Born on the 21st July 1840, Georgiana Burne-Jones was the wife of Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood artist Edward Burne-Jones. She was also the mother of the painter Philip Burne-Jones, auntie to the famous Rudyard Kipling and close friend of William Morris and George Eliot.
Born Georgiana MacDonald into a strict, God fearing family, according to Jan Marsh’s “Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood,” reading Shakespeare and attending the theatre were both forbidden and were considered a sin in her family due to their morality. Both her dad and grandfather were Methodist ministers.
Born the fifth of eleven children, her sister Alice married Edward Pointer, who was an artist and became the Director of the National Gallery and subsequently the President of the Royal Academy. Her other sister Louisa gave birth to who would become the future Prime Minister – Stanley Baldwin and their other sister Alice, was the mother of the famous Rudyard Kipling.
The MacDonald sisters were raised in a lower-middle class household and denied the luxury of both education and social advancement. It’s interesting then, as Judith Flanders points out in her book “A Circle of Sisters: Alice Kipling, Georgiana Burne-Jones, Agnes Poynter and Louisa Baldwin” “As wives and mothers, they connected a famous painter, a president of the Royal Academy, a prime minister and the uncrowned poet laureate of the Empire.”
Best known as Georgia, she’d known Edward since she was a child. His childhood was much different to hers, much more free and arty, born in Birmingham to Edward Richard Jones who was a frame maker at Bennetts Hill. Burne-Jones attended King Edward VI Grammar School in Birmingham from 1844 and then the Birmingham School of Art from 1848 to 1852. He went on to study theology at Oxford’s Exeter College were he met William Morris due to their joint interest in poetry, which would be the start of their life long friendship and mutual interests.
In 1856 he became engaged to Georgie who adored him and around this time, he introduced her to his Oxford friends, Morris, Rossetti and Millais. She spoke with a passion of this time in her book, “The Memorials of Edward Burne-Jones” for which she became well known;
“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. The only approach I can make to describing it is by saying that I felt in the presence of a new religion. Their love of beauty did not seem to me unbalanced, but as if it included the whole world.”
They married on 9th June 1860 when Georgiana was 19 and Edward 27. At this point, they had already been engaged for four years – to the very day. Their join possessions amassed ₤30 and a deal table containing her engraving tools. After their wedding, she was swept into Edward’s creative world and made friends with Lizzie Siddal, who Dante Gabriel Rossetti married around the same time. They lived in rented rooms in Great Russell Street and they spent early years of their marriage filled with happiness, including a summer at Red House with William Morris and his wife Jane, spending their days working together on decorating projects.
They had their first child, Philip on 21st October 1861. In the summer of 1864, Philip and then subsequently, Georgiana contracted scarlet fever, which caused her to give premature birth to their second child Christopher, who also had scarlet fever and tragically died soon after birth. She was ill herself for months and afterwards understandbly refused to return to the rooms where the horrendous illness and death had occurred. Moving to 41 Kensington Square, she gave birth to their third child, Margaret in 1866.
Though Edward Burne-Jones was hugely successful and remains well known for his life work today, we can’t overlook Georgiana’s own work. Attending the Government School of Design (part of the South Kensington museums complex – today the building part of the Victoria and Albert Museum.) She later spoke that she learnt little of importance here, and in 1856, took lessons from Ford Madox Brown and painted a model in his studio. Though there are few surviving examples of her artwork, a pencil rendering of a dead bird is today held by Tate Britain.
In 1861 when Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. was created, Jane Morris directed the embroidery side of the business and Georgiana herself was employed painting tiles. Following Philips birth, she became a full time mother. She spoke candidly about this time, “I remember the feeling of exile with which I now heard through its closed door the well-known voices of friends together with Edward’s familiar laugh, while I sat with my little son on my knee and dropped selfish tears on him as ‘separator of companions and the terminator of delights'” (The Memorials of Edward Burne-Jones, Vol 1, 1904.)
Just like the other wives and friends of the Pre-Raphaelite women, Georgiana has been depicted in a number of drawings and paintings by her husband and his friends. In fact, in Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, you can see 22 year old Georgiana immortalised in time, dated 1863 and heavily influenced by a Renaissance portraiture, one of his first attempts at a formal portrait, it even has a latin inscription. Though there are many others by Edward and also her brother in law Edward Poynter.
Another famous portrait of her began in 1883 and shows Georgiana holding a herbal with Philip at an easel aged around 22 and Margaret behind him aged around 17. Burne-Jones amended and played around with the portrait and it was still deemed unfinished by him by his death – it was never exhibited in his lifetime.
After suffering a lingering illness and according to his doctor, “simply being William Morris, and having done more work than most ten men” in October 1896, Edward Burne-Jones was devastated and his health declined as a result – they’d been friends and partners since college. In 1898 he came down with influenza and after recovering, suffered a heart attack on 17th June 1898. He had a service held at Westminster Abbey after the intervention of the Prince of Wales – the very first time an artist was honoured.
In life, he dreaded that someone unsympathetic would write the biography of his life and so had asked Georgiana to write it, which after his death aged 58, she did, living in the memories of their lives together and all they achieved, published 6 years later over two volumes.
Georgiana died February 2nd 1920 following a short artist, remembered as Edward’s wife, dedicated wife, artist, writer and Pre Raphaelite model.
Featured image: Title: Georgiana Burne-Jones, their children Margaret and Philip, Artist: Edward Burne-Jones (1833–1898)