Edward Burne-Jones was a prolific star of the Pre-Raphaelite movement in the late 19th century. Perhaps because he joined the ranks of the movement a little later than its more famous founders, his name is lesser known. However, his work speaks for itself.
Burne-Jones' paintings, watercolours and drawings take pride of place in Museums and collections all over the world. Moreover, his exquisite stained glass can be found in churches up and down the UK and the US. Burne-Jones was a true aestheticist, taking great joy in the beauty of art. He was a skilled designer who favoured many fields of artistic expression and produced some of the richest and most sumptuous looking paintings of any British artist before or since. See also his prints and quotes.
Who were the Pre-Raphaelites?
Founded in 1848, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, as they were first known, consisted of a group of artists and writers who, in the wake of the Grand Style of Joshua Reynolds, wanted to revive the reality of classical beauty favoured by Raphael and his contemporaries. This revivalist movement was started by William Holman Hunt (painter), John Everett Millais (painter) and Dante Gabriel Rossetti (artist and writer) who were later joined by four others to form the original members.
These men were offended by Reynolds and his type, who painted the aristocracy, blithely glossing over imperfections and recreating their wealthy subjects as beautiful creatures. Determined to restore art to its former glory, they insisted on meticulous detail to every aspect of artistic expression; from vibrancy of colour to the perfection of classical composition and form. Although Burne-Jones himself was only fifteen when the movement was established, their influence was profound on the young art student and he fully embraced their doctrine. A great lover of the tales of classical myth and the medieval folklore of King Arthur, Edward's passion for fable meant that he found great affinity with the Pre-Raphaelites' sensibilities.
Influences and Inspirations
Perhaps the most famous of the Pre-Raphaelites was, of course Dante Gabriel Rossetti and he was certainly the man who had the most influence on Burne-Jones' work. By 1856 Rossetti had begun to focus his work on medieval subjects and expression, the romance and vibrancy of which enchanted Burne-Jones. Edward had, himself, formed a brotherhood of like-minded students while studying theology at Oxford.
The group, which included the famous Arts and Crafts designer William Morris, dedicated themselves to absorbing all things middle ages from medieval churches to Le Mort d'Arthur and everything in between. In 1857 Rossetti was invited to contribute to the Oxford and Cambridge Magazine which was run at the time by Edward's friend Morris, prompting a meeting and the development of a friendship between them. Rossetti was so impressed with Burne-Jones' art work that he encouraged the young would-be cleric to pursue a career as an artist. Consequently, both Edward and William Morris left Oxford without their degrees.
Burne-Jones, the Artist
Burne-Jones' earliest works are clearly influenced by Rossetti in their style but always beautifully rendered. Even when examining simple drawings such as his, Waxen Image of (1856) it is clear to see the technical aptitude and skilfulness of the artist. By 1860, Burne-Jones was painting largely in water-colour, but he was still trying to find his own style. Finally, in 1863, the first water colour which established Edward’s style and skill in the minds of the art world was revealed; The Merciful Knight.
Vibrant and bold while at the same time sensitive and emotional, Burne-Jones had become his own man. In 1864, Edward was so highly regarded as a water-colourist that he was elected to the Old Water Colour Society. Indeed, he manged to achieve such vibrancy and depth that the original of one of his most famous works, Love Among the Ruins (1894) was destroyed by a cleaner who believed it to be an oil painting. It was later restored by the artist and refashioned in oils in 1894.
Burne-Jones was also famous for his series of paintings. He would often find a subject and paint many images on the theme. The most famous of these are the oil paintings The Legend of Briar Rose; a series of three main paintings and ten panels painted between 1885 and 1890 which depict scenes from the story of Sleeping Beauty when a knight finds soldiers entangled in roses while sleeping, and Pygmalion and Galatea; a series of four oils painted between 1875 and 1878 which depicts the story of the Cypriot sculptor, Pygmalion and how he creates the perfect woman.
In later life Edward was plagued by ill health and he became sporadically productive. It is perhaps because of this, that it took him seventeen years to partially complete what is considered his greatest work at the end of his life, The Last Sleep of Arthur in Avalon (1881-1898). It is a huge, beautiful canvas which depicts the death of King Arthur and was unfinished on Edward's death. It is said that the face of Arthur is, in fact the face of his good friend William Morris who had died two years previous.
Edward's friendship with William Morris was extremely important to him. He looked to Morris for support, inspiration and guidance his whole life. In 1861, Rossetti, Morris, and Burne-Jones, together with several other members of their Oxford Brotherhood founded Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Co. This decorative arts firm was to offer all manner of engraving, carving, stained glass and soft furnishing design.
It was in fact one of the earliest for-runners to the Arts and Crafts movement pioneered by Morris. Many of the stained-glass commissions were designed by Burne-Jones, some of which are in Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, Trinity Church, Boston and The Old West Kirk, Greenock. Edward's stained-glass work is profound in both its bold colours and its meticulous design. Indeed, the Pre-Raphaelite glass designs in the churches where he worked are a point of honour today.
Theatre and Other Mediums
Although Burne-Jones is best known for his beautiful painting and stained-glass work, his genius was not limited to those mediums. His design work with Morris and Co also included many fine tapestries. As always, the images are refined and exquisite using classical subjects and bold colours to great effect. The most famous and truly accomplished of his work was the Holy Grail (1891-1894) series. Depicting the tales of King Arthur and the Holy Grail quest, these six panels are considered the most significant tapestries of the nineteenth century.
Burne-Jones' inspiration for his designs may have come largely from Arthurian Legend and the classics, but his desire for artistic expression had no limits. He was often called upon to design for the theatre; both in set and costume design. He of course excelled in both. Additionally, he had a great interest and skill in photography, an art form which was in its infancy. Yet he found it fascinating and continually sought ways to exploit it in his designs.
The Legacy of Burne-Jones and the Pre-Raphaelites
It has been said that Burne-Jones' energy was inexhaustible. He seemed never to tire of working and never lacked inspiration for design. Thanks to that limitless creativity, we are left today with a rich and beautiful legacy of his genius. However, that is certainly not all that he offered us. Edward and his Pre-Raphaelites inspired the Arts and Crafts Movement, more particularly the Birmingham School which followed it, which in turn left us with countless designs which are still fresh and sought after today. In addition, these same men and women are said to have been the inspiration for the Symbolist Movement which brought us the likes of Paul Gauguin, Claude Debussy and Gustav Klimt to name just a few.
Today the largest collection of Burne-Jones' work can be found in the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery to which many of his paintings and drawings were sold after his death. It seems appropriate that they should be there as he was a son of the city. However, many of his works are singly housed around the world and in private collections. Wherever you may see his paintings, glass or tapestries, they are worth seeking out. Edward Burne-Jones was a way-shower, a man of great vision and expression and his work is a wonderful gift to us all.
Tom Gurney in an art history expert. He received a BSc (Hons) degree from Salford University, UK, and has also studied famous artists and art movements for over 20 years. Tom has also published a number of books related to art history and continues to contribute to a number of different art websites. You can read more on Tom Gurney here.