Illustrated letters of Sir Edward Burne-Jones to May Gaskell

Item author: Sir Edward Burne-Jones
Item date: 1892-1898
Grant Value: £10,000
Item cost: £200,000
Item date acquired: 2015
Item institution: Ashmolean Museum
Town/City: Oxford
County: Oxfordshire

This important record of the Pre-Raphaelite artists has remained with May Gaskell’s descendants, consists of more than 200 letters dating from 1892 up to the year of Burne-Jones’s death: three albums of intimate letters from the artist to Mrs Gaskell; two albums of illustrated letters to Mrs Gaskell and her daughter, Daphne; and other ephemera such as the artist’s brushes which he used when painting the portrait of Amy Gaskell.  The letters are one of the most endearing records of all Burne-Jones’s friendships.  They recount both his innermost thoughts and feelings and feature a cast of humorous characters, fictitious and real.

The letters will add to the collection of drawings by Burne-Jones bequeathed to the Ashmolean in 1939 by Mrs Gaskell, forming one of the richest Pre-Raphaelite archives in the country.  Many of the letters were published by Josceline Dimbleby, May Gaskell’s great-granddaughter, in her acclaimed A Profound Secret (2004) which recounts the author’s research into her family’s history. 

Burne-Jones met May Gaskell in 1892, and she became the last in the succession of women with whom he enjoyed especially close, but platonic, friendships. She was the wife of a dull cavalry officer, and, in an unfulfilling marriage, she corresponded with Burne-Jones up to five times a day. The letters include a series of cartoon-like tales featuring characters such as the ‘fat lady’ and the artist himself, caught in mishap and misadventure.  Beneath the surface lies the black humour endemic to Burne-Jones’s frequent moods of depression and insecurity.  There is, for example, a superb sequence of caricatures of the artist suffering from flu.  In the course of their friendship, Burne-Jones became dependent on May, confessing to her that she ‘reached the well of loneliness that is in me’.

We are most grateful for the support from the National Heritage Memorial Fund, the National Art Collections Fund; the V&A Purchase Grant Fund; the Friends of the National Libraries; and numerous private donors.