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Edward Burne-Jones

Written by Jim Godfrey, posted on Wednesday, February 6, 2019


Illustration of Edward Burne-JonesSir Edward Coley Burne-Jones was one of the leading artists of late nineteenth century England. His other-worldy, romantic vision of an idealised pre-industrial world was immensely popular and represented the last flowering of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood


Early inspiration

Edward Coley Burne Jones (the hyphen was a later addition) was born in Birmingham on 28 August 1833, the son of Edward Richard Jones, a frame-maker. His mother, Elizabeth Coley Jones, died within six days of his birth, and he was raised by the family housekeeper, Ann Sampson, an obsessively affectionate but humourless local girl. He attended Birmingham's King Edward VI Grammar School and the Birmingham School of Art.

In 1853 he went up to Oxford to study at Exeter College, and instantly fell in love with the city. ‘Oxford is a glorious place; godlike’ he remarked. At Exeter he soon met and became firm friends with his fellow undergraduate, William Morris. They made an unlikely looking pair; Burne-Jones (known as Ned) tall, thin and intense; Morris (whose nickname was Topsy) short, stocky and energetic. It was the beginning of a life-long friendship.

Though they had both arrived at Oxford intending to take Holy Orders they found the religious atmosphere of the University lack-lustre and the teaching uninspiring. Instead their interests turned towards art. In 1854 they first saw John Everett Millais’ Return of the Dove to the Ark, in the collection of Oxford publisher Thomas Combe, and thereafter they determined to become artists.


Burne-Jones the artist

The artists that most inspired them were the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB) which had been established in 1848 and whose principal members were Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Holman Hunt. Inspired by the theories of John Ruskin, who urged artists to ‘go to nature’, the Pre-Raphaelites believed in an art of serious subjects treated with maximum realism. As such they consciously rebelled against the Royal Academy’s promotion of the Renaissance master Raphael.

Burne-Jones and Morris were, then, part of a second wave of Pre-Raphaelite artists, though they worked closely with its founder members, especially Rossetti, whom Burne-Jones revered. Between 1857 and 1859 they worked together on murals in the Old Library of the Oxford Union, the scenes depicting episodes from the Arthurian legends. Sadly, these soon faded badly.

Rossetti also introduced Burne-Jones to his architect friend, Benjamin Woodward, who was looking for artists to design stained glass for the firm of Powell’s. They advocated the so-called ‘mosaic’ medieval method of making stained glass using small pieces of brightly coloured glass, and in 1859 Burne-Jones used this technique in his remarkable St Frideswide Window in the Latin Chapel of the Cathedral; the finest of his early stained glass work.

In 1861 he was a founder member of William Morris's decorative arts company whose mission was to create and sell medieval-inspired, handcrafted items for the home. Burne-Jones designed some outstanding stained glass and tapestries for it, and made illustrations for Morris’ Kelmscott Press books. His career remained relatively low-key however until 1877 when he exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery in London where his paintings caused a sensation.

Thereafter he enjoyed enormous fame and prestige, not only in Britain, but also on the Continent. He began hyphenating his name, to avoid, as he put it, "annihilation" in the mass of Joneses. In 1894 he was created a baronet, much to the disgust of his socialist friend Morris! Morris died in 1896, and Burne-Jones’s health went into steep decline. He died on 17 June 1898 and was cremated at Woking, the only crematorium in Britain at that time. His ashes were scattered in the churchyard of St Margaret’s Church, Rottingdean, a sleepy Sussex coastal village, which had been a cherished weekend retreat for him and his family, far from the hustle and bustle of Victorian London.


At Christ Church, Burne-Jones is remembered for his five outstanding stained glass windows, one of which, the Vyner Memorial Window in the Lady Chapel, contains a very rare example of his initials, E.B.J. (pre-hyphen!)