Helen Mary (May) Gaskell (1853-1940) was the last and, with the possible exception of her friend Frances Horner, the most important of the young women with whom Burne-Jones formed romantic but platonic relationships in later life. The daughter of the Rev. David Melville, a canon of Worcester Cathedral, she met the artist through Frances Horner in the early 1890s, and despite their difference in age, Burne-Jones being twenty years May's senior, they were soon on intimate terms. On the one hand, May could share Burne-Jones's artistic and literary interests; on the other, neither was happily married. Burne-Jones's relationship with his wife Georgie, for all her loyalty and devotion, had never quite recovered from his affair with Maria Zambaco in the late 1860s, while May's marriage to Captain Henry Gaskell, contracted in 1873, was a pairing of such different temperaments that ultimately the couple were to more or less live apart. Here, then, was fertile ground for mutual confidences, and Burne-Jones would often write to May as many as five times a day.
May was the mistress of a large London house at Marble Arch (on the site of the present Cumberland Hotel) and had two houses in the country. She also had three children, of whom the oldest, Amy, was the subject of one of Burne-Jones's most haunting portraits, exhibited at the New Gallery in 1894 (Lloyd Webber Collection). Her relationship with Burne-Jones, though long known in outline to students of the artist, was analysed in detail by her great-granddaughter Josceline Dimbleby in A Profound Secret: May Gaskell, her Daughter Amy, and Edward Burne-Jones, published earlier this year. To mark the book's appearance an exhibition of pictures, letters and memorabilia was held at Leighton House, Kensington. Lots 137-139 were all included.
The present drawings are typical of those that so often illustrate Burne-Jones's letters to May. Perhaps best described as affectionate caricatures, they show her working on an embroidery as she reclines or sits up in bed. May was an accomplished needlewoman, as lot 139 shows.
Burne-Jones's instructions to May to burn his letters is typical. This is a constant refrain, and in later life she did destroy some of them or make excisions. However, she could never bring herself to sacrifice them all, which is why we know so much about the love-affair today.