Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones is considered the most important of the later Pre-Raphaelite artists. His enormous influence earned him both a knighthood and a memorial service in Westminster Abbey. Originally set on a life in the church, he decided instead to devote himself to art after discovering Rossetti and the Pre- Raphaelite group.
Having given up on ideas of celibacy during his time at Oxford University, it did not take long for Burne-Jones and his close friend William Morris to experience what Fiona MacCarthy, author of the acclaimed The Last Pre-Raphaelite: Edward Burne-Jones and the Victorian Imagination, describes as ‘heartaches and love troubles’.
MacCarthy goes further, pointing to Burne-Jones’ ‘susceptibility to women’ and stating his art was a ‘reflection of his own intense and frequently tormented emotional state’.
Although he was married in 1861, the artist became ‘obsessed with a number of beautiful and self-possessed young women from the artistic and liberal elite.’ One of these women, Frances Graham (1854-1940), was the fourth of eight children of Edward Burne-Jones’s staunchest and most sympathetic patron, William Graham.
A wealthy merchant and Liberal MP for Glasgow, William Graham’s collection of Burne-Jones’s works included Green Summer (private collection), Le Chant d’Amour (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), Laus Veneris (Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle) and the early Briar Rose series (Museo de Arte, Ponce, Puerto Rico).
Frances shared her father’s interests and visited artists’ studios with him. They often visited Rossetti’s house in Cheyne Walk, where he would read them sonnets. In 1869, when Frances was 15, he drew her as ‘The Lady of the Window’ in the Vita Nuova.
Artists were also invited to dine at the Grahams’ house in Grosvenor Place, Belgravia. Frances, in her own words, recalled her first meeting with Burne-Jones, describing him as ‘one of the wittiest and jolliest of talkers’. He was equally taken with her, enjoying her intellectual curiosity and strength of mind, and in time she became one of his closest confidants.
She was 18, Burne-Jones was 40 and, according to her, ‘approaching his full fame’. She recalled how he ‘poured into my lucky lap all the treasures of one of the most wonderful minds that was ever created.’ He was a regular visitor and accompanied William Graham and his daughters to art galleries, to circuses and plays.
In her book, Fiona MacCarthy says the artist had first loved Frances as a child ‘because she was so much in the likeness of her father’. In 1875, however, Frances received an ‘extraordinary’ St Valentine’s Day card from Burne-Jones, which, notes the author, marked ‘the beginning of a new intense relationship between [them]… Now he began to love Frances for herself and it was a love that lasted all his life.’
The catalogue for Edward Burne-Jones, Victorian Artist-Dreamer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York goes as far as stating that Frances Graham was ‘probably the most important woman in [the artist’s] life after his wife, his daughter and Maria Zambaco, the Greek beauty with whom he conducted a tempestuous affair in the late 1860s.’
Burne-Jones went on to make many portrait drawings of Frances. She was, writes MacCarthy, ‘the model for the face of the sea-nymphs on the right in The Arming of Perseus. In the Golden Stairs Frances is the girl at the bottom of the stairway about to clash her cymbals. When her father commissioned Burne-Jones to decorate a piano for Frances… he used the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. She modelled for Eurydice; Burne-Jones himself is Pluto, keeping her captive.’
While the famous ‘Orpheus’ piano (private collection) commissioned in 1879 is probably the greatest artistic monument to their friendship, there were many other personalised presents — illuminated books, designs for needlework, a design for shoes and this painted jewel-casket, dated March 28 1877: Frances Graham’s 23rd birthday.
The angels and other ethereal female figures on this casket feature in many of Burne-Jones’ works, both on paper and canvas and in stained glass, and were probably worked up from drawings stored in his studio.
‘Many a patient design went to adorning Frances’ ways — ah! The folly of me from the beginning’
In 1883 Frances Graham married Sir John ‘Jack’ Horner. According to MacCarthy, ‘Burne-Jones evidently did his best to appear self-controlled in public’. In private, however, his dismay was easier to discern, as evidenced by a letter to Ruskin, who was similarly smitten, in which he revealed how much of his work had been designed for her.
'Many a patient design went to adorning Frances' ways,’ wrote Burne-Jones. ‘Sirens for her girdle, Heavens and Paradises for her prayer-books, Virtues and Vices for her necklace-boxes — ah! The folly of me from the beginning.'
For a time after her marriage Frances saw less of Burne-Jones, but the friendship soon renewed its course, and remained of vital importance to her. In the 1880s she became a leading light in the coterie known as ‘The Souls'. Indeed Lady Paget called her the ‘High Priestess' of the set, a tribute not least to her close relationship with the artist who above all was the arbiter of their taste.
In June 1898, Burne-Jones died, aged 64. Herbert Asquith, later British Prime Minister, wrote to Frances to express his sympathy. ‘I can hardly imagine anything that could tear a greater gap in your life or create such a breach between the future and the past,’ he informed her. ‘He gave you always of his best, and it must be some solace to you to remember that up to the end you above all others lightened and enriched his difficult life.'