Edward Burne-Jones: painter
Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones, 1st Baronet ARA (1833–1898) was a British artist and designer closely associated with the later phase of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, who worked closely with William Morris on a wide range of decorative arts as a founding partner in Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. Burne-Jones was closely involved in the rejuvenation of the tradition of stained glass art in Britain. His early paintings show the heavy inspiration of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, but by the 1860s Burne-Jones was discovering his own artistic “voice”.
Edward Coley Burne Jones (the hyphen came later) was born in Birmingham, the son of a Welshman, Edward Richard Jones, a frame-maker at Bennetts Hill, where a blue plaque commemorates the painter’s childhood. His mother Elizabeth Coley Jones died within six days of his birth, and he was raised by his grieving father and the family housekeeper, Ann Sampson. He attended Birmingham’s King Edward VI grammar school from 1844 and the Birmingham School of Art from 1848 to 1852, before studying theology at Exeter College, Oxford.
At Oxford he became a friend of William Morris as a consequence of a mutual interest in poetry. The two Exeter undergraduates, together with a small group of Jones’ friends from Birmingham known as “The Birmingham Set,” speedily formed a very close and intimate society, which they called “The Brotherhood”. The members of the Brotherhood read John Ruskin and Tennyson, visited churches, and worshipped the Middle Ages. At this time Burne-Jones discovered Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur which was to be so influential in his life. At that time neither Burne-Jones nor Morris knew Rossetti personally, but both were much influenced by his works, and finally met him by recruiting him as a contributor to their Oxford and Cambridge Magazine which Morris founded in 1856 to promote their ideas.
Burne-Jones had intended to become a church minister, but under Rossetti’s influence both he and Morris decided to become artists. Burne-Jones left college before taking a degree to pursue a career in art. In February 1857, Rossetti wrote to William Bell Scott,”Two young men, projectors of the Oxford and Cambridge Magazine, have recently come up to town from Oxford, and are now very intimate friends of mine. Their names are Morris and Jones. They have turned artists instead of taking up any other career to which the university generally leads, and both are men of real genius. Jones’s designs are marvels of finish and imaginative detail, unequalled by anything unless perhaps Albert Dürer’s finest works.”
In 1856 Burne-Jones became engaged to Georgiana “Georgie” MacDonald (1840–1920). She was training to be a painter, and was the sister of Burne-Jones’s old school friend. The couple married in 1860, after which she continued in art, making her own work in woodcuts. Georgiana bore a son, Philip, in 1861. A second son, born in the winter of 1864 while Georgiana was gravely ill with scarlet fever, died soon after birth, and their daughter Margaret was born in 1866.
For much of the 1870s Burne-Jones did not exhibit, following a spate of bitterly hostile attacks on his artistic style in the press, as well as a scandal revolving around a passionate affair he had (described as the “emotional climax of his life”) with his Greek model Maria Zambaco, which ended with her trying to commit suicide by throwing herself in Regent’s Canal.
During these difficult years Georgiana developed a close friendship with Morris, whose wife Jane had fallen in love with Rossetti. Morris and Georgie may have been in love, but if he asked her to leave her husband, she refused. In the end, the Burne-Joneses remained together, as did the Morrises, but Morris and Georgiana were close for the rest of their lives.
Burne-Jones’ son Philip, who became a successful portrait painter, died in 1926. His adored daughter Margaret (died 1953) married John William Mackail (1850–1945), the friend and biographer of Morris, and Professor of Poetry at Oxford from 1911–1916. Their children were the novelists Angela Thirkell and Denis Mackail. In an edition of the boys’ magazine, Chums (No. 227, Vol. V, 13 January 1897), an article on Burne-Jones stated that “….his pet grandson used to be punished by being sent to stand in a corner with his face to the wall. One day on being sent there he was delighted to find the wall prettily decorated with fairies, flowers, birds, and bunnies. His indulgent grandfather had utilised his talent to alleviate the tedium of his favourite’s period of penance.”
Burne-Jones’ early works are all more or less tinged by the influence of Rossetti; but they are already differentiated from the elder master’s style by their more facile though less intensely felt elaboration of imaginative detail. Many are pen-and-ink drawings on vellum, exquisitely finished. Although the subject, medium and manner derive from Rossetti’s inspiration, it is not the hand of a pupil merely, but of a potential master. This was recognized by Rossetti himself, who before long avowed that he had nothing more to teach him.
Burne-Jones’s first sketch in oils dates from this same year, 1856, and during 1857 he made for Bradfield College the first of what was to be an immense series of cartoons for stained glass. In 1858 he decorated a cabinet with the Prioress’s Tale from Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, his first direct illustration of the work of a poet whom he especially loved and who inspired him with endless subjects.
In the autumn of 1857 Burne-Jones joined Morris, Valentine Prinsep, J. R. Spencer Stanhope and others in Rossetti’s ill-fated scheme to decorate the walls of the Oxford Union. None of the painters had mastered the technique of fresco, and their pictures had begun to peel from the walls before they were completed. In 1859 Burne-Jones made his first journey to Italy where he visited Florence, Pisa, Siena, and Venice. He is said to have found the gentle and romantic Sienese more attractive than any other school. With Italy’s images in his mind and Rossetti’s influence still persisting, he created the two watercolors, Sidonia von Bork and Clara von Bork, in 1860. Both paintings illustrate the 1849 gothic novel Sidonia the Sorceress by Lady Wilde, a translation of Sidonia Von Bork: Die Klosterhexe (1847) by Johann Wilhelm Meinhold.
In 1861, William Morris founded the decorative arts firm of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. with Rossetti, Burne-Jones, Ford Madox Brown and Philip Webb as partners, together with Charles Faulkner and Peter Paul Marshall, the former of whom was a member of the Oxford Brotherhood, and the latter a friend of Brown and Rossetti. The prospectus set forth that the firm would undertake carving, stained glass, metal-work, paper-hangings, chintzes (printed fabrics), and carpets. The decoration of churches was from the first an important part of the business. The work shown by the firm at the 1862 International Exhibition attracted much notice, and within a few years it was flourishing. Two significant secular commissions helped establish the firm’s reputation in the late 1860s: a royal project at St. James’s Palace and the “green dining room” at the South Kensington Museum (now the Victoria and Albert) of 1867 which featured stained glass windows and panel figures by Burne-Jones.
Although known primarily as a painter, Burne-Jones was also an illustrator, helping the Pre-Raphaelite aesthetic to enter mainstream awareness. In addition, he designed books for the Kelmscott Press between 1892 and 1898. His illustrations appeared in The Fairy Family by Archibald Maclaren (1857), The Earthly Paradise by William Morris (not completed), The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer by Geoffrey Chaucer (1896), Bible Gallery by Dalziel (1881), among many others.
In 1864 Burne-Jones was elected an associate of the Society of Painters in Water-Colours (also known as the Old Water-Colour Society), and exhibited, among other works, The Merciful Knight, the first picture which fully revealed his ripened personality as an artist. The next six years saw a series of fine watercolors at the same gallery. In 1866 Mrs Cassavetti commissioned Burne-Jones to paint her daughter, Maria Zambaco, in Cupid finding Psyche, an introduction which led to their tragic affair.
In 1870, Burne-Jones resigned his membership following a controversy over his painting Phyllis and Demophoön. The features of Maria Zambaco were clearly recognizable in the barely draped Phyllis (as they are in several of Burne-Jones’s finest works), and the undraped nakedness of Demophoön coupled with the suggestion of female sexual assertiveness offended Victorian sensibilities. Burne-Jones was asked to make a slight alteration, but instead “withdrew not only the picture from the walls, but himself from the Society.”
During the next seven years, 1870–1877, only two works of the painter’s were exhibited. These were two watercolors, shown at the Dudley Gallery in 1873, one of them being the beautiful Love among the Ruins, destroyed twenty years later by a cleaner who supposed it to be an oil painting, but afterwards reproduced in oils by the painter.
This silent period was, however, one of unremitting production. Until this point, Burne-Jones had worked almost entirely in watercolors. He now began a number of large pictures in oils, working at them in turn, and having always several on hand. The first Briar Rose series, Laus Veneris, the Golden Stairs, the Pygmalion series, and The Mirror of Venus are among the works planned and completed, or carried far towards completion, during these years.
These years also mark the beginnings of Burne-Jones’s partnership with the fine-art photographer Frederick Hollyer, whose reproductions of paintings, and especially drawings, would expose a wider audience to Burne-Jones’s works in the coming decades.
At last, in May 1877, the day of recognition came, with the opening of the first exhibition of the Grosvenor Gallery, when The Days of Creation, The Beguiling of Merlin, and The Mirror of Venus were all shown. Burne-Jones followed up the signal success of these pictures with Laus Veneris, the Chant d’Amour, Pan and Psyche, and other works, exhibited in 1878. Most of these pictures are painted in brilliant colors.
A change is noticeable the next year, 1879, in the Annunciation and in the four pictures making up the second series of Pygmalion and the Image; the former of these, one of the simplest and most perfect of the artist’s works, is subdued and sober; in the latter a scheme of soft and delicate tints was used.
A similar temperance of colors marks The Golden Stairs, first exhibited in 1880. The almost sombre Wheel of Fortune was shown in 1883, followed in 1884 by King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid, in which Burne-Jones once more indulged his love of gorgeous color, refined by the period of self-restraint. He next turned to two important sets of pictures, The Briar Rose and The Story of Perseus, though these were not completed for some years.
Burne-Jones was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy in 1885, and the following year he exhibited (for the only time) at the Academy, showing The Depths of the Sea, a painting of a mermaid carrying down with her a youth whom she has unconsciously drowned in the impetuosity of her love. This picture adds to the habitual haunting charm a tragic irony of conception and a felicity of execution which give it a place apart among Burne-Jones’s works.
He formally resigned his Associateship in 1893. One of the Perseus series was exhibited in 1887, two more in 1888, with The Brazen Tower, inspired by the same legend. In 1890 the second series of The Legend of Briar Rose were exhibited by themselves, and won the widest admiration. The huge watercolor, The Star of Bethlehem, painted for the corporation of Birmingham, was exhibited in 1891. A long illness for some time checked the painter’s activity, which, when resumed, was much occupied with decorative schemes.
An exhibition of his work was held at the New Gallery in the winter of 1892-1893. To this period belong several of his comparatively few portraits. In 1894 Burne-Jones was made a baronet. Ill-health again interrupted the progress of his works, chief among which was the vast Arthur in Avalon. In the winter following his death a second exhibition of his works was held at the New Gallery, and an exhibition of his drawings (including some of the charmingly humorous sketches made for children) at the Burlington Fine Arts Club.
Burne-Jones’s aim in art is best given in some of his own words, written to a friend: “I mean by a picture a beautiful, romantic dream of something that never was, never will be – in a light better than any light that ever shone – in a land no one can define or remember, only desire – and the forms divinely beautiful – and then I wake up, with the waking of Brynhild.”
He was an artist was ever true to his aim. Ideals resolutely pursued are apt to provoke the resentment of the world, and Burne-Jones encountered, endured and conquered an extraordinary amount of angry criticism. Insofar as this was directed against the lack of realism in his pictures, it was beside the point. The earth, the sky, the rocks, the trees, the men and women of Burne-Jones are not those of this world; but they are themselves a world, consistent with itself, and having therefore its own reality. Charged with the beauty and with the strangeness of dreams, it has nothing of a dream’s incoherence. Yet it is a dreamer always whose nature penetrates these works, a nature out of sympathy with struggle and strenuous action. Burne-Jones’s men and women are dreamers too. It was this which, more than anything else, estranged him from the age into which he was born. But he had an inbred “revolt from fact” which would have estranged him from the actualities of any age.
In 1881 Burne-Jones received an honorary degree from Oxford, and was made an Honorary Fellow in 1882. In 1885 he became the President of the Birmingham Society of Artists. At about that time he began hyphenating his name, merely—as he wrote later—to avoid “annihilation” in the mass of Joneses. In November 1893, he was approached to see if he would accept a Baronetcy on the recommendation of the outgoing Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone, the following February he legally changed his name to Burne-Jones. He was formally created a baronet of Rottingdean, in the county of Sussex, and of the Grange, in the parish of Fulham, in the county of London in the baronetage of the United Kingdom on 3 May 1894, but remained unhappy about accepting the honor, which disgusted his socialist friend Morris and was scorned by his equally socialist wife Georgiana. Only his son Philip, who mixed with the set of the Prince of Wales and would inherit the title, was the one who truly wanted it.
After his friend Morris died in 1896, the health of the devastated Burne-Jones declined substantially. In 1898 he suffered an attack of influenza, and had apparently recovered when he was again taken suddenly ill, and died on 17 June 1898. Six days later, at the intervention of the Prince of Wales, a memorial service was held at Westminster Abbey. It was the first time an artist had been so honored in Britain. Burne-Jones was buried in the churchyard at St Margaret’s Church, Rottingdean, a place he knew through summer family holidays.