Ashmolean acquires Sir Edward Burne-Jones' letters to the Gaskells

The museum has bought an important record of the Pre-Raphaelite artists with help from the Art Fund.

Described by Dante Gabriel Rossetti as a man of ‘real genius’, Sir Edward Burne-Jones was a British artist and designer involved in the later phase of the Pre-Raphaelite movement. Six days after his birth, Burne-Jones’s mother died and he was raised in Birmingham by an overly-affectionate nurse and his grieving father, who made him spend long hours by his mother’s grave on Sundays. Burne-Jones worked his way out of his unhappy childhood by studying theology at Exeter College, Oxford. There, he met William Morris, and their long-lasting friendship became a fruitful artistic partnership.

Burne-Jones enjoyed very close, but largely platonic, friendships with numerous women. His biographer, Fiona MacCarthy, argues that his traumatic childhood experience led to his equivocal feelings about women and sex. Helen Mary (May) Gaskell met Burne-Jones in 1892 and was the last of his female confidantes.

The Ashmolean Museum has acquired five albums of illustrated letters that Burne-Jones sent to Gaskell and her daughter, as well as some ephemera such as the artist's paintbrushes. The archive provides a first-hand insight into the life of ‘the last Pre-Raphaelite’ and his social circle. Beneath the surface of their correspondences lies the black humour endemic to Burne-Jones’s frequent moods of depression and insecurity. In the course of their friendship, he became dependent on May Gaskell, confessing to her that she ‘reached the well of loneliness that is in me’.

The letters will enter the Ashmolean’s permanent collection and will later be published online. They will add to the collection of drawings by Burne-Jones bequeathed to the Ashmolean in 1939 by Mrs Gaskell, forming one of the richest Pre-Raphaelite archives in the country. Stephen Deuchar, director of the Art Fund, said: ‘The Ashmolean owns one of the finest collections of works by Burne-Jones in the world, which will be greatly enriched by this important and delightful collection of letters.'

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