When Charlotte suggested to me that I might enjoy the book she had just blogged about, Tim Powers’s Hide Me Among the Graves, I was all the more ready to take up a fantasy/historical novel about the Rossettis and their circle having just finished Fiona McCarthy’s superb biography of Edward Burne-Jones.
I have long been a fan of the Pre-Raphaelite painters, particularly Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais, and Edward Burne-Jones. McCarthy’s biography opened a window on the lives, loves, families, and friendships of these men and the other painters and poets who surrounded them. I enjoy reading about makers—those people whose creative drive impels them to make art or music. McCarthy does an excellent job of capturing the compulsion to draw and paint that was at the heart of Burne-Jones’s life.
There is sometimes a temptation to look at artists (of any sort, musicians, painters, composers, etc.) as living in some ethereal world outside the cares of daily life. What McCarthy does so well in this biography is to show how Burne-Jones’s art was centered in, and in many ways tied to, his personal life. The concerns of family, money, and relationships all had their effect on Burne-Jones’s artistic life. You really cannot separate out the mundane from the creative here, and ignoring one for the other leads to a lopsided perspective on his work.
Even if you are not familiar with or a particular fan of Pre-Raphaelite art works, you will find the characters here compelling. McCarthy has an obvious affection for the painters and poets about whom she writes. But at the same time, she does not hesitate to show them as fully human, gifted perhaps with an ability to see things in new and intriguing ways, but each having their own frailties and imperfections. In addition, McCarthy does an admirable job capturing the zeitgeist of the late-19th century in England. The book can serve equally well as a social history. The Last Pre-Raphaelite is truly the portrait of the artist as a complete man.
Check the WRL catalog for The Last Pre-Raphaelite