The Last Pre-Raphaelite: 9 facts about Edward Burne-Jones
Edward Coley Burne-Jones
, often called "the last Pre-Raphaelite", might just be the most maddeningly elusive British artist. His paintings are full of ephemeral images,
of the might-have-been,
of the never-was. And yet he was also a painter born into the Industrial Revolution,
who thoroughly internalised a Victorian ethos of hard work and sense of moral purpose. His character was equally fluid: on the one side,
he was a charmer who often seemed to be mentally absent,
and on the other one — a practical joker of hyper-developed sensibility. Here are nine facts that will help to understand this extraordinary master.
1. Edward Burne-Jones was going to become a priest, not an artist.
He came from a modest family in Birmingham. His mother died giving birth,
and the boy was brought up by his father who was a picture-framer. Despite difficult financial circumstances,
he still managed to send his son to study theology in Oxford. There,
20-year-old Edward met William Morris
, who became his life-long friend,
and later — Dante Gabriel Rossetti
, the founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.
25-year-old Rossetti persuaded his younger friend to leave his studies for the sake of an artistic career and became his first mentor. However, Burne-Jones was more influenced by melancholic, sophisticated images of Italian painters of the 15th century Filippino Lippi and Sandro Botticelli. In his early works, Burne-Jones used a lot of Rossetti’s subjects, but in his mature years he developed his own style. His paintings, filled with romantic and mystical images, marked the decline of the Pre-Raphaelite movement.
On the left: Edward Coley Burne-Jones, Merlin and Nimue (1861). The Victoria and Albert Museum, London
2. Edward Burne-Jones was Rudyard Kipling’s uncle.
To be more precise,
the writer was the nephew of the artist’s wife,
Georgiana Macdonald. She was the second of the famous MacDonald sisters — the daughters of the Methodist priest,
both of whom married famous people. The first one,
became the wife of art historian and illustrator John Lockwood Kipling
and gave birth to Rudyard Kipling. The third one,
married Edward Poynter
, the future President of the Royal Academy of Arts. The fourth one,
cast in her lot with the industrialist Alfred Baldwin,
and became the mother of the future prime minister Stanley Baldwin.
Having published her memoirs in 1904,
Georgiana became Edward Burne-Jones' first biographer. All existing monographs are based on her work. However,
there are very few fresh biographies of the artist. The latest book about him was published in 2011,
and it was written by the British biographer and historian Fiona McCarthy.3. Edward and Georgiana’s son — Philip Burne-Jones — followed his father’s footsteps.
He became a successful artist,
the author of over sixty paintings,
landscapes and poetic fantasies. Two of his works — portraying his father and cousin Rudyard Kipling — are now part of the collection of the National Portrait Gallery in London.
Philip Burne-Jones, Sir Philip Burne-Jones (1898). The National Portrait Gallery, London
Philip Burne-Jones, Rudyard Kipling (1899). The National Portrait Gallery, London
4. Edward Burne-Jones became one of the founders of the aesthetic movement in painting, like Oscar Wilde — in literature. or "art for art’s sake" put style and natural beauty above ethical and social problems.
Burne-Jones probably met Wilde sometime in 1881. The writer expressed his admiration of the painter’s work: "It seems to me to be full of infinite pathos and love… In so many of Burne-Jones's pictures we have merely the pagan worship of beauty: but in this one I seem to see more humanity and sympathy than in all the others".
When Wilde was arrested and accused of homosexuality, Burne-Jones, as his biographer Penelope Fitzgerald wrote, "reacted at first with extreme disgust, not because of Wilde’s sins of the flesh, but because he had spent £50 a day on boys at the Savoy while his wife was left in difficulties."
The artist loaned Constance Wilde £150 to cover her current expenses. And vowed to "speak up for [her husband] whenever he hears him abused".
On the left: Edward Coley Burne-Jones, Illustration to "The Prioress’s Tale" from "The Canterbury Tales" by Geoffrey Chaucer (1869). The Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington
5. Burne-Jones' personal life resembled a roller coaster. In 1866, he met Maria Zambaco, an artist and sculptor of Greek descent. She began posing for the painter, and the dark, strong character of this woman manifests itself in many of his works. Their relationship lasted for many years. In 1871, Maria persuaded Burne-Jones to commit suicide with her in Venice and the police had to be called.
Edward Coley Burne-Jones, Portrait of Maria Zambaco (1870). Private collection
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Portrait of Maria Zambaco (1870). Private collection
After parting with his mistress, Burne-Jones returned to his wife, but he happened to feel "the heavy merciless fist of London society". The artist was forced to leave the Society of Painters in Water-Colours, of which he had been a member since 1864, and the relationship with his best friend William Morris, who took Georgiana’s side, cracked.
6. William Morris was not only Burne-Jones' friend, but also his business and artistic partner. Their first joint project was the mural created in 1857 at the Oxford Union debating society. But since the friends hadn’t mastered the technique of fresco, their work was scraped off and finished by other artists.
Nevertheless, this cooperation became a harbinger of their joint enterprise Morris & Co. — a furnishings and decorative arts manufacturer and retailer, undertaking carvings, stained glass, metal-work, paper-hangings, chintzes (printed fabrics), and carpets. This firm existed until 1940, retaining dominant position in Europe in the field of arts and crafts. All the items in the workshops were made by hand, since the "founding fathers" rejected machine production, believing that the craftsman — like in the Middle Ages — becomes the creator, only combining the functions of the artist, designer and technologist.
7. In 1885, at the age of 52 Edward Burne-Jones was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy. Nine years later, the artist was knighted and bestowed the title of baronet of Rottingdean in the County of Sussex, created for Burne-Jones. His son Philip was the second person who succeeded to the title of baronet which was abolished after his death in 1926.
8. Edward Burne-Jones was constantly under pressure of his own ideas. He had an obsessive attention to detail, and was a perfectionist. He would a large number of preparatory drawings before beginning a painting. Because he identified himself in his art, he would often have a nervous collapse after completing any major work. By the end of his life he suffered from tachycardia and sight loss.
9. One of Edward Burne-Jones' most extensive paintings, which he worked on for 17 years, was not completed. This is about The Last Sleep of Arthur in Avalon, which began as a small commission and grew out to almost three meters high and a little less than seven meters wide.
The painting depicts the mortally wounded Arthur lying on the bench while three queens and multiple attendants are watching over him. Everyone is in suspense for a summons from above — a call that will awaken him to perform more acts of faith. Critics assume that Burne-Jones associated himself with the king and made a biographical statement with this masterpiece: he loved to be surrounded by women and was by the 1880s facing his own death. The artist died suddenly, in 1898, at the age of 62.