This book was first published in 1925 when it was edited by William Graham Robertson, who was an artist, author, and Blake collector. This slightly enlarged version is the British Museum 1988 reprint, which draws upon the museum’s collection of letters to Katie.
Robertson had met Edward Burne-Jones fifty years earlier when he was taken as a boy to The Grange. Robertson, pictured below, published Time Was: The Reminiscences of W.Graham Robertson in which he describes Burne-Jones as being ‘a mystic with spirit but half recalled from the threshold of another and a fairer world’. Robertson also noted his capacity to change and shift with his audience, saying he had ‘the impish eyes of Puck beneath the cowl of a monk’. Robertson was a natural choice to edit the first edition, being close to both the Burne-Jones and the Lewis families as well as an author and illustrator of books for children.
John Christian’s introduction to this reprint of Robertson’s book considers the ‘dual personality’ as having ‘its exact counterpart in Burne-Jones’s art’. Christian reads the work Burne-Jones delivered to the public as ‘synonymous with the beauty of sadness, a mood of yearning and regret’ but the private said of his life was a ‘whimsical, humorous’ quality which can be found in his letters to Katie or his caricatures of Morris who offered many an opportunity to tenderly tease.
From as early as the 1840s Burne-Jones dabbled in comic drawings, producing them at ‘incredible speed’, and amusing his fellow pupils. Christian says that ‘Devils were his speciality’ and every boy had an example of one. By the 1850s, Burne-Jones established a life-long habit of illustrating letters, and to another friend’s young daughter he adopted an alias of ‘Edouard Cardinal de Byrmynham’ although this perhaps also reflects a Tractarian influence and a desire to join the clergy which he had at this point in time.
Christian describes Burne-Jones’ humour as ‘unique; lambent, whimsical, gently ironic, yet by no means without malice, it bears the stamp of a highly individual personality’. Whilst there appears a little bit of whimsy in Christian’s reading, one cannot dispute Christian’s scholarship or insight into Burne-Jones (he was the leading scholar on Burne-Jones until March 2016, when he passed away. His voice remains authoritative). Christian suggests that Burne-Jones comical drawings were an outlet for a life which was extremely serious (he proclaimed his paintings were ‘too good to be funny’ and his marital life was perhaps a little staid. His children, and grandchildren provided him with great pleasure and a means of indulging a slightly infantile, free-spirited side of his character in amongst the seriousness of adulthood.
Some of his drawings are surprising, such as the Two ‘Fat Ladies’ conversing, or the references to the now lost drawings of Swinburne’s affair with Adah Menken. Burne-Jones’ tone was barbed on occasion and fascinated on others, e.g. when ‘he was riveted by Emma Frank, the American Tattooed Lady…[who had] Leonardo’s Last Supper emblazoned on her ample back’. On seeing Frank some years later, Burne-Jones noted that she was ‘fatter, & all the face of the Apostles are a little wider & have a tendency to smile’.
Many of his drawings were for children though, even if they also had a bit of horror within them (his daughter Margaret warned him against telling her daughter Angela such drawings and telling her stories such as she had been told, although Angela seemed to have a taste for such things). Robertson wrote of such drawings how ‘the babies…must have these pictures thrilling and delightful to the last degree in broad daylight; how they had felt about them towards bedtime I did not like to enquire’.
Katie Lewis arrived in Burne-Jones’ life before his own grandchildren were born but after his own children had grown up. She was the young daughter of George Lewis, the eminent solicitor to many celebrities of the day. Lewis, by all accounts, was a mild mannered but extremely astute man, and was called upon by everyone from The Prince of Wales to the relatives of the poisoned Charles Bravo.
The letters Burne-Jones penned to Katie are playful and rather naughty sometimes. He encourages bad habits in Katie by his silly spelling and general foolishness, and instructs her to ask her parents tell her long and complicated stories which Burne-Jones obviously has made up. He was obviously a tease and enjoyed inserting messages to Katie’s parents, George and Elizabeth who he was not only very fond of but also valued her opinion. Toying with the two audiences was no doubt part of his own entertainment. He was someone who was able to maintain life-long relationships and respect and Katie’s own decision to publish the letters and her process of selection when she was older shows how fond she remained of him.
Katie appears to have been a precocious young child and Burne-Jones seems to have enjoyed slightly winding her up and encouraging her highly-strung attitude whilst perhaps diffusing it and pushing it into creativity. He clearly understood children and his letters have a kind of Edward Lear feel to them, which Christian also recognised, and he signed himself Mr. Beak, presumably after his many references and drawings of birds.
The letters really include some wonderful designs. The envelopes are cleverly illustrated with Burne-Jones as he liked to present himself – scrawny, tall and dishevelled – painting at an easel, where the painting is the stamp.
Other letters tell silly stories about sharing a cat with Margaret and being told off by her for losing his half. He talks and writes about pigs, fat ladies (or prominent to use Burne-Jones’ term), cats, dogs, babies, donkeys and dolls (the doll letters are a bit weird and Katie left some of these out due to viewing them as too risque). He describes what he had for breakfast (marmelade [sic] and coffee and toast for breakfast), as well as his dancing lessons where he has learnt a polenska and will soon learn a jigska.
The tone throughout is grandfatherly, playful, and light. They show the delight of an adult who isn’t burdened by parental responsibility and can merely indulge the individual. They also dip into other relationships, such as his obvious affection for Margaret, although serious Phil (his son) gets only a passing mention. Oscar Wilde also gets a mention: interestingly, Wilde thought he had lost Lewis as a friend during his trial not knowing that Lewis had refused to represent Queensberry out of loyalty to Wilde. Wilde wrote to Elizabeth about Katie proclaiming that if ‘she has ceased to be the modern Nero and is now angelic…I no longer adore her: her fascinating villainy touched my artistic soul’.
Whilst the book doesn’t reveal much of Katie, in as much as the letters are to her not from her, we do get to know Mr. Beak, who, al in all, shows himself as mostly ‘affectionate’ or sometimes ‘affectionate and perplexed’ and indeed, confirms that the spirit of frivolity he displayed in 1853 when he was painting the Oxford Union murals remained with him until the end. The main letters in fact run from about 1882 to 1889, although they continued right up until Burne-Jones died in 1898, when Katie was twenty.
The book is mere folly, and a chance to disappear inside Katie’s childhood, and perhaps your own for a moment. It won’t reveal any great secrets about Burne-Jones or the Pre-Raphaelites, but it will wile away an enjoyable hour and the drawings are gorgeous. The book is a refreshing change to the dense scholarly art criticism Burne-Jones is now subject to which far cry from that Robertson experienced in 1933 when the centenary exhibition opened at the Tate which he said was ‘rather sad – a little crow of forlorn old survivals playing their last homage to the beauty and poetry now utterly scorned and rejected’. It may well be because of the multi-layered personality this book reveals that Burne-Jones’ reputation continues to be on the assent.
Images are via British Museum, Wikipedia.
 Edward Burne-Jones, Letters to Katie from Edward Burne-Jones (London: British Museum Publications, 1988), p. 1
 Ibid., 10.
 Ibid., 12 and 13.
 Ibid., 15 and 16.