The Corresponence of James McNeil Whistler
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Edward Coley Burne-Jones, 1833-1898

Nationality: English
Date of Birth: 1833.08.28
Place of Birth: Birmingham
Date of Death: 1898.06.17
Place of Death: London


Edward Coley Burne-Jones was a painter and designer. He was the only surviving child of Edward Richard Jones, who ran a small carving and gilding business in Birmingham, and Elizabeth Coley, the daughter of a prosperous jeweller. In June 1860 he married Georgiana Macdonald. Their son Philip, born in 1861, also became a painter, albeit a minor one. Their daughter Margaret was born in 1866.


Burne-Jones was a leading figure in the second phase of Pre-Raphaelitism. He painted scenes inspired by medieval legend and classical mythology, all of which showed a greater concern for surface patterning and colour than narrative. In this way his work was closely linked to that of JW. Although JW tended to eschew subject matter to a greater extent than Burne-Jones, a work like The Lament (1866; William Morris Gallery, London) is comparable to such subjectless works by JW as Symphony in White, No. 2: The Little White Girl (YMSM 52). Indeed, as A. C. Swinburne wrote a poem inspired by the latter, so Burne-Jones' work of this period was closely linked to Swinburne's poetry. In 1866 Swinburne dedicated his Poems and Ballads to Burne-Jones.

Like JW, Burne-Jones was concerned with creating an all-pervading world of beauty and in April 1861 he helped to found the decorative arts firm of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. His designs for stained glass, tapestry and tiles played an important part in the Aesthetic Movement.

Burne-Jones tended to blur the boundaries between his painting and decorative work, and this comes across particularly in his frequent allusions to music. He was a great lover of music, and designed and decorated a number of pianos, e.g. Orpheus Piano (1879–80; private collection). He also painted works which contained musical instruments and were influenced by aesthetic theory concerning music, e.g. The Golden Stairs (1876–80; Tate Britain, London). Such works were closely akin to JW's musically inspired and entitled paintings. The evocative nature of much of their work meant that the paintings of both men were appreciated by the Symbolists on the continent, and both were invited to exhibit in Paris at the Salons de la Rose + Croix.

It was the Grosvenor Gallery in London which established Burne-Jones' reputation as a leading artist of the Aesthetic Movement. At the opening exhibition in 1877, he showed eight large works, including The Beguiling of Merlin (1873–7; Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight) and The Mirror of Venus (1873–7; Museum Gulbenkian, Lisbon), both of which belonged to F. R. Leyland, a patron Burne-Jones shared with JW. Following the opening of the Grosvenor Gallery, JW invited Burne-Jones to what he called a 'diplomatic dinner', at which he was to have pride of place (#08061).

However, JW was offended when in 1878 Burne-Jones appeared in Ruskin's defence at the Ruskin v. Whistler trial. Although Burne-Jones's technical approach to painting was very different to JW's and although he felt that JW's paintings were closer to sketches than to finished oils, he never wanted to be dragged into the affair, and, according to his wife Georgiana, he greatly regretted his involvement. JW never forgave him, and even in the 1890s described him spitefully as 'Molly Jones' (#11654). He wrote a sarcastic letter to the World on 30 March 1892, saying: 'I personally owe Mr. Jones a friendly gratitude which I am pleased to acknowledge; for rare indeed is the courage with which, on the first public occasion, he sacrificed himself, in the face of all-astounded etiquette, and future possible ridicule, in order to help write the history of another' (#11430).

Nevertheless, in the late 1880s or 1890s Burne-Jones wrote a friendly letter to JW asking him for the address of Lillie Pettigrew, one of JW's models, who had abandoned him during a sitting for a painting (#00455).


Bell, M., Sir Edward Burne-Jones: A Record and Review, London, 1892; Burne-Jones, Georgiana, Memorials of Edward Burne-Jones, 2 vols, London, 1904; Bénézit, E., Dictionnaire des Peintres, Sculpteurs, Dessinateurs et Graveurs, 8 vols, Paris, 1956-61; Harrison, M. and B. Waters, Burne-Jones, London, 1973; Wildman, Stephen and John Christian, Edward Burne-Jones: Victorian Artist-Dreamer, exhibition catalogue, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York and Birmingham City Art Galleries, 1998; Christian, John, 'Edward Burne-Jones', The Grove Dictionary of Art Online, ed. L. Macy, at (accessed 1 August 2002).