Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones was an English designer and artist associated with the second generation of the Pre-Raphaelite movement. The artist was primarily known for his decorative art, especially his stained-glass designs. Burne-Jones was a lifelong collaborator of William Morris, a textile designer, and novelist, and together they were crucial to the Arts and Crafts movement in England.
Edward Coley Burne Jones was born in Birmingham, England, in August 1833. Coley’s father was called Edward Rich Jones and worked as a frame-maker. Growing up without his mother, Elizabeth Coley, as she died within days of his birth, he was raised by the family housekeeper and the grieving Edward Jones.
Elizabeth’s father was Benjamin Coley, a jeweler that owned a shop in a bourgeois neighborhood. Jones came from humble origins, which made the Coley family not particularly enthusiastic about their engagement.
In the new house bought by Benjamin Coley, Edward Jones worked many hours a day to make ends meet. He not only provided frame-making service but also worked with carving and other craftsmanship related activities.
The young Burne-Jones showed early his interest in drawing. Through contact with Mr. Caswell, a well-intended neighbor that painted as a hobby, he had his first informal practice with art. Caswell provided him with engravings and a painting toolbox.
Initiating in 1848, Burne-Jones studied at the Birmingham School of Design for four years. There he had Greek and Latin classes and showed his early interest in mythology, spending hours at his school’s library reading about history and religion.
Later, he enrolled in theology at the Exeter College in Oxford in the year 1853. Burne-Jones, who was already a rather serious lad, entered the institution, thinking he was about to find students compromised with knowledge and studying instead of being disappointed with his colleagues that preferred to indulge in sex and banalities.
Still, Oxford had a lot in store for the soon-to-be artist. There he met William Morris; they both had a keen interest in poetry and eventually became lifelong friends as well as artist colleagues. Even though Morris’ background was entirely different from his - as the Morris family owned copper mines - their shared love for literature and intellectual matters formed an everlasting bond.
Disappointed with the Academy, the painter’s interest in drawing grew again. He created illustrations based on texts that interested him and constantly read John Ruskin, an author that Morris deeply admired as well. Archibald MacLaren, who became a father figure to both young men, commissioned Burne-Jones’ first work, a series of illustrations for a collection of texts on fairies.
The students from Birmingham were not content about their education at Oxford and formed a group known as Birmingham Set. In a few months, they adopted the name of the “Brotherhood”. The Brotherhood played a crucial role in the birth of the Arts and Crafts movement.
The Brotherhood often read Tennyson and John Ruskin, eventually branching their readings to German and French literature. They frequently visited churches and were deeply infatuated by the Middle Ages. It was around this period that Burne-Jones came in contact with Le Morte d’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory, a knight that wrote Arthurian tales in 1471. The book was also a profound influence on Burne-Jones.
Edward Coley and Morris were both influenced by Gabriel Rossetti’s artwork. Still, they didn’t get to meet Rossetti until they recruited him to contribute to their magazine called Oxford and Cambridge Magazine, founded by the Brotherhood in 1856 to promote their ideas.
Burne-Jones was profoundly impressed by Rossetti’s work. He saw in the Pre-Raphaelite the embodiment of the romantic and idealist perspective that he and Morris were pursuing.
At the time, Rossetti was working as a drawing teacher in the Working Men’s College, a Christian socialist institution that, in some ways, was a precursor of Open Universities. Their focus was to bring education on arts and humanities to the working class. The theology student tracked him down and went to London in 1856 to approach him.
Burne-Jones had long lost his hopes of becoming a minister. Developing a genuine friendship with Rossetti, he confessed his intentions of becoming an artist, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti immediately took him as an apprentice.
The artist introduced him to the daily life of a painter, on how to get by in the first years in London, and kept encouraging the young artist constantly. Rosetti thought very highly of his production, even comparing it to Albrecht Durer’s most exquisite pieces.
In this pivotal year of change in the painter’s life, he also got engaged. Georgiana Burne-Jones was a trained painter and engraver and wrote a biography about her husband called The Memorials of Edward Burne-Jones. She was also a close friend of the novelist George Eliot. The couple met at Rossetti’s atelier a certain evening in which Georgiana was curious to see the painter’s work firsthand.
The couple had a son called Philip William Burne-Jones in 1861. Philip became a famous painter on his own right, painting in a decorative and tender way, reminiscent of his father’s work. Their daughter Margaret was born six years later, and she later married John William Mackail, an Oxford academic and the biographer of William Morris.
In 1861, William Morris created the Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Company, a firm of decorative arts, along with Peter Paul Marshall and Charles Faulkner. Burne-Jones, Phillip Webb, and Ford Madox Brown were the firm’s partners.
The enterprise undertook commissions for engravings, carving, carpets, and stained-glass, amongst others. One of their artworks shows at the International Exhibition was received with great interest. Soon, their company flourished, establishing a distinguished reputation in the late 1860s.
The Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Company worked intensively decorating churches, an old passion nurtured through the years of the Brotherhood. They were rather lucky that many churches were in restoration during this period and in need of decoration. Many of their first commissions were stained glassworks.
When this market started to shrink, they fastly turned to other kinds of commercial work. The company offered mural painting services, as well as jewelry, tapestry, wallpaper, and other related decoration work. Their work with wallpaper, mostly done by Morris, focused on using woodblock prints and creating detailed designs based on plants, vines, and flowers.
Although the company was reorganized to Morris & Co. in 1875, Burne-Jones continued to design stained-glass compositions for the firm until the end of his life. The artist was responsible for most of the design of the company’s important works.
Even though Burne-Jones worked extensively with Morris and had the support of Rossetti, who early acknowledged he had nothing left to learn from him, the painter’s relationship with the art circuit was a troubled one. He was censored because of nudity in one of his watercolors, which resulted in him only exhibiting two works in a time span of seven years.
At the end of the 1870s, this changed. Edward Coley was invited to exhibit in the opening show of the Grosvenor Gallery. In 1885, he became an associate of the Royal Academy, which marked a breakthrough in the Pre-Raphaelite group. It was the institutional acknowledgment of the movement that endured many critics for years.
Burne-Jones, as his Pre-Raphaelite colleagues, was initially seen as an outdated escapist. He made a vow to himself when deciding to become an artist that he would never cease pursuing his artistic vision, a lesson he attributes to Rossetti.
Perceived by his contemporaries as an idealist, his idyllic scenes were deeply influential to the French Symbolists, and his works held the admiration of Pablo Picasso. In most of the 20th century, he was forgotten, but since the 1990s, his work was reevaluated. Since then, his work has been selling at astonishing prices by auction houses.
Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones died in 1898. He was devastated by his friend’s death in 1896, missing the companionship of William Morris. Even though Morris and Burne-Jones were estranged since the poet’s socialist convictions couldn’t align with the painter becoming a Baron in 1893, they still had affection for each other. He suffered from influenza, too frail to recover, he ultimately died on June 17th.