Item of the Week: Burne-Jones' Prominent Women

Published: August 26, 2010

The Clark recently acquired two albums of letters sent from artist Edward Burne-Jones to Violet Maxse (later Viscountess Milner), the daughter of one of his friends.  Throughout his adult life, Burne-Jones made a habit of making friends with girls and young women to whom he wrote sometimes comic, sometimes emotional, often illustrated letters.  The vast majority of his friendships with these ladies were platonic and non-romantic, and both Violet and her sister Olive carried on their relationship with Burne-Jones from their childhood to his death in 1898.

Though Burne-Jones thought that professional artistic production should never contain traces of the comic, he commonly filled his letters to family and friends with caricatures of himself and others.  He often portrayed himself looking thin and pathetic looking, as below, where he apologizes for missing Violet’s calling at his house.

Oh! Oh! I have just come in & you have only been gone five minutes: Why didn’t you say you needed to come to-day – I went out for a silly walk round & round dull streets and got gloomier every minute – & I might have been here laughing and as merry as a sandboy.

In stark contrast to Burne-Jones’ caricaturing of his thin frame are his drawings of what he liked to call “prominent women.” He was simultaneously fascinated and repulsed by fat, whether on the increasingly stout body of his dear friend William Morris, or in the figures of women (he even reported being repulsed by the “lappets of fat” on pieces of meat). This feeling found its outlet in caricatures.

Though the drawings themselves don’t always seem to reflect a disgust with overweight women, the frequency with which he drew them in letters to Violet Maxse and his other friends drew the disapproval of his wife Georgiana and friend Lady Frances Horner.

When Emma Frank, the American Tattooed Lady, made an appearance in 1894 at the Westminster Aquarium, Burne-Jones drew pictures of her for multiple friends (including Bertram Brooke, The Tuan Muda of Sarawak and Helen Mary Gaskell).  Among many other tattoos, Frank had a version of the Last Supper tattooed on her back.  Unfortunately, this drawing of Frank from Violet’s album doesn’t have any accompanying text, but given the joking nature of their relationship (in addition to prominent ladies, they also enjoyed poking fun at sincere but homely suffragists), one can guess what Burne-Jones might have said to her about the tattooed lady.

This was apparently not the only time Burne-Jones saw Frank during the 1890s.  In a letter to a friend he wrote that during his most recent visit, “she [was] somwhat fatter, and all the face of the Apostles are a little wider and have a tendency to smile.” (Juliet Fleming, A Circle of Sisters, p. 249)

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