Friday, August 3, 2007

Sir Edward Colely Burne-Jones (1833-1898)

Sierra Club


The more materialistic science becomes, the more angels shall I paint. Their wings are my protest in favor of the immortality of the soul.


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Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones (August 28, 1833-June 17, 1898) was a British artist, closely associated with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and largely responsible for bringing the Pre-Raphaelites into the mainstream of the British art world, while at the same time executing some of the most exquisite and beautiful artwork of the time.

Burne-Jones was born in Birmingham, England, the son of a frame-maker at Bennetts Hill. His mother died within six days of his being born, and he was raised by his father and an unsympathetic housekeeper. He attended Birmingham's King Edward VI grammar school, and then studied theology at Exeter College, Oxford. At Oxford he became a friend of William Morris as a consequence of a mutual interest in poetry, and was influenced by John Ruskin. At this time he discovered Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur which was to be so influential in his life.

He studied under Rossetti, but developed his own style influenced by his travels in Italy with Ruskin and others. He had intended to become a church minister, but under Morris's influence decided to become an artist and designer instead. After Oxford, from which he did not take a degree, he became closely involved in the rejuvenation of the tradition of stained glass art in England.

In 1856 Burne-Jones became engaged to Georgiana MacDonald (1840-1920), one of the MacDonald sisters. She was training to be a painter, and was the sister of Burne-Jones's old school friend. The couple married in 1860, after which she made her own work in woodcuts and became a close friend of George Eliot. (Another MacDonald sister married the artist Sir Edward Poynter, a further sister married the ironmaster Alfred Baldwin and was the mother of the Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, and yet another sister was the mother of Rudyard Kipling. Kipling and Baldwin were thus Burne-Jones's nephews).

In 1867 Burne-Jones and his wife settled in Fulham, London. William Morris later fell in love with Georgiana, but she rejected him. For much of the 1870s Burne-Jones did not exhibit, following a spate of bitterly hostile attacks in the press, and an affair with his Greek model Maria Zambaco which ended with her trying to commit suicide in public. But, in 1877, he was persuaded to show eight oil paintings at the Grosvenor Gallery (a new rival to the Royal Academy show). These included The Beguiling of Merlin. The timing was right, and he was taken up as a herald and star of the new Aesthetic Movement.

As well as painting, he also worked in a variety of crafts; including designing ceramictiles, jewellery, tapestries, book illustration (the Kelmscott Press's Chaucer in 1896), and stage costumes.

In 1881 he received an honorary degree from Oxford, and was made an Honorary Fellow in 1883. In 1885 he became the President of the Birmingham Society of Artists. In 1894 he was knighted. In the last few years of his life, his popularity again waned. He is buried in Rottingdean churchyard, near Brighton, a place he knew through summer family holidays. Long out-of-fashion in the art world, due to Modernist art and Abstract Expressionism, it was not until the mid 1970s that his work began to be re-assessed and once again acclaimed.

Burne-Jones exerted a considerable influence on British painting, as detailed in the large exhibition in 1989 at the Barbican Art Gallery, London. (In book form as: John Christian, The Last Romantics, (1989)). Burne-Jones was also highly influential among French symbolist painters, from 1889. His work also inspired poetry by Swinburne - Swinburne's 1886 Poems & Ballads is dedicated to Burne-Jones.

His troubled son Philip (1861-1926) became a successful portrait painter. His adored daughter Margaret (1866-1953) married John William Mackail (1850-1945); friend and biographer of William Morris, and Professor of Poetry at Oxford from 1911-1916.

Burne-Jones' studio assistant, Charles Fairfax Murray, went on to a successful art career as a painter in his own right. He later became an important collector and respected art dealer. Between 1903 and 1907 he sold a great many works by Burne-Jones and the Pre-Raphaelites to Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, at far below their market worth. Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery now has the largest collection of works by Burne-Jones in the world, including the massive watercolour Star of Bethlehem, commissioned for the Gallery in 1897. The paintings were a strong influence on the young J.R.R. Tolkien, then growing up in Birmingham. [This article in part is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License and uses material adapted in whole or in part from the Wikipedia article on Sir Edward Colely Burne-Jones.]

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