Edward Coley Burne-Jones was born in Birmingham on August 28, 1833; his mother, Elizabeth Coley, died only a few days later. Through his father Edward Jones, a frame-maker, and other relatives, Edward was able to develop his natural gift for drawing, although he had little or no formal tuition before leaving King Edward VI School, Birmingham, to enter Exeter College, Oxford, in 1853. There he met William Morris, with whom he indulged in a passion for all things medieval and for the writings of Thomas Carlyle and John Ruskin; through the University Printer Thomas Combe, they were introduced to the work of the Pre-Raphaelites. With others of a like mind, they contributed to the short-lived Oxford and Cambridge Magazine in 1856. Both had intended to enter the Church but decided to become artists after making a tour of northern French cathedrals in 1855. In November 1856 they moved into rooms in London at 17 Red Lion Square which had formerly been occupied by Rossetti, from whom Burne-Jones (as he now styled himself) took some informal lessons. They were also the leading figures in the campaign of mural painting in the Oxford Union debating chamber in 1857-1858.
Decoration of the rooms at Red Lion Square and in Morris’s new home, Red House at Bexley, from 1859, included the making and painting of Gothic Revival furniture. Burne-Jones was one of the founding members in 1861 of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Company, and went on to become the firm’s principal designer of stained glass, producing more than five hundred individual figure subjects. His early work as an artist was chiefly in pen and watercolour, much influenced by Rossetti, but it also benefited from contact with other artists such as George Frederic Watts. After visits to Italy in 1859 (with Val Prinsep) and in 1862 (with Ruskin and with his wife Georgiana, whom he had married in 1860), his own style, which embraced classical as well as Pre-Raphaelite traits, soon emerged. Large watercolours such as The Merciful Knight (1863, Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery) marked his election as an Associate of the Old Water Colour Society in 1864.
The furor over a male nude subject, Phyllis and Demophoön (Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery), led to his resignation from the society in 1870, and for the next seven years he worked in virtual seclusion at The Grange, Fulham, in west London. In the same year he survived a scandal over an affair with his model Maria Zambaco. Visits to Italy in 1871 and 1873 increased his knowledge of the High Renaissance, which infused paintings such as The Mirror of Venus (Gulbenkian Museum, Lisbon) and The Beguiling of Merlin (Lady Lever Art Gallery, National Museums of Liverpool), finally shown to great acclaim at the opening of the Grosvenor Gallery in 1877.
His later paintings were exhibited there and at the New Gallery from 1888, as well as through the dealers Agnew & Sons. Even with the help of his studio assistant T.M. Rooke (1842-1942), many large-scale canvases were never finished, including the biggest, The Sleep of King Arthur in Avalon (Museo de Arte, Ponce, Puerto Rico).
An abiding interest in the decorative arts led to the design of jewelry, mosaics, and needlework, as well as tapestries – especially the Holy Grail series (1890-1895, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery and elsewhere) – for the Morris workshop at Merton Abbey, and book illustration for Morris’s Kelmscott Press starting in 1891. Many such works were shown at the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society. Although elected an Associate of the Royal Academy in 1885, he exhibited only once and resigned in 1893; other honours included the Légion d’Honneur, following his success at the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1889, and the award of a baronetcy in 1894. He died of heart failure on June 17, 1898, and his ashes rest at the church in Rottingdean, Sussex, where he kept a holiday home.