Keeping Up with Burne-Jones; CULTURE VISUAL ARTS Terry Grimley Reviews a New Book and Exhibition Devoted to Birmingham's Unrivalled Burne-Jones Collection

Article excerpt

Byline: Terry Grimley

There are 1,183 works by Edward Burne-Jones in Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery, of which 1,137 are drawings and other works on paper.

It's not surprising, then, that many have rarely, if ever, been on public display.

But that will soon change thanks to a forthcoming website featuring all of these works, the first phase of an ambitious scheme to put Birmingham's entire Pre-Raphaelite collection online.

The website, supported by Online Galleries, is the result of a three-year research project, led by Elisa Korb, a postgraduate doctoral student at the University of Birmingham, to catalogue the complete Burne-Jones collection.

As well as individual drawings the collection includes watercolours, prints, sketchbooks, paintings, applied art and archives.

So far almost a third of the works have been photographed, and the aim is to complete its digitisation during 2009.

Meanwhile, there is a new book, Hidden Burne-Jones, about his drawings in the Birmingham collection. As well as essays on the artists and the main private collectors through whom his work passed into the Birmingham collection, it incorporates a complete catalogue, which reveals - for example - that Birmingham has no fewer than 28 preparatory drawings for the sequence of four Pygmalion oil paintings which it also owns.

The book's publication coincides with an exhibition of the same title showing 62 selected drawings, a number of which are being shown in public for the first time.

It's obvious that to achieve such a prolific output must have required a high level of energy, and yet the overwhelming impression you get from the exhibition is that Burne-Jones slumbered through the high Victorian summer of Britain's economic and imperial supremacy.

The material world over which the Victorians reigned is pointedly absent from his dreamy, idealised art.

Its airlessness is soporific in effect and unhappily you have to ask whether the work of any other artist of international repute is quite as dull and repetitious when seen in bulk.

This is not to question the quality of the draughtsmanship - which is remarkable, given that Burne-Jones switched intended career from the Church to art while at Oxford and never underwent any formal training.

The successful artist G F Watts became a kind of mentor and advised Burne-Jones to "draw better". However, there is little evidence that he ever drew particularly badly, or that draughtmanship did not come relatively easily to him. …