Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum Acquires Pre-Raphaelite Letters

A letter from the collection. COURTESY ASHMOLEAN PHOTO STUDIO

A letter from the collection.


The Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology at Oxford University has acquired a trove of illustrated letters that artist and designer Sir Edward Burne-Jones wrote to his close friend Helen Mary (May) Gaskell for £200,000 (about $312,000). The acquisition represents an important record of the Pre-Raphaelite artists and complements the Ashmolean’s holdings of Burne-Jones drawings, which Gaskell bequeathed to the Ashmolean in 1939.

May Gaskell’s descendants have been in possession of the collection for several decades, which contains 200 letters dating from 1892 to 1898, the year of Burne-Jones’s death. The archive includes three albums of intimate letters from the artist to Gaskell, two albums of illustrated letters to Gaskell and her daughters, Daphne and Amy, and brushes that the artist used to paint his famous portrait of Amy Gaskell (in the collection of Andrew Lloyd Webber).

Burne-Jones self portrait with cat. © ASHMOLEAN MUSEUM

Sir Edward Burne-Jones’ self portrait with a cat.


Josceline Dimbleby, Gaskell’s great granddaughter and author of the 2004 book A Profound Secret, which details her family’s history, said in a statement: “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. He corresponded with Burne-Jones up to five times a day.”

Dimbelby will give a talk on August 8 in conversation with the Ashmolean’s senior curator of European art and curator of Great British drawings, Colin Harrison.

Burne-Jones' famous portrait of Amy Gaskell. COURTESY LEIGHTON HOUSE MUSEUM/THE ARTIST

Burne-Jones’ famous portrait of Amy Gaskell.


Aside from its historical importance, the collection of letters is an endearing record of Burne-Jones’s friendships. The documents include the Pre-Raphaelite’s innermost thoughts and feelings alongside humorous depictions of characters, both imagined and real.

Two albums of such letters are currently on display at the Museum’s “Great British Drawings” exhibition, where they will remain until the end of the month. When they enter the Ashmolean’s permanent collection after conservation procedures, the albums will be available for research by students and scholars, both at the institution and online. Harrison said in a statement: “The opportunity to acquire the albums of intimate and humorous letters to May and to her daughter, Daphne, was unmissable; and we are most grateful.”

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