Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin (1812–1852), architect and designer, was a catholic convert. With the zeal of a neophyte, his ambition was to transform church building to the forms of the late 13th century, the period he believed to represent the true principles of church architecture. In his short life his dynamic studio, with the aid of the stained glass makers: Thomas Willement (1786-1871), William Warrington (1796-1869) and William Wailes (1808-1881) and the manufacturer of metalwork and stained glass, John Hardman (1811-1867), produced a vast body of work.
The qualified enthusiasm of the Ecclesiological Society, an influential group of powerful members of the Church of England, strengthened Pugin’s influence on the rising architects of the 1840s and 1850s, who were to employ Burne-Jones and Morris, Marshal, Faulkner and Company (the Firm); in particular the architects William Burges (1827-1881), George Edmund Street (1824-1881) and George Frederick Bodley (1827-1907). All of these three were not merely interested in the architecture alone but insisted on supervising and in many cases designing the interiors and accessories.
When it came to the founding of the Firm in 1861, all manner of goods and decoration were advertised in the prospectus - mural decoration, architectural carving, stained glass, tiles, jewellery, furniture and metalwork. Earlier Burne-Jones and Morris, whilst living at Red Lion Square, with the aid of Rossetti had been designing and decorating furniture for personal use. When Morris was required to furnish his new home, Red House, he invited all his friends to partake and, as is well known, Philip Webb, Burne-Jones, Rossetti and their wives all took part.
Until the mid 1860s Burne-Jones worked as a solo artist painting chiefly in watercolour. Taking part in a larger enterprise (the Firm) that recruited workers and assistants to produce the quantity of output required, it became obvious to him that the system used could be applied to his own studio. Already he was aware that his inspiration outpaced his ability to carry out the ideas his imagination envisaged. In letters to an American friend, Charles Eliot Norton of September 1871 he expressed his frustration “I have 60 pictures, oil and water, in my studio & every day I would gladly begin a new one” and in 1880 “My rooms are so full - too full - of work and I have begun so much that if I live to be as old as the oldest inhabitant of Fulham I shall never complete it”. This problem for the artist required a solution that began with the mid 1860s, as pressure from the Firm exacerbated the existing dilemma. Stained glass production was a layered process involving a sequence of stages from sketch to window. In the early years from the Firm’s foundation, on receiving a commission, he undertook all the initial work, background research, sketch, detailed drawings and full size cartoon. From drawings in the sketchbook held by Wightwick Manor (NT 1288048), evidence is given in The Legend of Good Women stained glass series that not only were the figures from his hand, but he designed the two types of background plants, stylised and naturalistic, as well as the architecture. This amount of work was inevitably becoming impossible for an artist of Burne-Jones’ exacting standards and fecundity.
William Bell Scott (1811-1890), a painter friend of Rossetti, was the head of the Government Schools of Design in Newcastle. It was part of his remit to train his students and prepare them for work in the applied arts with the aim of improving commercial design in England. Behind the Government’s motive, was the belief the country was falling behind France in that sphere. Bell Scott, who also had experience designing stained glass, was a frequent visitor to the works of his friend William Wailes. On hearing from Rossetti of the founding of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Company, he sent down three of his pupils to work as apprentices: Thomas George Bowman (1836-1917), John William Brown (1842-1928) and Charles Napier Hemy (1841-1917). They joined other artist apprentices who had already responded to the Firm’s recruitment requests: Albert (1845-1932) and Harry Goodwin (1842-1925), pupils of the Pre-Raphaelite Arthur Hughes (1832-1915), Charles Edward Holloway (1838-1897), William James Wiegand (1832-1913) and George Campfield (1828-1910). These artists, together with a number of less skilled artisans, shared the tasks of operating a stained glass workshop. Harry Ellis Wooldridge (1845-1917), a Royal Academy trained painter, was called in on occasion to work on painting schemes when members of the workshop were unable to execute to the standard required.
At this time Burne-Jones was experiencing the pressures of being chief designer for the Firm. Between 1861 and 1865 he supplied forty-three secular and ecclesiastical locations with over a hundred cartoons for stained glass. It was therefore essential that he be assisted in his studio with work on his own paintings. Thus in 1866 Charles Fairfax Murray (1849-1919) joined to aid in their preparation. He was followed by Thomas Matthews Rooke (1842-1942), who initially was to have worked on cartoons for stained glass. However, Rooke’s abilities were quickly recognised, and he was to remain as a painting assistant for the rest of Burne-Jones’ working life. With an active workshop and now including two personal assistants, Burne-Jones could realise his ambition to create an atelier based upon a Renaissance precedent. Two visits to Italy, and another imminent, had a profound influence on his perception of himself as an artist. No longer purely a medievalist he now had a vision of far-reaching significance.
In 1870 he began to envisage work on a much larger scale than previously. That year saw the emergence of the polyptych “The Story of Troy” (Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery 1922P1J8) about which T. M. Rooke wrote: ‘An early cherished idea of his was to get much done by means of a “school” of artists and assistants he should train’ in a note to J. R. Holliday of c. 1922. Rooke also mentions that “The Feast of Peleus” polyptych (The Story of Troy) was painted by a young American, Frank Lathrop (1849-1909). Another painting dating from this period (1871) is the huge Tristram and Yseult which, like the Troy picture remained unfinished. It would appear that these two works were embarked upon, stimulated by the employment of assistants but as yet, probably for complications in Burne-Jones’ personal life, the atelier was unable to complete such an ambitious undertaking.
In 1872 the list of designs, drawings and pictures (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge) made by the artist has this entry: “This year I have 4 subjects which above all others I desire to paint, and count my chief designs, for some years to come. The Chariot of Love – to be painted life size. The Vision of Britomart in 3 pictures also life size – The Sirens – small life size and a picture of the beginning of the world – with Pan and Echo and sylvan gods, a forest full of centaurs and a wild background of woods, mountains and rivers – upon these four subjects all my leisure time will be spent.” To contemplate working on such a scale, the fact that he now had four assistants must have influenced his thought - John Melhuish Strudwick (1849-1937) had moved from assisting Roddam Spencer- Stanhope (1829-1928) to Burne-Jones’ studio. Henceforth the studio was never without pupils and assistants. Matthew Webb (c. 1851-1924) was attached to the studio from 1879 and he and Osmund Weeks (Fl. 1880s) at first, were employed on three-dimensional gesso reliefs. Towards the end of Burne-Jones’ life a young artist, Seymour Garstin Harvey (1875-1953), son of the artist’s doctor, entered the studio. In the 1900 Royal Academy Harvey exhibited “The Lady of Shalott” which contained many features of his master’s late paintings. There are other assistants hinted at in the correspondence, but information has yet to come to light.
With all the assistance given by these pupils it is no wonder that the artist’s oeuvre is so large. Essentially he was a draftsman. The innumerable drawings he made fed into the studio and became the basis of the many paintings that remained unfinished. It was the role of these assistants either to lay in a projected painting or to demonstrate to the artist the possibilities of the subject or merely to give them practice before entering into the work for an important painting.
Ascertaining and defining the exact state of a particular work is now of considerable importance to the art market. However, Burne-Jones had no such problem. Any work leaving the studio during his lifetime he considered to be acceptable as an autograph work even though evidence of an assistant’s contribution could be detected. Unfinished paintings and sketches are another issue. Philip Burne-Jones gave an account of one of the studio methods in “Notes on Some Unfinished Works of Sir Edward Burne-Jones, Bt.” in the Art Journal of 1900. “When the cartoon [for a painting] was completed, it would be traced by an assistant and transferred to the canvas upon which the finished picture was to be painted. The design as then drawn in, usually by an assistant, in thin monochrome (burnt sienna, raw or burnt umber, or terre verte), and the real work of painting the picture would begin.” Later he adds “The amount of underground work which went to the preparation and completion of a picture was enormous.” He might also have added that the number of works in the studio was also enormous. Philip was also being disingenuous. It was in his interest, as an executor and a beneficiary of the artist’s estate, to capitalise on as much of his inheritance as possible. He therefore overlooked the complexities of attribution in the extant studio content. For we know from Rooke’s comments on Lathrop’s activities on “The Story of Troy” that the assistants did more than Philip’s description. He quite rightly included in the article “Venus Concordia”, “Venus, Discordia”, “The Hill Fairies” and “Love’s Wayfaring [The Car of Love]” showing the work of assistants. Burne-Jones was highly sensitive regarding privacy in the studio area. Obviously this was necessary at times, as there were various naked models and propriety did not allow spectators. This also meant that there was conveniently an opportunity for secrecy as to the element of assistants’ contributions. It did the artist’s reputation no good for it to be known at large that he employed a number of assistants. They had to be accomplished copyists in the transference of details – heads, hands etc. Trials in oil had to be made to reach the master’s highest standards and needed to be passed before attempting to lay in. A number of these works in burnt sienna exist, some by the master, but it is only logical to expect others to have been made by an assistant as exercises and touched by the master as independent works. A similar process was used in the development of paintings. These, in various states of finish, remained in the studio and were sold in the two sales of the remaining works in 1898 and 1919 which gave an extra validity to them.
Burne-Jones played an integral part in the process of making decorative art for Morris and Company. The division of labour essential to the techniques used by the firm he assimilated mentally and practically. When it came to producing work within his own studio, unlike his pure painting contemporaries, he thought of and treated the medium similar to an applied art and he saw no problem in re-defining it and its role in society. He crossed boundaries between a number of different media. He designed fabric, painted furniture, jewelry and costume all of which required outside additional skills. He willingly encouraged the participation of assistants in all the methods of fabrication that was required in the applied arts. He had no problem when his paintings were used as mural schemes - for George Howard at 1 Palace Green and for Arthur Balfour at Carlton Gardens, for instance, and he made no objection when the Briar Rose Series were installed in the Salon for Lord Faringdon’s home at Buscot Park; in fact, he added interstitial panels to complete the decoration. It demonstrates how consistent it was with his philosophy and aesthetic for him to employ the use of other hands to execute his ideas in the various media he was active.
Known Burne-Jones Studio assistants: Charles Fairfax Murray (1849-1919) Thomas Matthews Rooke (1842-1942) Frank Lathrop (1849-1909) John Melhuish Strudwick (1849-1937) Roddam Spencer- Stanhope (1829-1928) Matthew Webb (c. 1851-1924) Osmund Weeks (fl. 1870s & 1880s) Seymour Garstin Harvey (1875-1953)
William Waters, with acknowledgements to the work of Tony Benyon and Charles Sewter.