Little Dragons Go Back to School

Edward Burne-Jones, “Seminary for More Advanced Dragon Babies” (detail). From Margaret: Aug:mdccclxxxv. [manuscript]. London: 1891-1892. (Manuscripts 91749).

“Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.” John Dewey

Long before Hiccup befriended and subdued the dragon, Toothless, in Cressida Cowell’s book How to Train Your Dragon (2003), the nineteenth-century English artist, Sir Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898), imagined a world where baby dragons went to school to learn everything dragons need to know to become fearsome creatures.

Burne-Jones was a Pre-Raphaelite artist known for his illustrations for William Morris’s Kelmscott Press, and decorative designs and paintings depicting Medieval subject matter. After the 1860s, his work and artistic ideology was associated with the Aesthetic Movement. Art, according to Aestheticists like Burne-Jones, should not be used for didactic or moralizing purposes; rather, it should be considered an object of beauty whose sole purpose was to elicit a sensual and emotional response from the viewer (Landow).

Burne-Jones filled personal correspondence to family and friends with sketches and caricatures. He was especially fond of writing to the children of the household and entertained them with delightful and humorous pictures (MacCarthy, 328). His desire to connect with children and entertain them through art-making can be further seen in a sketchbook in the Cotsen’s collection, Margaret: AUG:MDCCCLXXXV (Manuscripts 91749).

Inscription from Edward Burne-Jones, Margaret: Aug:mdccclxxxv. [manuscript]. London: 1891-1892. (Manuscripts 91749).

A handwritten inscription states that Burne-Jones gave his daughter, Margaret, a plain sketchbook before she married and moved to 27 Young Street. It goes on to state that the book was given to his granddaughter, Angela, when she was eighteen months old and that, “E. B-J began making drawings in it for her when he came to see her” (Burne-Jones).

Edward Burne-Jones, “Seminary for More Advanced Dragon Babies.” From Margaret: Aug:mdccclxxxv. [manuscript]. London: 1891-1892. (Manuscripts 91749).

The sketchbook contains a number of drawings, ranging in subject matter and level of finish. Some depict landscapes, animals, and everyday life, while others, like the “Seminary for More Advanced Dragon Babies” depict mythological and fantastical creatures.

The “Seminary for More Advanced Dragon Babies” (December 5, 1892) is a finished drawing done in Burne-Jone’s linear style. It shows a group of nine, adorable, cat-like baby dragons in a courtyard. At the rear of the courtyard, sits a podium with an open book and ink well, above which hangs a sign that bears the title of the piece. To the left is a doorway leading into “Hisstry School” (history) and to the right is a doorway leading to “Jogruffy School” (geography).

The baby dragons are shown wrestling with each other, peeking out from the doorways, rolling on their backs, or, rubbing away tears. The creatures are not the typical, scaly dragons that we’re used to seeing. Instead, they each have spots and random tufts of hair down their backs and tiny tails. Their round little bellies and diminutive stature show that they are indeed juveniles who are presumably attending their first day of school, just like many of our own children.

To the students who are attending their first day of school, we wish you good luck! You may not learn how to fly or breathe fire, but you will be in good company as you learn about history and geography, and maybe even about dragons in mythology!

Burne Jones, Edward Coley. Margaret: Aug:mdccclxxxv. [manuscript]. London: 1891-1892. (Manuscripts 91749).

Landow, George P. “Aesthetes, Decadents, and the Idea of Art for Art’s Sake.” VictorianWeb, 5 December 2012. http://www.victorianweb.org/decadence/artsake.html

MacCarthy, Fiona. The Last Pre-Raphaelite: Edward Burne-Jones and the Victorian Imagination. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012.

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