Best known as a painter of neo-medieval and classical paintings on a large and imposing scale, Burne-Jones produced only a few, distinctive illustrations. The most interesting were published in the 1860s. Unmistakeably connected with his paintings, and clearly in the artist's style, these images were nevertheless highly eclectic, the product, it can be argued, of a series of influences.
Burne-Jones's earliest work, a frontispiece and title-page for The Fairy Family (1857) are remarkably nave. Unsigned, they represent the artist's initial attempts to discover a personal style. The main influence, however, is Pre-Raphaelite archaism. The figures are gawkily drawn in the manner of early Pre-Raphaelite painting; there is a conscious effort to avoid conventional representations of beauty, especially in the emphasis on unappealing faces; space is flattened; and detail seems to overwhelm the whole.
Pre-Raphaelite archaism is also a key feature in Burne-Jones's later, more accomplished designs for Good Words, King Sigurd the Crusader (1862) and The Summer Snow (1863). Both of these are versions of Rossetti, and closely reflect the impact of Rossetti's watercolours of the 1850s. The calculated angularity, elongation and expressive distortion of the figures is a deliberate echo of those in The Wedding of St. George and Princess Sabra (1857, Tate Britain, London), and The Tune of Seven Towers (1859, Tate Britain, London). Conceived as airless spaces and congested surfaces, both designs are imposing works in black and white, their intensity owing at least as much to the Dalziels' dense printing as they do to the artist's original design.
Such bold imagery recurs in his single work for the Dalziels' Bible Gallery (dated 1881; published 1880). The Parable of the Burning Pot shows that Burne-Jones was capable of dramatic story-telling, even though the majority of his illustrations are curiously static; presented as reveries on the nature of beauty, they reflect his lifelong fascination with the still and the meditative.
Goldman, Paul. Victorian Illustration: The Pre-Raphaelites, the Idyllic School and the High Victorians. Aldershot: Scolar, 1996
Reid, Forrest. Illustrators of the Eighteen Sixties. 1928; reprint, New York: Dover, 1975.
Suriano, Gregory. The Pre-Raphaelite Illustrators. London: The British Library, 2000.
Last modified 20 January 2002