Exhibition Review: Swinburne at Balliol

Algernon Charles Swinbourne (1837-1909)At the weekend we visited a little exhibition at the Balliol College Historical Collections Centre, on Algernon Charles Swinburne, his time at Balliol and his life and work. It was only on for two days, but if you missed it you might like to get hold of a catalogue, which is very informative. If you don’t know much about Swinburne, or even if you do, it’s a great opportunity to find out more and see some wonderful documentation about his life. A poet and associate of the Pre-Raphaelites, I imagine he would be extremely shocked to find that he is now considered ‘one of Balliol’s most distinguished former students’; precocious and talented, the examinations register notes him as ‘Industrious but eccentric’ (which is definitely better than some of his peers, who bask in the glory of ‘Respectable but indolent’, ‘Weak, but satisfactory’ (really?!), and ‘Still very unsatisfactory’). I’m often struck by how many ‘great Victorians’ had rather uninteresting University careers, but Swinburne won prizes , founded ‘The Old Mortality Club’, and wrote many essays as well as beginning to write poetry. However, as he became increasingly interested in politics – he was later infamous for his republican and atheist views – his studies faltered, and eventually he went downfine_swinburne without taking his degree.

His associations with the Pre-Raphaelites included his close friendship with the painter William Bell Scott, who painted the portrait above, as well as William Morris, whom he met through mutual friends at Oxford, and later Burne-Jones and Rossetti. The exhibition explores these connections through manuscripts of poems (including one ‘To William Bell Scott’), and a copy of the wonderful Kelmscott Press edition of one of Swinburne’s most famous poems, ‘Atalanta in Calydon’, of which this exhibition marks the 150th anniversary. There are also copies of his collection A Century of Roundels with the roundels on the cover designed by Rossetti.

Swinburne-apeSwinburne remained attached to his tutor, Benjamin Jowett, reading over his work in draft form and eventually writing a fond essay in memorial of his tutor after Jowett’s death. Swinburne had holidayed with Jowett, and there are some fascinating letters (in illegible handwriting!) from Jowett to Florence Nightingale expressing concern about the quantities Swinburne was drinking. The exhibition makes a good case for the poet’s ongoing fondness for Oxford and Balliol despite the unsatisfactory conclusion of his degree, as well as indicating Swinburne’s poetic appropriations of the classical myths and forms he learned from Jowett. Swinburne became a highly successful poet, but he was seen as decadent (though, as the catalogue says, he perhaps write about ‘vice’ more than he practised it) and John Ruskin described ‘Atalanta at Calydon’ as ‘the grandest thing ever yet done by a youth – though he is a Demoniac youth’. His preoccupation with republicanism and the non-existence of God made him also a figure of suspicion, along with hints of other things even less acceptable to Victorian society, such as sex and flagellation (neither of which get much of a mention in the Balliol exhibition, for which I am thankful, as there is more than enough modern salaciousness about these aspects of his life). These nonconforming views were most apparent in his 1866 collection Poems and Ballads, dedicated to Burne-Jones, and the manuscripts of some of the poems which were on display were a delight.roundels

The Balliol collection leaves no doubt, then, that he was a genius, if an eccentric one. His ideas did not conform to their time, but his work still reads as radical, as well as beautiful, today. The final case shows some modern editions of Swinburne’s work, indicating an ongoing popularity not only with readers but with illustrators; these more recent works are works of art in themselves and a fitting legacy. The exhibition indicates Swinburne’s importance as a Victorian poet and his connectedness to Victorian public and literary life, as well as suggesting, rightly, how formative the Balliol years had been for him. The collection held by the College is remarkable and forms a wonderful resource for those working on Swinburne or certain aspects of Victorian poetry, and it was marvellous to have the opportunity to see so much of it on display. I’m shortly going to be reviewing the new Selected Swinburne edited by Alex Wong, and I will do so with a renewed enthusiasm for the poetry.

Before the beginning of years
There came to the making of man
Time with a gift of tears,
Grief with a glass that ran,
Pleasure with pain for leaven,
Summer with flowers that fell,
Remembrance fallen from heaven,
And Madness risen from hell,
Strength without hands to smite,
Love that endures for a breath;
Night, the shadow of light,
And Life, the shadow of death.

(From ‘Atalanta in Calydon’)





Re-working myths

The Baleful HeadYesterday I went into BMAG to have a look at Burne-Jones’ Perseus Series, currently on loan from The Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart. This is the first time the whole cycle of paintings has been on display in the UK, and here it’s shown alongside 3 additional studies for the series, plus some works featuring the Persues myth by other artists. Burne-Jones was commissioned by Arthur Balfour in 1875 to provide a series to decorate his home, but the choice of subject was left to the artist. Burne-Jones was inspired by “The Doom of King Acrisius“, a version of the Perseus myth from Morris’ The Earthly Paradise.

The series depicts the myth in eight large paintings, but they do more than simply tell the tale. Burne-Jones’ interest in the male figure in action and the depiction of the female classical nude is prominent here. With the exception of The Baleful Head, above, in which Perseus shows Andromeda the head of Medusa against a Morris-type verdant background, the paintings focus on the figures set against sparse and unobtrusive landscapes. Looking around the room in which they are displayed, only the luminous flesh of the figures stands out against largely monotone backgrounds.
There is something strikingly modern about Burne-Jones’ figures, despite their obvious referencing of the medieval style and of classical nudes. This is particularly apparent in The Rock of Doom and The Doom Fulfilled, the paintings which show Perseus’ rescue of Andromeda and which bear a resemblance to the Pygmalion series. In the earlier pictures here, it is the composition of figures in the landscape which is paramount, however; how they fill the space and are placed and posed, particularly in Perseus and the Sea Nymphs.
The series is not just interesting for its visual qualities, but also for its use and reworking of myth. Though Burne-Jones uses Morris’ version of Perseus, he also draws on other sources, such as the version of Apollodorus, and he brings the figures to life in a way that is often unexpected. Moreover, the exhibition notice comments that: “Burne-Jones believed that Perseus represented the creative impulse in the fight against evil. The hero is the prototype of the artist who gains knowledge and skill to pursue his battle against the forces of materialism symbolised by the Gorgon whose deadly stare turns everything to stone. Andromeda represents beauty and truth saved from destruction.”
The exhibition is on until October and is well worth a look. If you want to read more about the Perseus cycle there is a commentary here on the Victorian Web.