University of Cambridge > Talks.cam > Wolfson College Lunchtime Seminar Series - Wednesdays of Full Term > '"All that is solid melts into air": Burne-Jones and the Matter of History'

'"All that is solid melts into air": Burne-Jones and the Matter of History'

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One of Burne-Jones’s illustrations for the Kelmscott Chaucer depicts the icy foundations of the House of Fame, described by the medieval poet as a high rock whose glass-like, congealed matter is ambiguous. In Burne-Jones’s rendering, stacked, stony blocks inscribed with half-melted names of the once famous evoke both natural and human-made forms (menhirs, tombstones), and are juxtaposed against what appears to be a landscape of metamorphic rock. Blurring the line between nature and culture, the illustration suggests the erosions and reshapings to which human history—as exemplified, made, and marked by its famous men—is subject. In this paper I will contextualize Burne-Jones’s evocative conflation of the geological and historical records in terms of contemporary writing on and imaging of glaciers by Ruskin and others, to explore the subtext and substrate of this image. If its vision of the past stresses that our recollection is always partial and prone to error and fantasy, it nevertheless offers a glimpse of the very material forces that have shaped our natural and cultural histories—and perhaps evaporating futures.

This talk is part of the Wolfson College Lunchtime Seminar Series - Wednesdays of Full Term series.

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