Friday, February 28, 2014

Book Review - Biographies of William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones

Illustration: William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones, 1874.

I am a big fan of biographies as you might imagine. At the core of the numerous written Textile Blog articles is the work of creative individuals. Whilst I am fully aware that the creative arts community as a whole is what really matters, the accumulation of diverse work from one generation to the next, there is no getting away from the fact that individual perspective, intuition and individuality often drives that engine of creative accumulation.

Most biographies, and more certainly autobiographies, that derive from the creative arts are well worth reading, even if they some are not that good. Most will still give a clear enough insight into the workings of a creative individual through both their personal and career character and give a much-needed insight into the perspective of individual artists. However, some biographies are clearly better than others and the often-exhaustive work of professional biographer Fiona MacCarthy are well worth recommending.


MacCarthy, who has produced large biographies on a number of individuals in the creative arts ranging from Byron, Eric Gill, and Charles Robert Ashbee, to William Morris, and Edward Burne-Jones. It is the latter two that I wish to feature in this book review, partly because they are the two books by MacCarthy that I own, but more specifically because both Morris and Burne-Jones will be forever inextricably linked by their long personal friendship as well as that of their families. Perhaps even more importantly for the creative arts was that of their long working relationship, one that lasted throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century and could perhaps be said to have been one of the most successful of the century.

In many respects, although the two biographies cover the same time period, Burne-Jones was born in 1833, Morris a year later in 1834, and both died within a couple of years of each other, Morris in 1896, Burne-Jones in 1898, and to some extent while there was a regular crossing of creative pathways, their individual characters divided them as much as made them friends.

Illustration: William Morris. Pimpernel textile design, 1876.

It would be too simplistic to take two divergent and complex characters and sum them up with a few words. However, for simplicity's sake it would probably not be too far off the mark to say that a general impression of each man's overriding quality would be that Morris was a doer and Burne-Jones was a worrier. To some extent, this has much to do with their backgrounds. Morris came from a well-to-do London-based family and spent much of his life living a life of a man of independent means. He enjoyed his various career projects, whether it was setting up tapestry looms, learning how to dye colours from original vegetable dyes, or setting up his own hand printing press. To a large extent he was never too bothered if any of them made a profit or not, the confidence of a man who had no real concept of personal financial constraints.

Burne-Jones on the other hand, or Ned Jones as he was originally known, came from a much humbler background in the new industrial city of Birmingham. He had no family money, and therefore no way of being the same man of independent means as his friend Morris. His only income came from his artwork and he fretted much of his life as to what would happen if he couldn't produce work his creative work for both his numerous clients as well as for Morris and Co.

Illustration: Edward Burne-Jones. Adoration of the Magi tapestry (detail), 1894.

Both men were acutely aware that in many ways finances divided them, socially and in character. Morris was often generous with his money, it had never really meant much to him. He bought presents for those around him including Burne-Jones, particularly early in their careers when Burne-Jones was struggling. However, although the financial differences, and to an extent the social as well, were always present, at least in the background, it was the creative agreements between the two men that really helped to bond them. Despite various disagreements, loud parting of the ways, even louder reunions, both managed to stay focused on projects that mattered and both were usually of an accord when it came to work produced for Morris and Co, particularly when it came to stained glass and tapestry output for which Burne-Jones was the most important artistic input at Morris and Co.

Why I personally love biographies, and better still, autobiographies, is that I think that it actually makes a lot of sense to be able to understand the individual behind the creative artwork that they produced during their lifetime. While there is nothing wrong in just concentrating on the work itself, to understand the character and personality of the individual, whether through their personal life, friends, lovers, dreams, ideals, tribulations, tells us so much more about the person as well as their creative output. 


Although these two books can of course be bought separately, reading them as a set is a great idea. It is like seeing the relationship between Morris and Burne-Jones from the perspective of the explosive, excitable, emotional perspective of Morris, and then switching over to the other biography and seeing the same relationship from the perspective of the much more pensive, often bewildered, and melancholy Burne-Jones. A fascinating insight that makes you wonder whether there is an ideal joint biography out there somewhere, a book that brings together just the pints of contact between the two men, points of contact that made the creative marriage between Morris and Burne-Jones so successful and so enduring.

Anyway, I highly recommend MacCarthy's two biographies, I found both fascinating and both gave clear insights as to personality traits, both positive as well as flaws. MacCarthy, like all good biographers refuses to pass judgement, giving instead a sympathetic understanding of the complexity of character that was not only a part of Morris and Burne-Jones, but is a part of us all without exception. You probably couldn't get a more defined biography of either man. Both should be widely available at Amazon and other comprehensive stores.

Further reading links:

3 comments:

Hels said...

You said it all! Morris came from a very comfortable London family and spent his years living the life of a cultivated gentleman. Whether he made profits or not was not an overriding issue for him. But Burne-Jones came from a humble industrial city and had no family money to live off. His only income came from the sweat of his own brow. Financial success was always an issue for Burne-Jones.

I cannot detect the impact financially security/insecurity had on the artistic output of these two artists. But I can see its impact on their family life, homes and careers.

John Hopper said...

You are dead right Helen, that pesky financial strain always seems to get in the way of creativity. I always felt a little sorry for Ned Jones. He took so much time and effort building himself up into the grander Sir Edward Burne-Jones, knowing that his friend Morris saw it as meaningless, and you have to suspect Burne-Jones deep down felt the same way.

steve said...



Thank you for the wonderful and real information published in your books.