ECHOS DU TEMPS PASSÉ ~ ECHOES OF TIME PAST~ LADY BURNE-JONES~GEORGIANA MACDONALD BURNE-JONES (21 July 1840—2 February 1920)
Georgiana Burne-Jones photographed by Frederick Hollyer platinotype cabinet card, circa 1882, NPG
I’ve always wanted to learn more about Lady Burne-Jones (nee Macdonald) ever since I discovered the paintings of her husband Sir Edward Burne-Jones. So, let’s go back to the beginning shall we!
Georgiana's parents: Rev. George Macdonald and Hannah Jones
Georgiana's parents: Rev. George Macdonald and Hannah Jones
Georgiana Macdonald was of Scotch-Irish descent born of true Celtic blood; one of eleven children born to Rev. George Macdonald and Hannah Jones. Bear in mind Georgiana’s father is not the author and illustrator George Macdonald. George Macdonald became a member of The Methodist Society at the age of seventeen during the year 1823 throughout Hammersmith Circuit at Brentford, Twickenham, Richmond, Isleworth, Harrow and Hounslow in London, England. His father James Macdonald, a reverend himself gave his son the following advice, “Whenever you begin to preach you will need all the courage you can muster…Accustom yourself to speak with ease and propriety in private, and it will become habitual to you to do so in public.”
Georgiana’s mother, Hannah Jones was George’s second wife and is described by her sister Edith as being, “of fair complexion and colour as her father. Her temperament was reserved and very sensitive to both pain and beauty. Her character was high-minded and honourable, brave, physically and morally deeply religious if rather sadly so having sensitive nerves. She was steadfast in her affections and tenderly kind and helpful to all around her.” Now, this sounds an awfully lot like her daughter Georgiana to me! George and Hannah were married on May 2, 1833, at Manchester’s Collegiate Church. She wore a Brussels lace veil over a Quaker-like grey satin bonnet.
Fifth child Georgiana was born in Birmingham, England, on July 21, 1840. Thankfully, her mother, Hannah’s letters remain providing a glimpse of what Georgie’s life was like growing up as a little girl. The first entry describes a two and a half year old Georgie, “Georgie continues as sound as a pot and I am sorry to say is growing very vain; she has found it out that whenever she goes to the looking-glass there is a very pretty little girl there and she thinks it is her.”
Hannah also recorded an interesting conversation between her three daughters, “Carrie: What is marrying? Georgie replied, “It is staying at home.” Carrie replied, “No, it is going out to breakfast and getting a husband.” Alice said, “No, it is not that for papa is married and has no husband, nor ever had.” Then Georgie ended the conversation with her sisters, “Well, I’ll do so; I’ll have a husband mytelp.” Carrie/Caroline was six years old, Alice was seven years old, and little Georgie/Georgiana was four years old.
Georgie’s brother Fred described her best in his memoir, “Georgie was small-she was in fact very small indeed; all of them were small with dainty little hands and feet, rosy complexion, abundant hair, brown with bronze lights in it, and glorious dark-blue eyes. In that little frame, dwelt a noble spirit, ever reverencing the highest and seeking the beautiful. She seemed immune by nature from any small aims or self-conceit. She had not her sister’s readiness of faculty in all directions, but a capacity and taste for study unknown to her. She possessed a fine soprano voice, not light and flexible, but powerful and sweet. She had considerable natural gifts for drawing, but being thrown among artists of genius discouraged her from continuing to cultivate this gift. She shared with the rest of the family a keen sense of humour, sometimes rising to wit.”
As little Georgie grew up her attributes were noted by many artistic family friends. For instance, William De Morgan described Georgie as, “Her command of words was not inferior to that of her sisters, she never began a sentence without knowing just how she was going to end it.” Her son-in-law J.W. Mackail said, “Her intellectual powers were expert in such matters as art and letters and were greater than her artistic and more eminent than her nobility of character.” She was known for her bell like deep voice when she read poetry aloud and all who knew her agreed that Edward Burne-Jones’s paintings of her captured her sweet face lit by smiles and eyes of light and frankness, a depth of feeling questioning and believing eyes. By the time poor brother Fred came along he looked back on his childhood thusly, “What a garden of girls it was in which my childhood and youth were spent.”
The Macdonald’s spent six years in London, three in Chelsea and three in Marlybone between 1853-1859. Georgie would have been a teenager during these years and it is noted that the Macdonald family were friends with a young William Morris who designed an altar frontal for their church. His friend Edward Jones was there and they did spend days at Red Lion Square together. This is when young Edward first cast his eyes on the lovely Georgiana Macdonald it is thought. So, around 1853 at the Macdonald Family home located on 39 Sloane Square, London, England young Edward pays a visit to Georgiana. Edward Jones left Oxford without waiting to take a degree and began his painting career instead in lodgings opposite the chapel in Sloane Terrace where George Macdonald preached. During 1856 Edward helped Georgie begin taking painting and drawing lessons at Gore House and they including William Morris went to an exhibit at the Royal Academy together where William Morris viewed April Love by Arthur Hughes and he said it was his favorite! So much so he told Edward to, “Go and nobble that picture as soon as possible before anyone else should get it!” and he did. Oh, and within three weeks time, Edward and Georgiana became engaged to be married.
In 1857 The Macdonald’s moved again into the house at 17 Beaumont Street which nobody liked. Georgie remembered, “Of course, Edward and Morris arranged to live together and by the time we came to Marlybone they had found rooms at No. 1 Upper Gordon Street, and we all settled down more or less contentedly in our dingy surroundings.” Three or so years into their long engagement, Georgie records the moment Edward asked her parents for her hand in marriage, “One day early in June my mother called me into her room and told me that Edward had been to see my father and herself and they left the answer they should give entirely to my decision.”
Frederick Hollyer photograph of Edward Burne-Jones
"Rather tall and very thin, though not especially slender, straightly built and with wide shoulders. Extremely pale he was, with the paleness that belongs to fair-haired people,and looked delicate, but not ill. His hair was perfectly straight, and of a colourless kind. His eyes were light grey (if their colour could be defined in words), and the space that their setting took up under his brow was extraordinary; the nose quite right in proportion, but very individual in outline, and a mouth large and well moulded, the lips meeting with absolute sweetness and repose. The shape of his head was domed, and noticeable for its even balance; his forehead, wide and rather high, was smooth and calm, and the line of the brow over the eyes was a fine one. From the eyes themselves power simply radiated, and as he talked and listened, if anything moved him, not only his eyes but his whole face seemed lit up from within. He was hopelessly plain. His ordinary manner was shy, but not self-conscious, for it gave the impression that he noticed everything. At once his power of words struck me and his vehemence. He was easily stirred, and then his speech was as swift and clear as possible, yet well ordered and going straight to the mark. He had a beautiful voice...Epithets he always used wonderfully." Lady Burne-Jones
Fresh in the blush of the first year of marriage, Edward writes to his sister-in-law Louise nicknamed, ‘Louie’ describing his wife, “Don’t you love to be with her, Louie? Feel better, and dream more tranquilly, and wake more happily, and live more vividly when she is with you.”
Georgie Burne-Jones holding her son Philip, Pip!
The Burne-Jones’s moved from Russell Place to 62 Great Russell Street where Georgie gave birth to a baby boy born on October 21, 1861 named Phillip nicknamed Pip. In 1864 she caught Scarlet Fever and gave birth to a premature son Christopher that lived only a short time. In 1866, daughter Margaret was born. Later, family friend, Graham Robertson described Margaret as having “the Macdonald reticence and reserve developed to an abnormal degree. She is still as shy as she was when a child.”
Margaret Mackail (nee Burne-Jones)
As the years progressed Edward became one of the greatest painters of the nineteenth-century not only exclusively Pre-Raphaelite Art. His friend, true brother and artistic partner became another artistic genius in the art and craft movements as well as the printing press. Sadly William Morris passed away on October 3, 1896 and Georgie had this to say, “We said to each other it is no weeping matter. It almost frightened me at first to see how he flew at his work; I need not say that Edward works through everything. We are not broken, either in body or spirit, by the death of our beloved friend. Edward is slowly but steadily gaining ground, and goes out every day. Now, he works less feverishly.”
It was back in 1880 while Georgie was walking across the downs from Brighton to Rottingdean that she found an empty cottage which Edward bought immediately. Margaret Burne-Jones married Jack Mackail here in September, 1888. She had a daughter, Angela in 1890 and a son Denis in 1892. Edward and Georgie were now grandparents! A role both of them treasured with grandbabies they so lovingly cherished as evidenced in surviving photographs taken by Henry and Richard Stiles in 1895.
Grandpa Burne-Jones with his grandson Denis and granddaughter Angela who both became authors.
At the age of sixty four in 1898 Edward died in his wife’s arms of angina; a failure of the coronary arteries. He was surrounded by his grown children and loved ones. Of the death she only said, “Edward changed his life as Friday morning dawned.”
Annie, house maid to the Burne-Jones’s kept a diary recording Georgie’s final moments, “My lady caught a cold and cough and was in bed when Dr. Mills ordered Oxygen to help her breathing which made her laugh. She was in and out of consciousness but spoke of seeing ‘a man that was good and pious in her bedroom.”Around 3 O’clock on the afternoon of Monday, February 2nd, 1920, Widow Georgiana Burne-Jones, Lady Burne-Jones (nee Macdonald) breathed her last.
The Macdonald Sisters by A.W. Baldwin Earl Baldwin of Bewdley, Illustrated, London: Peter Davies Ltd. by The Windmill Press Ltd., Copyright 1960.
Victorian Sisters: The remarkable Macdonald women and the great men they inspired by Ina Taylor, Published by Ellinham Press, Great Britain, Copyright 2006.
Memorials of Burne-Jones by Lady Georgiana Burne-Jones, Volumes I and II, New York, London, The Macmillan Company, Copyright 1904.