… some astonishing works amongst the usual suspects …

perseus graiae burne-jones

Yes, I know all his portraits look the same (as Henry James put it: “this languishing type … which savours of monotony”) and walking from room to room can be a little like scoffing a whole box of chocolates BUT to see the two iconic series, Briar Rose and Perseus, together is still amazing and there are many works from private collections and from abroad which I hadn’t seen before, including some thought provoking surprises.

For example I was astonished by this decorative oak panel, Perseus and the Graiae, 1877-88, (National Museum Wales). The innovative design of shallow relief figures with their silver and gold clothes with painted faces against the plain oak background looks surprisingly fresh and modern amongst his more crowded and decorative scenes. Unfortunately it wasn’t well received when exhibited and so Burne-Jones abandoned this approach for the rest of the series.

There is also the marvellously sinister The Depths of The Sea (1886, Private Collection) where a Leonardesque mermaid is dragging a sailor to his death. With her disturbing tail and knowing smile, the creature clings to her victim whilst staring straight at us. The model for her face was a Victorian beauty, Laura Lyttleton. She was known as “the Siren” and unfortunately died that same year in child birth. She was only 24.

preraphaelite mermaid fantasy

There’s plenty more to absorb a thoughtful visitor apart from the oft-reproduced major works including sketchbooks, letters, tapestries, stained glass designs and even an (almost obligatory) painted piano.

Edward Burne-Jones runs until until 24 February (Mon – Sun 10am – 6pm) at Tate Britain, London, and is well worth a trip. Click here for further details.