Finding the right artist for a portrait can be a difficult task. Similarly with biography, unless the subject and author are well matched, no amount of careful scholarship and artful analysis can make the story come alive. Fortunately the artist Edward Burne-Jones (1833–98) has attained posthumously a marriage made in heaven. Fiona MacCarthy has not only won prizes with her biography of William Morris, with whom Burne-Jones is so intimately associated, but she is also a design expert and a cultural historian. Part of the fascination of Burne-Jones’s life is the steady unfolding of his phenomenal career as his arresting, highly wrought images take hold of the Victorian imagination, and how Ned Jones, a lower-middle-class boy from Birmingham, was translated into the much sought-after Sir Edward Burne-Jones. There is never a moment in this long narrative when the interest flags, nor a page that is not richly informative. Rarely are biographies both as authoritative and engaging as this.
Admittedly MacCarthy is to some extent indebted to the foundational work of her predecessors. Burne-Jones’s wife, Georgiana (familiarly known as Georgie), faced widowhood, after a long and long-suffering marriage, by advising herself: ‘Do not doubt that there is something for us to do as long as we are