In 1886, having been elected A.R.A. the previous year, he exhibited (for the only time) at the Royal Academy "The Depths of the Sea," a mermaid carrying down with her a youth whom she has unconsciously drowned in the impetuosity of her love. This picture adds to the habitual haunting charm a tragic irony of conception and a felicity of execution which give it a place apart among Burne-Jones's works. He resigned his Associateship in 1893. One of the "Perseus" series was exhibited in 1887, two more in 1888, with "The Brazen Tower," inspired by the same legend. In 1890 the four pictures of "The Briar Rose" were exhibited by themselves, and won the widest admiration. The huge tempera picture, "The Star of Bethlehem," painted for the corporation of Birmingham, was exhibited in 1891. A long illness for some time checked the painter's activity, which, when resumed, was much occupied with decorative schemes. An exhibition of his work was held at the New Gallery in the winter of 1892-1893. To this period belong several of his comparatively few portraits. In 1894 Burne-Jones was made a baronet.
Ill-health again interrupted the progress of his works, chief among which was the vast "Arthur in Avalon." In 1898 he had an attack of influenza, and had apparently recovered, when he was again taken suddenly ill, and died on the 17th of June. In the following winter a second exhibition of his works was held at the New Gallery, and an exhibition of his drawings (including some of the charmingly humorous sketches made for children) at the Burlington Fine Arts Club.
His son and successor in the baronetcy, Sir Philip Burne-Jones (b. 1861), also became well known as an artist. The only daughter, Margaret, married Mr J.W. Mackail.
Burne-Jones's influence has been exercised far less in painting than in the wide field of decorative design. Here it has been enormous. His first designs for stained glass, 1857-1861, were made for Messrs Powell, but after 1861 he worked exclusively for Morris & Co. Windows executed from his cartoons are to be found all over England; others exist in churches abroad. For the American Church in Rome he designed a number of mosaics. Reliefs in metal, tiles, gesso-work, decorations for pianos and organs, and cartoons for tapestry represent his manifold activity. In all works, however, which were only designed and not carried out by him, a decided loss of delicacy is to be noted. The colouring of the tapestries (of which the "Adoration of the Magi" at Exeter College is the best-known) is more brilliant than successful. The range and fertility of Burne-Jones as a decorative inventor can be perhaps most conveniently studied in the sketch-book, 1885-1895, which he bequeathed to the British Museum. The artist's influence on book-illustration must also be recorded. In early years he made a few drawings on wood for Dalziel's Bible and for Good Words; but his later work for the Kelmscott Press, founded by Morris in 1891, is that by which he is best remembered.
Besides several illustrations to other Kelmscott books, he made eighty-seven designs for the Chaucer of 1897.
Burne-Jones's aim in art is best given in some of his own words, written to a friend: "I mean by a picture a beautiful, romantic dream of something that never was, never will be - in a light better than any light that ever shone - in a land no one can define or remember, only desire - and the forms divinely beautiful - and then I wake up, with the waking of Brynhild." No artist was ever more true to his aim. Ideals resolutely pursued are apt to provoke the resentment of the world, and Burne-Jones encountered, endured and conquered an extraordinary amount of, angry criticism. In so far as this was directed against the lack of realism in his pictures, it was beside the point. The earth, the sky, the rocks, the trees, the men and women of Burne-Jones are not those of this world; but they are themselves a world, consistent with itself, and having therefore its own reality. Charged with the beauty and with the strangeness of dreams, it has nothing of a dream's incoherence. Yet it is a dreamer always whose nature penetrates these works, a nature out of sympathy with struggle and strenuous action. Burne-Jones's men and women are dreamers too. It was this which, more than anything else, estranged him from the age into which he was born.
But he had an inbred "revolt from fact" which would have estranged him from the actualities of any age. That criticism seems to be more justified which has found in him a lack of such victorious energy and mastery over his materials as would have enabled him to carry out his conceptions in their original intensity. Representing the same kind of tendency as distinguished his French contemporary, Puvis de Chavannes, he was far less in the main current of art, and his position suffers accordingly. Often compared with Botticelli, he had nothing of the fire and vehemence of the Florentine. Yet, if aloof from strenuous action, Burne-Jones was singularly strenuous in production. His industry was inexhaustible, and needed to be, if it was to keep pace with the constant pressure of his ideas. Invention, a very rare excellence, was his pre-eminent gift. Whatever faults his paintings may have, they have always the fundamental virtue of design; they are always pictures. His fame might rest on his purely decorative work. But his designs were informed with a mind of romantic temper, apt in the discovery of beautiful subjects, and impassioned with a delight in pure and variegated colour.
These splendid gifts were directed in a critical and fortunate moment by the genius of Rossetti. Hence a career which shows little waste or misdirection of power, and, granted the aim proposed, a rare level of real success.
In 1904 was published Memorials of Edward Burne-Jones, by his widow, two volumes of extreme interest and charm. The Work of Burne-Jones, a collection of ninety-one photogravures, appeared in 1900.
See also Catalogue to Burlington Club Exhibition of Drawings by Burne-Jones, with Introduction by Cosmo Monkhouse (1899); Sir E. Burne-Jones: a Record and a Review, by Malcolm Belt (1898); Sir E. Burne-Jones, his Life and Work, by Julia Cartwright (Mrs Ady) (1894); The Life of William Morris, by J.W. Mackail (1899).