Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones, 1st Baronet 28 August 1833 - 17 June 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, and Company.
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, an obsessively affectionate but humorless and unintellectual local girl. 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 Birmingham men at Pembroke College and elsewhere, 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 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, and 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 Albrecht Durer's finest works.
Burne-Jones once admitted that after leaving Oxford he "found himself at five-and-twenty what he ought to have been at fifteen." He had had no regular training as a draughtsman, and lacked the confidence of science. But his extraordinary faculty of invention as a designer was already ripening, his mind, rich in knowledge of classical story and medieval romance, teemed with pictorial subjects, and he set himself to complete his equipment by resolute labour, witnessed by innumerable drawings. The works of this first period 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, of which 1856's Waxen Image is one of the earliest and best examples. Although 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. Thus early, therefore, we see the artist busy in all the various fields in which he was to labour.
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. He saw Florence, Pisa, Siena, Venice and other places, and appears to have found the gentle and romantic Sienese more attractive than any other school. Rossetti's influence still persisted, and is visible, more strongly perhaps than ever before, in the two watercolours of 1860, Sidonia von Bork and Clara von Bork. 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 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 watercolours at the same gallery, but in 1870, Burne-Jones resigned his membership following a controversy over his painting Phyllis and Demophoon. 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 Demophoon 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 water-colours, 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. Hitherto Burne-Jones had worked almost entirely in water-colours. 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 colours. A change is noticeable 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 attempted, not with entire success. A similar temperance of colours 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 colour, refined by the period of self-restraint. He next turned to two important sets of pictures, Briar Rose and The Story of Perseus, though these were not completed for some years to come.
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 tempera picture, 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.
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 honour, 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, truly wanted it.
Morris died in 1896, and the devastated Burne-Jones's health declined substantially. In 1898 he had 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 honoured. Burne-Jones was buried in Rottingdean churchyard, near Brighton, a place he knew through summer family holidays.