One Sunday afternoon I can remember walking through the grounds of Townley Hall stately home in Burnley. I would have entered the home itself but reversed upon seeing the admission charges. A woman told me entry was free if you lived in Burnley and proved it with an official bill. She said it was worth going in "to see the Burne-Jones”. I knew Edward Burne-Jones was a painter who had fallen out of favour and in the 1960's you could buy an original painting for £200. In 2013 his watercolour Love Among The Ruins sold at Christie’s London for £13.2 million. Here I am at a former family home overlooking a quiet square.
I’m not a fan of his romantic Victorian paintings (too dreamy for me) even though he was the most important of the later Pre-Raphaelite artists. If anyone could incarnate a version of a romantic Victorian dream into paint then he could. He was born in Birmingham, his mum dying six days after his birth. His grieving dad brought him up with the help of a local girl who was the family housekeeper. He left home for Exeter College in Oxford, studying to become a church minister but after a visit to France life’s arrow changed direction and he wanted to paint. It was a good thing he taught himself as he wouldn’t have developed his own distinct style under another’s tutelage.
Aged 23 he’d got engaged to Georgiana who was training to be a painter (she was the sister of an old school friend.) He was 27 when they married. They had two sons quite quickly, the second born when Georgina was gravely ill with scarlet fever (he died shortly after.) Shortly after they moved to this house where I’m stood, overlooking Kensington Square. Their daughter Margaret was born here. They lived here for two years before moving to a large house set in a large garden in Fulham.
Edward was 44 by the time success arrived: he was persuaded to show eight paintings at the Grosvenor Gallery and it was a roaring success. Over the next twenty years he would exert considerable influence in the British art world. I’m sure you’ve seen some of his paintings even if you didn’t know he did them. The paintings now sell for millions but they are only part of his work; he designed ceramic tiles, tapestries, jewellery, theatrical costumes and stained glass windows.
Both Edward and Georgina had affairs, Edward with his Greek model Maria Zambaco (which resulted in her trying to commit suicide by throwing herself in the canal) and Georgina with another famous painter William Morris. They remained together though, moving to Rottingdean near Brighton in Sussex. In 1898 when Edward was 64 he had an attack of influenza. He seemed to recover but suddenly worsened and he died of an unexpected heart attack in London in the early hours of Friday 17th June 1898.
The house is a short walk from the bottom of Hyde Park, away from the cacophony of Kensington High Street traffic. To find it I walked behind the mammoth beast that’s the Daily Mail & General Trust building and happened upon an oasis of greenery. According to Zoopla number 41 where the Burne-Jones’s lived is presently worth £15 million. I suppose anything near Kensington Palace is going to cost a fortune. There are five floors and I could easily imagine Edward working by the window on a massive canvas, occasionally glimpsing pipits and finches on the trees. I did a salute and left for the long walk back to the hotel in Hampstead.
The view from the house onto Kensington Square…