The Hidden Burne-Jones exhibition, on at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery until July 1st, is definitely worth visiting. I’ve always admired Burne Jones and to see his finished paintings alongside his preliminary sketches heightened my interest in his work. I was especially interesting to see his designs for stained glass windows and tapestries. The size these images in which numerous symbolic meanings could be identified were fascinating.
Nonetheless, I found the most remarkable aspect of Burne-Jones’ work, as displayed in this exhibition, in his depictions of garments. Revealing as well as concealing features of the body, his numerous studies of various forms of drapery highlight the ways in which the garments which appear in his final masterpieces were carefully thought out.
Since I have recently been writing about Christina Rossetti’s 1858 poem entitled, ‘“Rivals”: A Shadow of Dorothea,’ it was interesting to see Burne-Jones’ depictions of the legend which relates how St Dorothea, in AD 303, was mocked on the way to her execution by a young man, Theophilus who had heard her say she would soon be in a garden. He asked her to send him fruits from her ‘garden.’ When Dorothea subsequently knelt to pray, a child-like angel came with a basket of roses and apples, which Dorothea asked to be sent to Theophilus. He was converted to Christianity and later became a Christian martyr (Christina Rossetti: The Complete Poems [London: Penguin, 2001], 1139). In Burne-Jones’ sketches of the scene with the dead Dorothea wrapped in her shroud, Theophilus looking down upon the numerous mourners gathered beneath his house, and the child-like angel standing beside him, the focus on the folds of drapery is highly wrought.
Alongside many of the works on permanent display in the Museum, such as two of the four ‘Pygmalion and the Image’ paintings, Burne-Jones’ sketches were on display. Like those of the legend of St Dorothea these sketches help trace Burne-Jones’ composition processes and enable a deeper understanding of his final works.
Since visiting the exhibition last month, I’ve found the Burne-Jones resource site accompanies it a very useful resource.