Project 11: Study Report on your own specialism

Image by carulmare [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons


I have now submitted my Critical Review “Was Edward Burne-Jones a Great Religious Painter” to my tutor. Following feedback on a very early draft I have changed the focus of the essay. I looked at quite a few contemporary writings about the Pre-Raphaelites and Edward Burne-Jones. While researching this I discovered the HathiTrust’s digital library which was extremely useful, enabling me to read many of the original texts published at around the time of the Pre-Raphaelite exhibitions.

I am quite pleased with the final version of the essay. I did a lot of background reading to research the work and discovered a great deal about the Pre-Raphaelites and how they were received. I also learned a lot about Edward Burne-Jones and his style which, although labelled Pre-Raphaelite, did differ distinctly from other painters of the PRB.

I was fortunate to be able to see Burne-Jones’ work at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery as well as the cartoon of The Annunciation at Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery (although I was very disappointed to discover that the tapestry of the nativity, The Adoration of the Magi is no longer on display there as I would have liked to have compared it to the watercolour The Star of Bethlehem). I was also able to visit Tate Britain to study Rossetti’s Ecce Ancilla Domine!

I got a lot more out of seeing the original paintings rather than studying prints or online copies. I wasn’t able to get to see Burne-Jones’ The Annunciation at The Lady Lever Gallery at Liverpool, but i was able to see his cartoon of the subject at Norwich Castle. The Star of Bethlehem is huge!, although I did find it a little difficult to study due to the subdued lighting in the gallery and the positioning of some of the lights. Because the painting was protected with glass there were a lot of reflections which made it more a bit more difficult to see the full details and get the overall effect.

Rossetti’s painting was much smaller in size, but much more powerful in emotional impact! I can see why it received such adverse critical reception given the times when it was first exhibited.

I didn’t just learn about the paintings, but also about the Victorian era and how the belief systems of the time influenced how the paintings were received. It was fascinating to read Charles Dickens’ article on Millais‘ Christ in the House of his Parents.

I also discovered how rapidly the reputation of the Pre-Raphaelites deteriorated between the wars and how this continued into the middle of the 20th century:

  • Maas descibes “contempt for Victorian painting had created a vicious circle; no one wanted to sell pictures of that period if they were likely to fetch so little; the museums and galleries kept them locked away in basements; dealers, with the nearly solitary exception of Charlotte Frank, dared not offer Victorian pictures, in the certainty of courting ignominious disaster. So the period was like a page torn from a history book and lost to view”. (PARRIS, L., 1984. The Pre-Raphaelite Papers. London: Tate Gallery/Allen Lane. p 231)
  • Julian Barnes quotes Lucien Freud on the Pre-Raphaelites saying he “dismisses Rossetti so violently as to induce pity.  Freud believed that Rossetti was not just the worst of the Pre-Raphaelites (Burne-Jones breathes a sigh of relief), but ‘the nearest painting can get to bad breath'”. (BARNES, J., 2015. Keeping an eye open: essays on art. London: Jonathan Cape. p244).

And yet the reputation was restored towards the end of the 2oth century. It just shows how fashion and taste can change so suddenly.

One of the biggest issues I found with the research was the sheer amount of information availabke. I probably read a lot more than I needed to, and spent a lot of time reading things that didn’t end up being quoted in the essay. But I don’t regard any of that as being wasted time because I think that all of the background reading helped to give me a sense of the period in which the painters were working and more information on the people themselves. So while what I read about Holman Hunt may not have been introduced into the final essay, it did enhance my understanding of the period and the people and that this made writing the essay easier.

I believe that the exercise has helped me to become much more knowledgeable about htis particular subject, but also much more confident in forming my own conclusions and questioning some of the statements made in the literature.

My review can be found here Was Edward Burne-Jones a Great Religious Painter?


Following comments by my tutor I have made changes to my original document, acting on my tutor’s advice I have also reduced the word count to less than 2500 words. The final document can be seen here: 

Burne-Jones amended