Edward Coley Burne-Jones (1833-1898)

"I mean by a picture, a beautiful romantic dream of something that never was, never will be - in a better light than any light that ever shone - in a land that no-one can define or remember, only desire - and the forms divinely beautiful" - Edward Coley Burne-Jones

Edward Coley Burne-Jones.

Edward Coley Burne-Jones, born in Birmingham, showed little inclination towards art as a young man, and went up to Oxford to study theology. There he met William Morris, in the same year, at the same college, studying for the same degree, and they became lifelong friends.

Both of the young men gradually became less sure of their future as clergymen, and after seeing some work by Rossetti, Burne-Jones resolved to become a painter. However, he studied on for two years until he finally met Rossetti in person and asked his advice. Rossetti unhesitatingly advised him to drop the theology and become an artist. Burne-Jones became Rossetti's pupil in 1855, and Rossetti acted as his mentor in many ways, introducing him to influential friends and helping him gain commissions. One commission passed to Burne-Jones by Rossetti was for a stained-glass window, and he subsequently became a master in this art.

Burne-Jones's early paintings were very Rossetti-like, but he developed his own style after travelling to Italy in 1859 and 1862. On one trip to Italy, he was accompanied by John Ruskin. As well as paintings, he also produced decorative work for William Morris's company - book illustrations, tapestries, stained-glass windows and other crafts. His output was prodigious by any standards - over 1000 cartoons for stained glass alone. He completed some 200 oil paintings during his lifetime.

He became ARA in 1885, without even having put his name forward, only to resign some years later after exhibiting only one picture at the Academy. He had a habit of returning to unfinished pictures many years afterwards, so it is difficult to discern changes in his style after he moved out of Rossetti's shadow. He was a very good colourist, and also excelled at drapery, where he did not confine himself to any one style. Careful in composition and a superb draftsman, he was an all-rounder who, rarely for an English painter of the time, had a reputation in Continental Europe, his honours including Corresponding Member of the Institute of France. He was created a baronet in 1894.

Burne-Jones's favorite subjects were graceful girls, angels, gods and heroes, generally sad-looking, thoughtful or asleep. Grace and langour rather than fast action gives an unearthly remoteness to his paintings. Some of his many important pictures are The Garden of the Hesperides, Love Among the Ruins and The Golden Stairs at the Tate Gallery, King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid (at the Tate and at Birmingham), The Brazen Tower at Oxford, Merlin and Nimue and a study for The Wheel of Fortune at the V&A as well as Cupid's Hunting Fields and The Mill, Sponsa de Libano at the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool and the watercolour St George and the Dragon at the William Morris Gallery. Series include The Briar Rose (Buscot Park, Farringdon UK), Pygmalion and the Image ( Birmingham) and The Perseus Series (Southampton). As mentioned, his characters tend to be thoughtful or wistful rather than emotional, but there are some striking exceptions - The Beguiling of Merlin (Port Sunlight, UK), The Depths of the Sea (Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University) and Pan and Psyche (also at Harvard).

Stained glass windows by Burne-Jones may be found in many churches, in the Cathedral of Christ Church, Oxford, in the Cathedral in Birmingham (see the Walk) and in the American Church in Rome. In London, close to the centre is St Stephens, Rochester Row, with a single window by Burne-Jones. Northwards out of town is Waltham Abbey, with windows above the altar by Burne-Jones. He produced most of his stained glass for Morris's company, in which he was one of the original partners, from 1861 through to his death. However, his first works were for Powells, to which company he was recommended by Rossetti as early as 1857 - his designs for Waltham Abbey date from this pre-Morris period. As in his paintings, Burne-Jones stained glass designs show his mastery of drapery, with a wide variety of complex folded dresses carefully worked out in whichever style he felt most appropriate at the time. His faces are as instantly recognisable as those in his pictures.

Among a variety of craftwork, we may mention his large tapestry Star of Bethlehem (as well as the watercolour Annunciation) at Norwich.

Burne-Jones influenced many painters. These included T. M. Rooke, who assisted Burne-Jones in his work for Morris and Co., John Melhuish Strudwick, Spencer Stanhope, Charles Fairfax Murray and Evelyn de Morgan. His son, Philip Burne-Jones was also a painter.

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