British artist Edward Coley Burne-Jones was born in Birmingham in August of 1833; sadly he never knew his mother Elizabeth Coley, as she died just days after his birth. He was raised by his father, Edward Coley, who was a frame-maker, and his first exposure to art was most likely from that source. He showed a natural talent for drawing as a child, but he received no formal introduction to art until he met his University teacher, Printer Thomas Combe at Exeter College in Oxford.
Combe introduced Burne-Jones to Pre-Raphaelite works in 1853; with that influence and a trip to Northern France with his friend William Morris to tour cathedrals in 1855, he chose his career as an artist. Taking rooms in London and some informal lessons from artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Burne-Jones and Morris opened a workshop and business, founding a furniture company in 1861. It was more than just a furniture company though, as they specialized in Gothic Revival furniture: the designing, building and painting of it. They took on another partner, Faulkner, but Burne-Jones remained the principal designer – he produced more than 500 designs of individual figures for use in stained glass. The company's stained glass windows can be found in churches and cathedrals throughout England.
His favorite medium was watercolors, and although he was still influenced by Rossetti and artist George Frederic Watts, he soon emerged with his own sense of style containing elements of Pre-Raphaelite and classical traits. In 1863 he produced a large watercolor painting called The Merciful Knight. In 1864, that painting, along with his other exceptional watercolor pieces, earned him entry as a member into the Royal Watercolour Society, also known as the Old Water Colour Society.
Burne-Jones suffered the ill-effects of scandal which caused him to resign from the society in 1870. His watercolor painting, Phyllis and Demophoon, caused a great uproar due to a male nude subject depicted in the scene. A young divorced Greek woman, Maria Zambaco, was his mistress and model during that time, and he painted her as Phyllis, but he also used her features on the young Demophoon. The Society was appalled at the male nudity and suggested that Burne-Jones “chalk over” the genitalia, even if temporarily for the purposes of showing the painting publicly. That suggestion caused Burne-Jones to remove his painting and resign immediately.
It took him several years to recover his reputation in London, but by 1877 he was encouraged to show his work at the Grosvenor Gallery. He exhibited eight of his oil paintings, and the results were more than he could hope for. For his works, including The Beguiling of Merlin and The Mirror of Venus, he was made the new favorite and rising star of the Aesthetic Movement.
He kept painting and exhibiting his oil paintings and his large watercolors, with some interruptions due to illness. He was made a member of the Royal Academy in 1885 and resigned his seat in 1893. His life’s work included many forms of art other than his paintings and stained glass; he designed tapestries, ceramic tiles, mosaics, jewelry and woodcuts for illustrations for books. Burne-Jones made a baronet in 1894, and he passed away from continued illness in 1898.