Edward Coley

United Kingdom • 1833−1898

Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones, 1st Baronet (August 28, 1833, Birmingham - June 17, 1898, London) was one of the leading British artists and designers of the late 19th century. His romantic paintings, that are filled with medieval images, marked the decline of the Pre-Raphaelites movement. He also became one of the pioneers of the revival of the “artisan artist” ideal, which influenced the development of industrial design in the 20th century.

Peculiar features of Edward Coley Burne-Jones's art. The ardent imagination of the artist, who was carried away by the romanticism of medieval chivalry, gave birth to such masterpieces as King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid (1884) and Merlin and Nimue (1858—1859). Stylistically, these works are close to illustrations of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, his first mentor. However, a more significant influence on Burne-Jones was made by the melancholic and refined images of the 15th century Italian painters Filippino Lippi and Sandro Botticelli that were filled with romantic and mystical moods. He believed that in art, beauty and sensual response are more valuable than a moral message. The first success came to Burne-Jones at the exhibition of 1877, where his Days of Creation, The Beguiling of Merlin and The Mirror of Venus were showcased. From that moment until his death, Burne-Jones was often referred to as one of England’s greatest painters. 

Famous paintings of Edward Coley Burne-Jones: King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid, The Last Sleep of King Arthur in Avalon, The Golden Stairs, The Beguiling of Merlin, The Mirror of Venus, Days of Creation.

The beginning

Edward Coley Burne-Jones was born in 1833 to a Welsh family. His mother died a few days after he had been born, and the boy was raised by his grieving father who kept a frame workshop and a housekeeper. The future painter received his first education at the gymnasium of King Edward VI, and then continued at the Birmingham Art School. However, at the age of 19, the young man decided to devote himself to religion and entered Exeter College, Oxford, intending to become a minister of the church. There he befriended William Morris, and together they formed the Brotherhood of admirers of the Middle Ages and its literature, as well as the poetry of John Ruskin and Alfred Tennyson.

Morris promoted the ideas of the Brotherhood in the Oxford and Cambridge magazine, which he founded in 1856. Through this publication, Burne-Jones met Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who was asked to contribute to the almanac. The artist had such a powerful influence on the young man that he dropped out of college for a career in art without completing his education.

In 1860, Edward married Georgiana, the second of the famous MacDonald sisters (all the girls from this Victorian Scottish family married famous people: the first, Alice, became the wife of the art critic and illustrator John Lockwood Kipling, and the mother of the writer Rudyard Kipling; the third, Agnes, chose Edward Pointer as her husband, the future president of the Royal Academy of Painting; the fourth, Louise, tied her fate with the industrialist Alfred Baldwin, who became father to her son, the future British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin).

Philip Burne-Jones , the son of Edward and Georgiana, also became a successful artist who left over sixty paintings, including portraits, landscapes and poetic fantasies. Two of his works depicting Rudyard Kipling’s father and cousin  are in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery in London now. 


The first known oil sketch by Edward Burne-Jones was created for Bradfield College in 1856; it marked the beginning of a large series of stained glass cardboards. A year later, the artist joined William Morris, who painted the walls of the Oxford Union discussion club. But since at that time the friends did not possess the technique of creating frescoes, all the images were scraped off before their completion.

In 1858 Burne-Jones painted  the watercolours for The Prioress’s Tale  from The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer. This was his first illustration for the work of his beloved poet, which later became a source of inspiration for many of the artist’s works.

Burne-Jones’ reputation was greatly enhanced during his tour to Italy in 1859. There, the master discovered the Siena school of painting, which placed the decorative beauty, elegance and grace of Gothic art at the forefront. In 1860, he painted Sidonia and Clara von Bork, characters of Wilhelm Meinhold’s Sidonia the Sorceress Gothic novel, in watercolour. The first depicts the title character, an evil witch of irresistible beauty, and the second depicts her sacrifice, which the author described as smart, courageous and loyal, with a quiet, friendly disposition and the most pious Christian behaviour.

The high noon

In 1861, Burne-Jones joined Morris, Rossetti, and their associates as co-founder of a decoration manufacture company, including carvings, stained glass, wrought iron, paper decorations, textiles, tapestries and carpets. This manufacture existed until 1940 and maintained its leading position in Europe in the field of decorative and applied arts. All items in their workshops were made by hand, since the “founding fathers” rejected machine production, believing that the artisan, just as in the Middle Ages, rises to the level of the creator, only when combines functions of an artist, designer and technologist.

Among others, Burne-Jones designed stained glass windows and figures for the Royal St. James’s Palace. His works attracted a lot of attention at the international exhibition of 1862, and this provided him with work for the next few years. Temples became one of his most important customers. For example, in 1871, the artist created windows for All Saints Church in Cambridge, as well as for Christ Church Cathedral in Oxford. And his last major design project before the death of William Morris in 1896 was Stanmore Hall, for which a series of tapestries based on the stories of the Holy Grail was invented.

In 1864 Burne-Jones became a member of the Society of Watercolour Painters after the exhibition of his Merciful Knight   Merciful Knight. This was the first painting shown to the public that showed his own artistic personality, not influenced by his colleagues. For the next six years he developed a series of watercolours, but in 1866, he was forced to break with the Society because of a scandalous affair with Maria Zambako - an artist, sculptor and model. Art historians call the period from 1870 to 1877 “quiet” in the work of Burne-Jones, since during this time the artist presented only two of his works to the public.

The exhibition at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1877 gave rise to a new wave of interest in the work of Burne-Jones. The painter demonstrated his Days of Creation, The Beguiling of Merlin and The Mirror of Venus. He woke up famous overnight. But two years later, such pictures as Annunciation and four canvases of Pygmalion and Galatea series were received much cooler. They radiated a melancholic calm and were painted in more muted, soft and delicate shades than those that the artist had previously used.

King Arthur

In 1885, Burne-Jones became a Corresponding Member of the Royal Academy of Painting, where he exhibited his Depths of the Sea, Perseus, The Tower of Brass and The Star of Bethlehem. The quiet sadness emitted by these canvases can be explained by the artist’s health problems -—he suffered from tachycardia and loss of vision.

Nine years later, Burne-Jones was knighted, and at the same time he was commissioned to create costumes for the King Arthur play at the Lyceum Theatre. The production first staged in London, and then went on American tour. However, the artist did not like it, because he considered it not enough romantic.

Burne-Jones was constantly under the yoke of his own ideas. His attention to detail was almost manic, and he was a perfectionist. Before starting painting, the artist made a large number of preparatory drawings (1, 2, 3). And since he identified himself with his work, he often suffered from a nervous breakdown after completing a major work. And some of them were really grand.  

For example, he started to paint The Last Sleep of Arthur in Avalone in 1881, when Burne-Jones was 48 years old, and it remained unfinished by the time of his death in 1898. “Avalon is my obsession now, and I hope I can put [onto the painting] everything that worries me,” the artist wrote. The canvas started out as a small commission, but eventually it grew to almost three meters in height and just under seven meters in length, which testified to its importance to the painter.

The painting depicts mortally wounded Arthur lying on a bench. He is surrounded by three queens and numerous companions. Everyone froze in anticipation of a sign from above — a call that would induce the legendary ruler to perform more feats in the name of faith. Critics suggest that Burne-Jones associated himself with the king and made a biographical statement with this masterpiece: he liked being surrounded by women, and in the 1880s he felt on the verge of death.

By 1890, his health had really deteriorated due to constant stress. An additional blow was struck by the death of his friend and colleague William Morris in 1896. Edward Burne-Jones died suddenly two years later, aged only 62 years old.


After his death, the influence of Edward Burne-Jones appeared more tangible in decorative design than in painting. He designed ceramic tiles, stained glass windows, metal and jewellery decorations, decorations for pianos and organs, theatrical costumes and sets, tapestries. Among the latter remarkable is The Adoration of the Magi (Exeter College Chapel, Oxford). In addition, the artist illustrated books. For example, Kelmscott Chaucer, a one-volume collection of works by Geoffrey Chaucer published by Kelmscott Press in 1896, is considered one of the finest works in the history of typography.

Burne-Jones is considered the leader of a new aesthetic movement (aestheticism) that emphasized the superiority of style and natural beauty over ethical and social concerns. Although in his early works he borrowed a significant part of his themes from Rossetti, in adulthood he developed his own style, focusing on figurative and romantic details. The painter wanted his paintings to reflect human dreams, and not the harsh reality of life. He admired the pure colours, accentuating them with gold to make his work shine.

Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones strove to ensure that his work remained in the viewer’s heart, and therefore his canvases are still so much appreciated by collectors and museums around the world.

Written by  Vlad Maslov

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