness and the dominant narratives.
Burne-Jones feels very contemporary with his emphasis on rendering and world-building. His tableaux relate to the explosion in movies that combine contemporary software treatment with narratives. I imagine him looking at the incredible photographs that were coming in from all over the world, as imperialist adventurers sent back landscapes of unusual and tremendous Gothic, barren, mountainous terrains and ruined cities and creating his detailed finishes, lit in the strange light that makes the viewer feel they are at a portal to another place.
Dino Mahoney feels this ineffablility in figure and space too, and paints it in words. Take his poem ‘Immortals’ and ‘Macedonian Gold’. His Greek heritage gives him an awareness of this closeness of ancient and modern. Like Maria, he longs for a freer time, to lose himself from the restrictions of the present in the glory of a cinematic story. To be free and forever beautiful.
The Exhibition in Tate Britain. https://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-britain/exhibition/edward-burne-jones
Photo: Roger Perry