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04th August 2015

Ashmolean acquires archive of illustrated letters of Sir Edward Burne-Jones

The Ashmolean has acquired the illustrated letters of Pre-Raphaelite artist Sir Edward Burne-Jones (1833–98), who came to study at Exeter College in 1852, to Helen Mary (May) Gaskell (1853–1940).

The archive, which 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 his famous 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.

They have been acquired for £200,000 with major support from the National Heritage Memorial Fund; the Art Fund; the Arts Council England/Victoria and Albert Museum Purchase Grant Fund; the Friends of the National Libraries; and numerous private donations.

Two of the albums are on display at the Ashmolean in the current Great British Drawings exhibition, open until 31 August. They will now enter the Museum’s permanent collection. Following conservation, they will be made available as an invaluable resource to students and scholars of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, and will be published online. 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.

Colin Harrison, Senior Curator of European Art at the Ashmolean Museum, said: “May Gaskell was Burne-Jones’s closest friend in his last years. He gave her a selection of his finest drawings, which she in turn gave to the Ashmolean in 1939. The opportunity to acquire the albums of intimate and humorous letters that he sent to May and to her daughter, Daphne, was unmissable; and we are most grateful for the support from the Art Fund, and other bodies, as well as numerous private donors. Their generosity has ensured that the letters have ended up in their rightful home, and that the Ashmolen now has one of the most representative, as well as distinguished, collections of Burne-Jones’s work in the world.”

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