Best known as a painter, illustrator and decorative artist, he also designed a handful of sculptural works. The sole surviving child of Edward Richard Jones and Elizabeth Coley, he was christened Edward Coley Burne Jones, but by c.1860 had adopted the surname Burne-Jones. His father ran a small carving and gilding business in Birmingham in which city, from 1848, Burne-Jones, destined for a career in engineering, attended drawing classes three evenings a week at the Government School of Design. However, when in 1852 he went up to Oxford it was to take holy orders. He quickly struck up a friendship with a fellow student, William Morris, and the two, discovering a mutual passion for art and architecture through the writings of John Ruskin and the paintings of the Pre-Raphaelites, abandoned any ideas of entering the church. Burne-Jones, having decided to become a painter, sought out Dante Gabriel Rossetti and began taking lessons from him. Rossetti’s work was to become a major influence, albeit one supplanted by the art of the quattrocento, in particular the paintings of Botticelli and Mantegna, following Burne-Jones’s trips to Italy in 1859 and 1862. In 1860 he married Georgiana Macdonald and in 1861 was a founder member of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co, supplying the firm with designs for stained glass and tapestries. His principal themes were drawn from Greek and Roman mythology, Chaucer, and Thomas Mallory’s Le morte d’Arthur. His earliest sculptural work is probably the gesso relief panel, Perseus and the Graiae (exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery, 1878; now private collection), intended as one of ten panels (four in painted gesso relief, six in oil on canvas) which Arthur Balfour had commissioned to decorate the walls of the music room of his London residence, 4 Carlton Gardens. Burne-Jones executed three gouache designs showing the whole cycle in its setting (1875–76; Tate nos: N03456, N03457, N03458), the subdued tones of the relief panels contrasting strikingly with the rich chromaticism of the paintings. He executed all ten pictures as full-size gouache cartoons (Southampton Art Gallery) during the course of which he abandoned one of the relief subjects (The Court of Phineas) and decided the cycle would be paintings only, a change of mind evidenced in the increasingly painterly appearance of the remaining three relief subjects: Perseus and the Graiae, The Death of Medusa and Atlas Turned to Stone. (He ultimately completed only four subjects in oil, all now in the Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart.) Burne-Jones’s next opportunity to work in three dimensions followed the death in childbirth of one of his young female friends (and occasional model), Laura Lyttelton (1862–1885); for her he completed a memorial relief in gesso, for the Church of St Andrew, Mells, Scotland, retaining for his own house a cast, mounted on wood, gilded and painted (now in the V&A, acc. no. P.85-1938). The subject is a peacock (for the Resurrection) perched in an olive tree which sprouts from an empty sarcophagus mounted on short piers with cushion capitals. A variation on this sarcophagus was to feature in Burne-Jones’s funerary monument to his great patron, Frederick Leyland (d. 1898), in Brompton Cemetery, Kensington, comprising a free-standing, reliquary-like chest raised on piers.
Bibliography: R. Bowdler, ‘Memorials at Mells: An Emerging Story of Remembrance’, Art & the Country House; T. Cavanagh, Public Sculpture of Kensington and Chelsea with Westminster South-West, Watford, 2023, pp. 113–14; F. MacCarthy, The Last Pre-Raphaelite: Edward Burne-Jones and the Victorian Imagination, London, 2011; C. Newall, ‘Jones, Sir Edward Coley Burne-, first baronet (1833–1898)’, ODNB, Oxford, 2004; A. Vallance, ‘The Decorative Art of Sir Edward Burne-Jones, Bart.’, Art Journal Easter Art Annual, 1900, p. 25; S. Wildman and J. Christian, Edward Burne-Jones: Victorian Artist-Dreamer, New York, 1998.
Terry Cavanagh January 2023
Frederick Hollyer photogravure (1900) of a portrait
of Edward Burne-Jones by his son,
Philip Burne-Jones, 1898
(photo: public domain)