Monday, 24 June 2013

Enough Love to Last Out a Long Life

I've had an interesting weekend of pursuing various matters to do with Edward Burne-Jones, which is always a pleasure.  I am very much looking forward to going up to Liverpool this summer to see the exhibition at the Lady Lever Gallery and part of me is hoping that I will learn a little more about the artist and his wife.  I am beginning to find Georgiana rather fascinating, not least because it is through her that we have the Memorials, his biography which he feared so much, hence the reason he entrusted it to Georgiana.  After all, Edward Burne-Jones had no greater supporter.

Georgiana Burne-Jones (1882) Frederick Hollyer
Georgiana, or Georgie as she was more usually called, was one of the MacDonald sisters who all managed to marry spectacularly talented men and/or produce talented children.  To state the obvious, these were astonishingly smart women in their own right and from the sisters, Agnes, Georgiana, Louisa and Alice we have Kiplings, Baldwins and marriages to Edward Burne-Jones and Edward Poynter.  That is being connected.

Agnes Poynter (nee MacDonald) (1867) Edward Poynter
Alice Kipling (1860s)
Louisa Baldwin (1868) Edward Poynter
Georgie and her family moved frequently during her childhood with her father's work as a Methodist minister, until they settled back in Birmingham in 1850. Harry MacDonald, Georgie's brother, attended King Edward's School which made him part of an artistic set to which he introduced his sisters.  Among his fellow students was Edward or 'Ned' Jones, who was destined for the church.  Georgie and Ned fell in love when she was barely a teenager and there was already an attachment between them when the MacDonalds moved to London in 1853, when Georgie was 13.  Moving down to university, Ned had a fateful meeting with a fellow Oxford undergraduate, William Morris, and the young men decided to alter their course from church to easel.

Georgie in 1856, at the time of her engagement
Georgie's friendship with Ned led to an engagement when she was 15, although Ned (who had adopted 'Burne' to his surname) had little prospect of marrying her, which caused both of them distress.  Georgie's support of her fiancee brought her into the Pre-Raphaelite circle, including the great John Ruskin, an experience that affected her deeply, as she said "I wish it were possible to explain the impression made upon me as a young girl whose experience so far had been quite remote from art, by sudden and close intercourse with those to whom it was the breath of life... I felt in the presence of a new religion."  Georgie herself attended art school (although she dismissed her time there later in life) and studied a little under Ford Madox Brown.  Very little of her work seems to exist, which is a shame as she showed talent and delicacy in her work.

Dead Bird (1857) Georgiana MacDonald
Woodcut Georgiana MacDonald

Georgiana Burne-Jones (1860) D G Rossetti
Ned and Georgie finally married in 1860 and had only £30 to their joint name, but by all accounts they were blissfully happy.  Summers were spent with William and his new bride Jane, in somewhat more affluent surroundings, and with Georgie's married sisters and their families.  In Green Summer, Burne-Jones shows a circle of women, including his sisters-in-law and Jane Morris, listening as Georgie reads aloud.  I think that it is interesting how singular she looks, that even amongst this circle of talented women his wife is exceptional.  Part of what made her so special in his eyes had been the trials they had been through in the first few years of their marriage.  Georgie had given birth to Philip in the Autumn of 1861 but in the summer of 1864, Philip caught scarlet fever, passing it to his pregnant mother.  Georgie gave premature birth to their second son Christopher, who died soon afterwards.  Georgie was ill for some time afterwards, then refused to return to the rooms where Christopher had died.  By showing her in black, Ned may have been alluding to their tragedy, but I feel that the other women are listening to her because Ned feels she has gained wisdom from her experiences, however painfully won.

Green Summer (1864) Edward Burne-Jones
After the birth of their second child, Margaret, the couple finally settled in Fulham, where they would live for a while.  1866 brought both the joy of Margaret's birth, but also the arrival of Maria Zambaco into Ned's life after her mother commissioned a portrait from him.  Ned's affair with Maria caused his wife a great amount of pain, yet somehow she clung to the faith he would not leave her entirely, "I know one thing, and that is that there is enough love between Edward and me to last out a long life if it is given us".  That faith must have been greatly shaken by the very public event of Maria's attempted suicide, but somehow the Burne-Jones family remained intact.

The Morris and Burne-Jones families at Kelmscott, 1874
Under such circumstances, it is unsurprising that Georgie became close to William Morris.  Already like family due to the 'brotherhood' shared by Ned and William, when their spouses strayed Georgie and William had an added bond which was to last for the rest of their lives.  It is suggested that Morris' poetry of the late 1860s and 1870s suggests that he wanted her to leave Ned for him, but steadfastly she remained by her erring husbands side.  The families spend time together again, like they had in the early years of their marriages, and photographs exist of summers at Kelmscott in the 1870s.

Georgiana Burne-Jones (1881) Blanche F MacArthur
The Burne-Jones family move from London to Rottingdean in Sussex in 1880 seems to mark a break from the trouble and interference of London.  Rossetti's death in 1882 affected Ned greatly but Georgiana found their more 'isolated' life in the village suited her and enabled her to get involved in matters back in London, such as the South London Fine Art Gallery which brought fine art education to the working-classes, but from a safe distance.  

Georgiana Burne-Jones and family (1883) Edward Burne-Jones
The Family (1880s) Edward Burne-Jones
Although Burne-Jones strayed again in the early 1890s with one of his daughter's friends, May Gaskell, Ned's relationships with the many young women who went in and out of the Burne-Jones home never went beyond flirtation.  Georgiana must have remained ever watchful of the young girls who came, giggling, to view the artist, growing increasing white and wistful, but everso full of romance.  Ned maintained a spirit of other-worldliness, his attachment to his daughter and some of her circle boardering on a mania at times.  Although he could not bare to be parted from Margaret, his obvious pleasure at being a grandfather is so touching in the photographs of him with the tiny children, climbing him like an old but sprightly tree...

Ned and his grandchildren
Against her wishes and in the face of ridicule from some of their closest friends, Georgiana found herself Lady Burne-Jones when Ned accepted a baronetcy in 1894, mainly to enable his son to inherit the title.  I find the lack of support shown by their friends to be astonishing, but possibly all bad feeling was lost in the wake of Morris' death in 1896.  Ned was devastated  but you can only assume what Georgiana must have felt as Morris had been her truest friend and supporter.  Ned declined in health until his own death only two years later.  Before he died, he asked his wife to be his official biographer, possibly fearing revelations that could damage not only his reputation but also the future prospects of his wife and children.

Georgie Burne-Jones in later life
Alone in Rottingdean, Georgie became more intellectually active than ever.  While working on her husband's Memorials and The Flower Book, she also became more political,  protesting against the Boer War.  After the Relief of Mafeking, she hung a banner from the windows of her house saying "We have killed and also take possession".  Her nephew Rudyard Kipling had to persuade her to take it down in order to pacify the outraged villagers. She finally died in 1920 at the age of 80.  Philip, who became a painter like his father, died in 1926 and Margaret, who was the mother of the novelists Angela Thirkell and Denis Mackail (the children in the photo with their grandfather, above) died in 1953.

Despite, or maybe because of the feyness and flirtation of her husband, Georgiana Burne-Jones remains one of those figures who had to be the still place amongst the madness. I get the impression that because of Georgie's stability, Ned could drift away, but you have to wonder at the cost to his wife.  Certainly she kept an iron grip on his memory into the twentieth century, honoring his wishes with a tenacious spirit.  I would like to know more about Georgie because I suspect there is more to know.


  1. Georgiana has always confused me so much by not being the daughter of the author George MacDonald, even though his book 'The vicar's Daughter' seems to describe the daughter as marrying a pre-Raphaelite!
    however, I understand they were friends, so perhaps he drew on her experiences. Have you any insight into this?

  2. Ah, I see the confusion as her father was called George MacDonald too! The author MacDonald moved in the same circles, being a close friend of Ruskin and Lewis Carroll and so would have known the Burne-Jones family.

    The use of the Pre-Raphaelite woman would have been an obvious choice for him, and it's interesting seeing it used so early (1871 for The Vicar's Daughter). It would be interesting also to hear of a Pre-Raphaelite Woman character based on someone other than Jane Morris.

    Many thanks for your comments!

  3. Dear Kirsty
    Thank you for another interesting post. I have just read the book about Burne-Jones and May Gaskell by Josceline Dimbleby, but I don't remember reading that there was a child from this relationship. The mother, Helen (May) had two daughters, Amy and Daphne and Burne-Jones painted a beautiful portrait of Amy aged 19. The letters to May are passionate and there is no doubt her marriage was unhappy and that she was a beautiful woman, but I got the feeling from the book that she held Burne-Jones at arm's length, due to social conventions. Have I misread the book, or is there evidence from another source? I would be really interested to find out. I think I need to read the book again!
    Best wishes

  4. I always thought an excellent Pre-Rapahaelite novel would be seeing the entire movement through the eyes of Georgie Burne-Jones, who was a quiet, intelligent observer of all the triumph and tragedy. I would really like to know more about her. I love the drawing Ned did of her studying at the long table covered with books.

  5. Thanks for your comments. I'm sure I read a piece that implied that the relationship between May and EBJ went further than just a flirtation (to the point of a child) but now cannot find it! Apologies...

    EBJs relationship with his young ladies is such a difficult one and must have caused Georgie no end of grief because he seems to have been such an object of fascination for them all.

  6. Nice post,I have just been to Kelmscott Manor and loved ,the village too. I have also read the latest biog of Burne Jones and the Dimbleby book about May gaskell. Burn Jones was obviously very lovable but I did feel for Georgie as I do for William Morris.There are some photos and a bit about our break at Kelmscott on my blog.

  7. Thanks Angela. I always like doing Kelmscott and Buscot Park together because it's a way of cramming in the most Burne-Jones/Morris work together.

    Thanks for all your comments!

    1. Living down in Truro it is not that easy to get to places but we shall go back again. Like your posts very much.

  8. I've always been fascinated by Georgie (and the triangle between her, Ned and Mary Zambaco)...she seemed to be in the same boat of disloyal husbands as many of the other Pre-Raphaelite wives, yet she was so cool about it. Thank you for this lovely post! I didn't know about Ned's relationship with the makes me feel even more sympathy for poor Georgie.

    I do love the photograph of her from 1856 and 'Green Summer' is lovely!

  9. Have read much of your site but not commented before. Very enjoyable, a small window to a fascinating time. Thank you!
    Minerva ~

  10. There is a Georgiana Burne-Jones connection here. When he was very young Rudyard Kipling’s family moved to India. However, his mother wanted her son to receive a formal British education so, when he was 6, she sent him to Southsea, Hants, where he lived in Campbell Road with a foster family named Holloway.
    Unknown to Kipling’s mother, Mrs. Holloway was a brutal woman who constantly beat and bullied the boy. Consequently, Kipling struggled at school. Despite suffering this wretched existence he told nobody of his problems; his only respite came in the December, when he traveled to Fulham, and stayed with relatives for a month during the Christmas holidays.
    And here’s the connection. The relatives in question were Mr and Mrs Edward Burne-Jones. Georgiana was Kipling’s aunt. The point to all this is that Kipling regarded his time with the Burne-Joneses to have been the happiest of his childhood. In fact he had only felt truly safe and secure when he had reached their home and had hold of the bell pull. So, when he grew up and made his fortune he tried to buy the house but the then owners didn’t wish to sell. However, they sold him the bell pull and he had it installed at his home at Burwash in Sussex where it remains today. For the record, when Kipling’s mother, Georgiana's sister, Alice, heard her son was unhappy she returned from India and rescued him. To his delight he spent more time with his aunt Georgiana. Interestingly, there’s a blue plaque on the house in Southsea commemorating Kipling’s having lived there. When I spoke to a local about it he thought it concerned a man who makes exceedingly good cakes.

  11. I have a few relatives who live in the Wirrall which is useful as it allows me the opportunity to visit the Lady Lever gallery. During one visit in 1998 I was present when they were, for some reason, moving "The Beguiling of Merlin" and this was done with the help of a mechanical hoist. Until then I'd had no idea just how big a canvas that was.

  12. Thank you for comments Tony. I work in Portsmouth and didn't realise that connection, how fascinating!
    Yes, that canvas is a whopper! I love seeing paintings in real life as sometimes it can be a real surprise, can't it?

  13. Bother! I was at Bateman's last year and didn't think to put my hand on the bell-pull.


Many thanks for your comment. I shall post it up shortly! Kx