Monday 21 October 2013

Dead Bird

Mooching around in the Tate ('Tate Britain', that is) yesterday afternoon, I spotted a picture I'd never noticed before - a small, jewel-like watercolour of a Dead Bird. It's identified as the work of Georgiana MacDonald (1840-1920) and dated to 1857, so it's the work of a very young artist - one who clearly had real talent, especially with colour. Who was she? Labelling at the Tate is far too concerned with airy platitudes about periods and schools to give us such useful information, so I looked up this Georgiana MacDonald when I get home - and then the penny dropped. Far from being a talented youngster who disappeared without trace, this Georgiana was the 'Georgy' who, at the age of 19, married Edward ('Ned') Burne-Jones.
She was one of 'the MacDonald sisters', four Birmingham siblings who all made remarkable marriages - Alice marrying John Lockwood Kipling and giving birth to Rudyard, Agnes marrying the PRA Edward Poynter, Louisa marrying Alfred Baldwin and giving birth to PM-to-be Stanley, and Georgiana marrying Edward B-J, bearing him an extensive family, and enduring the public scandal of Ned's passionate affair with a Greek model (who at one point tried to drown herself in the Regent's Canal).
With all that to cope with, Georgiana - who had shown such early promise, and in her teens had mingled on equal terms with the Pre-Raphaelites and the William Morris circle - was obliged to give up her own artistic endeavours and devote herself to caring for the growing family. Looking back years later, she wrote, poignantly and honestly: 'I remember the feeling of exile with which I now heard through [the studio's] closed door the well-known voices of friends, together with Edward's familiar laugh, while I sat with my little son on my knee and dropped selfish tears on him as "separator of companions and the terminator of delights".' In terms of her artistic career, then, Georgiana was pretty much a talented youngster who disappeared without trace - but at least there's that enamel-bright Dead Bird hanging in the Tate.


  1. Beautiful little painting and extraordinary story. Has anyone written a biography of her? I doubt it, as she was never able to grow her talent. So poignant that sense of exile and loneliness.

  2. There's a joint biog of the sisters.
    G herself wrote the official biog of the Great Man, Sir Ned, tactfully skipping the scandal.