Dictionary of National Biography, 1901 supplement/Burne-Jones, Edward Coley

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BURNE-JONES, Sir EDWARD COLEY (1833–1898), first baronet, painter, and at one time A.R.A., was born in Birmingham on 28 Aug. 1833. The name ‘Burne’ was really a baptismal name, but was adopted as part of the surname for convenience’ sake, when it had long been identified in the public mind with the work of the painter. His father, a man of Welsh descent, was Edward Richard Jones; the maiden name of his mother (who died when he was born) was Elizabeth Coley. In 1844 he entered King Edward’s School, Birmingham, while James Prince Lee [q. v.] was head-master. Few records remain of his school days. It is known that he was not strong enough to play games; that he

delighted in poetry and especially in Ossian; and that, although he became celebrated among the boys for drawing ‘devils,’ he showed none of Millais’s precocity in art. After passing through the usual school routine he matriculated in 1852 from Exeter College, Oxford, with the intention of taking orders in the church of England. But, though he was touched by the ecclesiastical spirit of the place, and used to attend the daily services at St. Thomas’s, he seems to have felt no real vocation for the clerical career; for, on the one hand, on the outbreak of the Crimean war he was extremely anxious to enter the army, and, on the other, his friendship with another Exeter undergraduate, also of Welsh nationality, William Morris [q. v. Suppl.], who was independently experiencing a like change of feeling, very soon led him away from the paths of divinity to those of literature and art. The story of this friendship and its results has been told at length in Mr. Mackail’s ‘Life of William Morris.’ It will suffice here to say that 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.’ Among its members were R. W. Dixon and Edwin Hatch, William Fulford (afterwards editor of the ‘Oxford and Cambridge Magazine’), and Cormell Price of Brasenose, afterwards head-master of the college of Westward Ho, and among the most intimate of Burne-Jones’s lifelong friends. The brotherhood was stirred by a little ‘Romantic Movement’ of its own; it read Ruskin and Tennyson; it visited churches, worshipped the middle ages, and finally founded the magazine just mentioned, which is now almost as much prized by votaries of English Pre-Raphaelitism as ‘The Germ’ itself.

At that time neither Burne-Jones nor Morris knew Rossetti personally, but both were much influenced by certain illustrations signed by the elder painter; and the impulse derived from these was strengthened by opportunity afforded of seeing and studying the pictures of Mr. Combe, at that time head of the Clarendon Press—an enthusiastic collector of works by the Pre-Raphaelites. At Mr. Combe’s house Burne-Jones saw some at least of the pictures, now given to the university galleries and to Keble College, which were disturbing old prejudices, and arousing the passionate admiration of certain enthusiasts of the day: Holman Hunt’s ‘Light of the World,’ Millais’s ‘Return of the Dove to the Ark,’ and Rossetti’s ‘Birthday of Beatrice.’ These things and Ruskin, and a journey among French cathedrals, quickly proved too strong to be resisted; and by 1855 the desire to become an artist had, in Burne-Jones’s mind, crystallised into a resolve. He came up to London while still an undergraduate, was introduced by Mr. Vernon Lushington to Rossetti, was by him persuaded to abandon the thought of returning to Oxford, and at once began to learn to paint. Although we hear very little of any preliminary attempts or of any lessons from drawing-masters, it is certain that Burne-Jones already showed many of the developed gifts of an artist. For in February 1857, not much more than a year after their acquaintance began, Rossetti writes 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 Durer’s finest works’ (W. B. Scott, Memoirs, ii. 37). During the year which preceded this letter, Burne-Jones, although not actually a pupil of Rossetti, had been constantly present in his studio in Blackfriars; had watched him working, and had experienced to the full his truly magnetic influence. It is not surprising, then, that his earliest works are little else than echoes, but rich and resonant echoes, of Rossetti; such a drawing, for instance, as that of ‘Sidonia von Bork,’ though executed four years later, might almost pass for one of Rossetti’s own achievements. From these early years there survive a certain number of works in various media; the earliest is a pen drawing of ‘The Waxen Image’ (1856), and in the next year come four designs for stained glass executed for the chapel at Bradfield. That autumn was given to Oxford, and to the heroic but ‘piecemeal and unorganised’ attempt to adorn the Union debating-room with frescoes, of which Burne-Jones contributed ‘Nimue and Merlin.’ In 1858 we find him painting some decorations in oil for a cabinet, and characteristically choosing an illustration from Chaucer; and in 1859, together with various pen drawings, and the beginning of the water-colour of ‘The Annunciation,’ comes the well-known St. Frideswide’s window in Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford. A crowded and elaborate design like this last shows already an immense advance; and from about the same year we have an example of Burne-Jones’s now remarkable, if here and there faulty, draughtsmanship in the large pen drawing of ‘The Wedding of Buondelmonte,’ a masterpiece of its kind. From this time, however, it is somewhat difficult to date the stages of his progress, on account of the habit, well known to his friends, and noticed by all his biographers, of beginning several pictures or series of pictures at the same time, taking them up as fancy might suggest, and sometimes leaving them for years unfinished. It is well to remember, as Mr. Malcolm Bell reminds us, that ‘the great “Wheel of Fortune,” designed in 1871, was begun in 1877, but was not finished till 1883. . . . “The Feast of Peleus,” begun in 1872, was finished in 1881; the “Laus Veneris” was begun in 1873, but not finished till 1888.’ A still more notable instance is the ‘Briar Rose’ series, of which the first designs were made in 1869, while the finished pictures, which did not differ in any very striking way from the early drawings, were not exhibited till 1890.

Up to 1859 Burne-Jones and Morris practically lived and worked together, their home for some time from 1856 being some rooms at 17 Red Lion Square. Morris married in 1859, and next year went to live at Red House, Bexley Heath, a little ‘Palace of Art,’ as the friends called it, to which Burne-Jones contributed no small part of the decoration. In June 1860 he himself married Georgiana, one of the five daughters of the Rev. G. B. Macdonald, a Wesleyan minister, at that time of Manchester; of the remaining daughters one is Lady Poynter, while another is the wife of Mr. J. L. Kipling, and mother of Mr. Rudyard Kipling. For some time after his marriage Burne-Jones lived in Russell Place, Fitzroy Square, and afterwards in Great Russell Street, Bloomsbury; in 1864 he migrated to Kensington Square, and three years later to the Grange, North End Road. West Kensington, where he continued to live for over thirty years, and where he died. It was at the Grange that all his great works were painted, or at least completed; for, as we have seen, many of the greatest of them had been planned in earlier days. But for several years after his establishment here Burne-Jones was hardly known at all to the world, even to the world of art. He exhibited small watercolours indeed in the rooms of the ‘Old’ Society, of which he had been elected an associate in 1863 (he withdrew from it for a time, in company with Sir Frederic Burton [q. v. Suppl.], many years later); but his oil pictures were not yet seen in public; his stained windows generally passed under the name of Morris, who executed them; at that time he cared nothing for what is commonly called society, and in fact he bade fair to pass unnoticed among a generation which displayed little curiosity about its artists. The dedication to him of Mr. Swinburne’s ‘Poems and Ballads’ in 1867 introduced his name to the literary class: but at this period it may almost be said that there was only one buyer of Burne-Jones’s work, though he was an enthusiastic one. This was William Graham of Grosvenor Place, well known as a collector of early Italian pictures and of the works of the English Pre-Raphaelites and of their artistic descendants. He was the purchaser of several watercolours, of the ‘Chant d’ Amour,’ the ‘Days of Creation,’ the ‘Beguiling of Merlin,’ and of many other pictures by Burne-Jones. After the owner’s death, at the sale in May 1886, the great prices which were realised by these pictures gave the first visible proof that wealthy English people had learnt to admire the great imaginative painter. Mr. Graham and his family were also close personal friends of the artist. Burne-Joues introduced Ruskin to Mr. Graham, and Ruskin and Rossetti were fellow-visitors with Burne-Jones at Mr. Graham’s house. There Burne-Jones often talked of art and literature with rare genius, versatility, humour, and information.

It was at the opening of the Grosvenor Gallery in 1877 that Burne-Jones’s work was practically first introduced to the great world. The three pictures last named were his principal contribution, and they made a prodigious impression. The Philistines disliked them, of course, but by this time the educated public had been sufficiently prepared for a poetical and unconventional art; the literary class was captured; the organs of public opinion were mostly not hostile. Very different indeed was the reception accorded to Burne-Jones from that which had greeted the young Millais and Holman Hunt a quarter of a century before; for in the interval not only had the common views about painting been greatly shaken by the writings of Ruskin, but the poems of William Morris and Rossetti had won acceptance, with a large class of readers, for the sentiments which find expression in Burne-Jones’s pictures. During the years of the existence of the Grosvenor Gallery, 1877–1887 and in the annual exhibitions of its successor, the New Gallery, Burne-Jones’s work formed the centre of attraction. It was at one or other of these rooms that he exhibited, besides the pictures already mentioned, the ‘Mirror of Venus’ (1877), the ‘Pygmalion’ series (1879), the ‘Golden Stairs’ (1880), the ‘Wheel of Fortune’ (1883), ‘King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid’ (1884), ‘The Garden of Pan’ (1887), and a score of other pictures which at once became celebrated, together with a number of very individual portraits, among which that of the painter’s daughter is perhaps the best remembered. A still more striking success was attained by the ‘Briar Rose’ series, when the four large pictures which compose it were exhibited by Messrs. Agnew at their gallery in Bond Street in June 1890. Both here and in various great towns these four splendid illustrations of the old fairy tale of ‘The Sleeping Beauty’ were visited by crowds, and the sentiment, design, and colour of these pictures may fairly be said to have overwhelmed all critical opposition. From Messrs. Agnew they passed into the possession of Mr. Alexander Henderson of Buscot Park, Berkshire.

In 1885, at the suggestion of his friend. Sir Frederic Leighton, Burne-Jones was nominated (without his knowledge) for election at the Royal Academy, and he was chosen A.R.A. But he exhibited only one picture at Burlington House, ‘The Depths of the Sea,’ in 1886. Like all who saw it there, the artist found that the picture looked strange and ineffective among its incongruous surroundings; he sent nothing more to the Academy, and finally in 1893 he resigned his connection with that body, ‘not from pique,’ to use the words of a letter which he addressed at the time to the present writer, ‘but because I am not fitted for these associations, where I find myself committed to much that I dislike.’ It was at this moment that the New Gallery was holding a representative exhibition of Burne-Jones’s works, which was repeated on a fuller scale, and with still greater success, six months after his death, simultaneously with a very choice exhibition of his pen, pencil, and chalk drawings at the Burlington Fine Arts Club.

In 1878 ‘Merlin and Vivien,’ or ‘The Beguiling of Merlin,’ was sent to the Paris Exhibition, and from that time forward the name of Burne-Jones was held in high honour by the French. The ‘Cophetua’ was regarded with sincere admiration when it was shown in the exhibition of 1889; a like acclaim greeted the artist’s pictures at Brussels in 1897, and in the English pavilion at the Paris Exhibition of 1900; and much success, both on the continent and in America, as well as in England, awaited the magnificent reproductions of a hundred of his works which were made by the Berlin Photographic Company. Of outward signs of honour he received his share; numerous foreign medals were awarded to him; his university made him an honorary D.C.L. at the Encænia of 1881, his college (Exeter) elected him an honorary fellow in 1882, and in 1894 Queen Victoria, on the advice of Mr. Gladstone, conferred a baronetcy upon him. He died suddenly, in the morning of 17 June 1898; a memorial service in his honour was held at Westminster Abbey, and his remains rest in the churchyard at Rottingdean, near Brighton, at which village he had his country home. He left a son, Philip, the present baronet, a practising artist, and a daughter, Margaret, married to Mr. J. W. Mackail.

Portraits of Burne-Jones were painted by Mr. G. F. Watts, K. A., and by the painter’s son Philip. Both pictures belong to Lady Burne-Jones.

On 16 and 18 July 1898, what were called the ‘remaining works’ of the painter—chiefly drawings and studies, largo and small—were sold at Christie’s, when 206 lots realised almost 30,000l. These, however, represented only a small part of the truly immense output of a life of incessant and exhausting labour. Soon afterwards a movement was organised among his admirers for the purchase of one of his chief pictures for the nation; the result was the acquisition, from the executors of the earl of Wharncliffe, of the famous ‘King Cophetua,’ which now hangs in the National Gallery. A very interesting book of drawings, containing designs which were never carried out, was left by the artist to the British Museum.

A notice of Burne-Jones ought not to terminate without some reference to other sides of his talent than those represented by his finished pictures. His decorative work was extremely voluminous; for instance, the list of cartoons for stained-glass windows which he furnished to Mr. Malcolm Bell’s book has scarcely a blank year between 1857 and 1898, and the number mounts up to several hundreds. The five earliest (1857–1861) were executed by Messrs. Powell, the rest from 1861 onwards by Messrs. Morris & Co. Burne-Jones also made a few decorations for houses (notably for the Earl of Carlisle’s house in Kensington) and a large number of designs for tapestry and needlework, among which the ‘Launcelot’ series for Stanmore Hall is the chief. He gave much time and thought to his design called ‘The Tree of Life,’ executed in mosaic by Salviati for the American church in Rome. This work he regarded with particular affection, for, as he said, ‘it is to be in Rome, and it is to last for eternity.’ Again, his illustrations for books, although not numerous, are extremely memorable. He was genuinely interested in Morris’s Kelmscott Press, although he was in no way concerned in its management; he made the drawings to illustrate the famous Kelmscott Chaucer, which are worthy alike of the genius of artist and poet. Chaucer, however, had no exclusive command over his literary affections, for, as is evident from nearly all his pictures, he was a passionate student of Celtic romance, whether represented by Sir Thomas Malory and other English writers, or by the documents published by French scholars such as M. Gaston Paris. It may be added that his feeling for the Celtic race was something more than literary. Far away from politics as he was, he was deeply stirred by the Parnell movement, and was an enthusiastic admirer of the Irish leader. As to other interests he had a scholarly and exact knowledge of all kinds of mediæval tales, Eastern and Western, was familiar with D’Herbelot and Silvestre de Sacy, was also interested in mediæval Jewish lore, and devoted to Marco Polo and the travellers of the middle ages. So, too, as many of his pictures prove, he studied the Greek mythology from its romantic side, and would devote untiring labour to such a subject as the Perseus myth whenever, as Chaucer and the mediæval writers had done before him, he found it possible to treat a classical story in the romantic spirit.

It is too soon to attempt to form any final judgment as to Burne-Jones’s place in art. In days when there is no universal agreement upon first principles, and when it is regarded as an open question whether an artist should follow the ideals of Botticelli or the ideals of Velasquez, it is certain that the work of a painter so individual as Burne-Jones will provoke as much antagonism as admiration. To those who dislike ‘literary’ painting—that is, the painting which greatly depends for its effect upon the associations of poetry and other forms of literature—his pictures will never give unmixed pleasure. Literary they assuredly are; but they are also, in the highest sense of the term, decorative. No artist of the time has surpassed him as a master of intricate line, or has studied more curiously and successfully the inmost secrets of colour. Of the first, examples may be seen in all his stained-glass windows, in such works as the Virgil drawings, and in pictures like ‘Love among the Ruins;’ of the latter we have instances of extraordinary subtlety in the Pygmalion series, and of extraordinary richness and depth in the ‘Chant d’ Amour’ and ‘King Cophetua.’ It is surely safe to say that gifts like these of themselves entitle their possessor to be called a great painter. The chief obstacle to complete acceptance, in Burne-Jones’s case, is to be found in the peculiar quality of his sentiment and in its limited range. Not only was the type of romance which he loved remote from modern life—all romance is that, in a greater or less degree—but he presented it habitually in a form which full-blooded humanity finds it difficult to enjoy. This is as much as to say that Burne-Jones, that rare modern product of Celtic romance in matters of feeling and of the Botticellian tradition in art, only appeals in all his strength and fulness to people of a certain type of mind and education; but to them he appeals as no other modern painter has done—to them his name is the symbol of all that is most beautiful and most permanent in poetry and art.

[Personal knowledge; various letters to friends; Malcolm Bell’s Sir Edward Burne-Jones: a Record and a Review, 4th edit. 1898; the New Gallery Catalogue, 1898–9; Some Recollections of Sir Edward Burne-Jones, by Joseph Jacobs, ‘Nineteenth Century,’ January 1899. A full life of the painter, with selections from his numerous and highly characteristic letters, is in course of preparation at the hands of his widow.]

T. H. W.