Three virgin martyrs of the early Church stand demurely in a sylvan landscape. If they remind us slightly irreverently of a famous line from The Mikado, 'Three little girls from school are we', it is a comparison that Burne-Jones himself would have relished. He was a great fan of Gilbert and Sullivan, and his work was a source of inspiration for their send-up of the Aesthetic craze, Patience.
St Barbara, on the left, was a largely mythical figure who, according to The Golden Legend, was shut up in a tower by her father to protect her from importunate suitors. When, to her parent's fury, she became a Christian and had three windows inserted into the tower to symbolise the Holy Trinity, she was turned over to the authorities, savagely tortured and executed. By divine intervention her father was thereupon struck by lightning, a circumstance that caused Barbara to be revered as the protectress of those in danger from thunderstorms, fire, and other causes of sudden death. Her cult flourished in the late middle ages, and she was frequently represented with her symbol, a tower, in English medieval carving and stained-glass. However, the best known image of her from this period is Jan van Eyck's unfinished panel at Antwerp. Burne-Jones shows her with her three-windowed tower, holding a book and, for reasons that are not entirely clear, a peacock's feather.
St Dorothy, in the centre, has only slightly more historical credibility. Early martyrologies make her a maiden of Caesarea in Cappodocia who suffered under the Emperor Diocletian (284-305AD) for her Christian faith and her refusal to marry on the grounds that she was already the bride of Christ. On her way to execution one bitterly cold winter morning, she was accosted by a notary called Theophilus, who mockingly asked her to send him roses from paradise. When these duly arrived by angelic courier, he too was converted, suffered martyrdom, and attained sainthood. In the picture, Dorothy is seen holding the sword with which she was executed and accompanied by an infant angel bringing a basket of flowers from heaven.
St Agnes, who stands on the right, is a figure of more historical substance, and she was certainly a victim of the Diocletian persecution, dying at Rome in 304AD. Like her more mythical sisters, she was wedded to the idea of virginal purity. Indeed she is said to have been only thirteen when she was executed for adopting Christianity and refusing to marry the son of the prefect of Rome. Even the option of becoming a vestal virgin she rejected as it meant ministering to pagan gods. Her praises were sung by St Ambrose, St Jerome and other fathers of the early Church. A basilica, which still exists, was built over her tomb in Rome at the behest of the Emperor Constantine's daughter, and she became the patroness of all seeking a life of piety and sexual abstinence. Her name, meaning a lamb in Latin, reinforced this image, and a lamb is invariably her emblem. Burne-Jones's account of her is no exception, although he does not give her the long hair which she often has in allusion to the legend that, when her torturers stripped off her clothing, her hair miraculously grew long to protect her modesty.
As so often in Burne-Jones's work, the picture has its origin in a decorative project, in this case the east window in All Saints Church, Cambridge. Situated in Jesus Lane, opposite Jesus College for which the artist was to design some of his greatest windows in the following decade, All Saints was built by G.F. Bodley in the early 1860s, replacing a medieval church in St John's Street that had become too small for an expanding parish. Bodley had worked with William Morris and his firm before, so they were a natural choice to execute the east window. Designed and erected in 1866, this consisted of four tiers of five lights with tracery above (fig.1). Burne-Jones provided most of the cartoons for the twenty standing figures in the principal lights, although Ford Madox Brown contributed three and Morris himself two. Burne-Jones charged four guineas each for most of the cartoons, the only exceptions being the figures of Adam and Eve in the top tier, which cost the parish another guinea apiece. This may be because the employment of nude models was involved.
The window's lowest tier represents five female saints, namely (from left to right) Saints Barbara, Agnes, Radegunda, Dorothy and Catherine. Like Barbara, Agnes and Dorothy, Radegunda, a sixth-century Thuringian princess, and Catherine, an Alexandrian saint of dubious authenticity but great appeal, were noted for their rejection of the state of matrimony, seeing themselves rather as mystically espoused to Christ.
The figure of St Catherine in this line-up is by Morris, and while all the others are by Burne-Jones, the St Radegunda would be taken no further. Saints Barbara, Agnes and Dorothy, however, were all to enjoy an afterlife in terms of easel pictures adapted from the cartoons made for the All Saints window. Indeed, in the case of St Agnes and St Dorothy, paintings may well have been developed on top of the cartoons themselves. At this early period Burne-Jones tended to draw his stained-glass cartoons in sepia wash, and he would sometimes use them as monochrome underpaintings for pictures worked up in his characteristic gouache technique, with results that have much of the density and richness of oil. The St Dorothy, which was almost certainly developed in this way, was sold in these Rooms on 23 November 2005, lot 9 (fig. 2), while the St Agnes, by strange coincidence, will be offered in our British Art on Paper sale on 16 November, lot 216 (fig. 3). The St Barbara cartoon does not seem to survive either in its original form or worked up pictorially, but small versions of the St Dorothy and St Barbara designs, executed in white bodycolour on blue prepared paper, were sold in these Rooms on 3 June 1999, lot 52 (figs. 4-5). If there was ever a St Agnes in the same format, she is now missing.
The theme of these virgin martyrs also inspired two more complex works. One is the present oil painting, executed in 1869, in which the three Saints are all brought together in a single composition. They are unified by the wooded landscape background, the stone parapet behind them, the tesselated pavement on which they stand, and a frame painted within the frame proper.
The other example is St Theophilus and the Angel (fig. 6), a watercolour started in 1863 but not completed and exhibited at the Old Water-Colour Society until four years later. One of Burne-Jones's largest and most ambitious works to date, the picture itself was destroyed during the Second World War, but it is known from a Hollyer photograph and a copy by the artist's assistant Charles Fairfax Murray. It tells the story of St Dorothy's martyrdom in narrative form rather than the symbolic mode adopted for the glass cartoon and its derivatives. The execution has just taken place in the town square at Caesarea. In the middle distance a group of female spectators is seen leaving a booth, while the Saint's shrouded body is carried off by mourners to the right. In the left foreground Theophilus, the notary who has sneeringly told the Saint to send him roses from heaven, turns into a doorway, as yet unaware that an angel is approaching with these very flowers. The angel is quite differently conceived from the chubby putto who appears in the stained-glass design, being now visualised as a Botticellian adolescent of indeterminate sex.
Why was Burne-Jones so obsessed in the mid-1860s by these stories of girls devoted to virginal purity? It certainly did not reflect any denial of the pleasures of the flesh on his own part. On the contrary, it is ironic that his tempestuous affair with the Greek beauty Maria Zambaco began in 1866, the year the All Saints window was designed, and reached a bizarre climax in January 1869, just about the time that St Barbara, St Dorothy and St Agnes was on the easel.
But if autobiography was not involved, there were plenty of external pressures. The story of St Dorothy in particular enjoyed cult status in Burne-Jones's circle at this date. William Morris treated it in a discarded tale for The Earthly Paradise, the great cycle of narrative poems that he began writing in 1865 and published in 1868-70. It also inspired a poem by another close friend, A.C. Swinburne, appearing in his notorious Poems and Ballads of 1866. For Morris, the attraction was no doubt the picturesqueness and vivid detail of the young martyr's story, one that might have been told by Chaucer, the great influence on The Earthly Paradise, speaking through the mouth of one of his Canterbury pilgrims. Nor is it hard to see Swinburne characteristically responding to the tale's strong element of sadism, especially as he gives it an erotic twist by making Theophilus St Dorothy's unrequited lover. Burne-Jones was closely associated with both his friends' literary projects, making hundreds of illustrations to The Earthly Paradise and accepting the dedication of Poems and Ballads, so to this extent his pictures may be seen as a counterpart to their versions. There was, however, another and more powerful force at work, namely John Ruskin's determination to shape his current development.
Ruskin, of course, was the arch-pedagogue, never happier than when he was trying to bring influence to bear on the artists in his circle. As the American W.J. Stillman recalled of a sketching holiday he had spent with Ruskin in the summer of 1860, 'he wanted me to hold the brush while he painted'. Ruskin's conviction that, potentially at least, the Pre-Raphaelites were capable of fulfilling the programme he had developed in Modern Painters automatically made them the focus of his attention, and in the 1850s he had targeted first John Everett Millais and then Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Neither, however, had been an easy protégé. The holiday in Scotland in the summer of 1853 that had seemed such a perfect opportunity to 'manage' (his own word) Millais, had in fact led to the severance of relations between the two men when Effie Ruskin left her husband for the young and good-looking artist. As for Rossetti, he had initially been grateful to Ruskin for intellectual stimulus and financial support. Ultimately, however, the fussy supervision had become irksome, and he had distanced himself, on both personal and aesthetic levels, from his would-be mentor.
When Burne-Jones arrived on the scene in January 1856, having left Oxford to become an artist under Rossetti's guidance, he was inevitably caught up in this battle of wills. To Ruskin he represented a sort of ideal. On the one hand, he was highly talented and thus worthy of the great man's attention; on the other, being young, untrained, and only too willing to meet him half-way by making a hero of him, he apparently had all the makings of a compliant pupil. For well over a decade, until the end of the 1860s, we are treated to the fascinating spectacle of Ruskin bringing a whole range of techniques to the task of shaping Burne-Jones's progress, praising and encouraging, bullying and scolding, making sure he is exposed to the right formal and conceptual sources, and not infrequently commissioning works intended to enshrine some cherished principle. The process reached a climax in the summer of 1862 when Ruskin took Burne-Jones and his wife to north Italy and made him copy pictures and frescoes from which he thought he would benefit. Inevitably, there was eventually a parting of the ways, but when this happened in the 1870s it remained an intellectual divergence and Burne-Jones, unlike Rossetti, Millais and others, retained Ruskin's friendship. Indeed, even the points of disagreement, largely confined to their views on such artists as Michelangelo and Turner, were in some ways superficial, and there were aspects of Ruskin's indoctrination that left a permanent impress on Burne-Jones's mature style. (For a fuller exploration of this complex subject, see John Christian, '"A Serious Talk": Ruskin's Place in Burne-Jones's Artistic Development', in Pre-Raphaelite Papers, Tate Gallery, 1984, pp.184-205.)
Burne-Jones's paintings of virgin martyrs belong to the last and, from Ruskin's point of view, most fruitful phase of their dialogue. The direction in which Ruskin steered his protégé tended to change in accordance with his own ever-evolving aesthetic priorities, and by the mid-1860s these were coloured above all by a longing for purity. This quality in any form - a young girl, a snow-clad mountain, an Alpine flower - had always moved him deeply. By the same token, he had long had a 'great dread' of subjects that were the reverse of pure, or as he put it, 'painful'. Now these preferences became obsessions. Both his tortured relationship with Rose La Touche, the neurasthenic Irish girl, thirty years his junior, to whom he proposed in January 1866, and his close connection with Winnington Hall, the girls' school in Cheshire he 'adopted' at this period, filled his mind with images of virginal innocence. At the same time his vivid awareness of social injustice made him bitterly resentful of artists who, by making their work vehicles of 'dramatic excitement', pandered to man's morbid love of the gruesome with socially harmful consequences.
In opposition to this degradingly 'dramatic art', Ruskin posited the concept of 'constant art', in which 'ideal grotesques', his somewhat misleading term for imaginative subjects imbued with moral and symbolical significance, appealed to the imagination by means of beautiful forms and serene, hieratic gestures. 'Constant art', he wrote in 1867, 'represents beautiful things, or creatures, for the sake of their own worthiness only; they are in perfect repose, and are there only to be looked at... It is what they are, not what they are doing, which is to interest you'. Colour symbolism was also integral to this theory. Light, clear colours represented purity and divine beneficence, while dark, murky tones were associated with 'foulness'.
Historically speaking, the worst perpetrators of 'dramatic art' for Ruskin were the later, 'mannerist', Michelangelo and the artists of the Baroque. Equally, the 'constant' ideal was embodied by Italian artists of the period 1470-1520, 'simply the Age of the Masters', as he wrote in 1870, who 'desire only to make everything dainty, delightful and perfect'. Neither mode, however, was locked into the past. 'Dramatic art' had its modern representatives in Géricault and Gustave Doré, while 'constant art' was still looking for a living exponent. The artist Ruskin had in mind for this role, so vital for the fulfilment of both his aesthetic and social programmes, was Burne-Jones, and he deliberately set out to groom him accordingly.
No-one epitomised the 'constant' ideal better for Ruskin than the early sixteenth-century Milanese master Bernadino Luini, with his gentle, placid, fairy-tale-like style; so it is no accident that his frescoes were among the works that Burne-Jones found himself copying at Ruskin's behest during their visit to Italy in 1862. The grooming process continued when they were back in London. This was an agonisingly difficult time in Ruskin's private life. Burne-Jones was one of his most sympathetic friends, and he would often visit his studio to work, sit for his portrait, or pour out his troubles over the all too elusive Rose. Their conversation, of course, is lost, but hints of it occur in Ruskin's letters. At one moment, for example, he urges Burne-Jones not to paint 'melancholy subjects'; at another, to lighten his palette 'so as not to have any nasty black and brown things to make me look at when I come to ask you what you've been about.' In 1864 there were plans for them to return to Italy, this time visiting Florence, where so many of the 'masters' of 1470-1520 had flourished. The scheme fell through due to the death of Ruskin's father, but this in itself enabled Ruskin to extend his influence; having inherited a fortune, he was in a much better position to give Burne-Jones financial help.
St Theophilus and the Angel (fig. 6) was almost certainly painted as a practical demonstration of the 'constant' programme. Begun in 1863, soon after the 1862 visit to Italy, and completed four years later, it deliberately plays down the more horrific aspects of the subject while emphasising the attractive and morally elevating motif of the angel bringing roses from heaven. References to the 1470-1520 period are made by the Botticellian angel and perhaps by the composition, which seems to owe something to the townscape backgrounds of Carpaccio, an artist Burne-Jones had discovered for himself when he made his first visit to Italy in 1859. At any rate, Ruskin was delighted with the result. In a lecture 'On the Present State of Modern Art', delivered at the British Institution in June 1867 when the picture was on display at the OWCS, he told his audience that it represented everything he looked for in a contemporary picture. Burne-Jones had 'the special gift of... seizing the good and disdaining evil'. His work showed entire 'sympathy for the repose of the Constant schools', while in its 'purity and seeking for good and virtue as the life of all things and creatures', it stood 'unrivalled and alone'. What Ruskin did not of course say was that the picture had been painted with himself metaphorically breathing down the artist's neck.
Our picture and the related images of single female saints (figs. 2-5), are in some ways even more illustrative of the 'constant' ideal. Like St Theophilus, they deliberately eschew the horrific implications, 'the dramatic excitement', of their subjects. But they go further, reducing the stories of martyrdom to a few symbols and showing the figures in 'perfect repose', inviting the viewer to contemplate 'what they are, not what they are doing'. Their sweet, wide-eyed innocence can be attributed to the influence of Luini, and the bright, clear colours, particularly evident in St Barbara, St Dorothy and St Agnes, betray an awareness of Ruskin's colour symbolism. No 'nasty black and brown', redolent of evil, here; all is divine radiance and love.
Although the subject of female martyrdom suited Ruskin's purpose to perfection, it is unlikely, given the curious cult of St Dorothy and the commission for the All Saints window, that he actually initiated this choice of theme. In fact, following his loss of Christian faith in 1858, Ruskin was less likely to seek 'sacred truth' in scripture and devotional literature than in classical mythology or the poetry of Chaucer or Spenser. It follows that the closest parallels to our picture and its related images are a number of works executed by Burne-Jones for his mentor that draw inspiration from these more secular sources. One example, dating from 1863-4, is a set of designs representing the heroines of Chaucer's Legend of Good Women (fig. 7). Intended for needlework to be carried out by the girls of Winnington Hall, the figures, like our three saints, have all the hallmarks of the 'constant' ideal. Indeed, some were used to illustrate Ruskin's argument in the 'Modern Art' lecture of 1867, the speaker taking them along, rather like 'slides', to show his audience. The other example remained more conceptual: a series of mythological and allegorical figures commissioned by Ruskin for Munera Pulveris, his papers on political economy that had begun to appear in Fraser's Magazine in 1862. So controversial were the views expressed that the papers were suppressed and did not appear in book form until a decade later. Nothing much, therefore, came of Burne-Jones's illustrations, although the commission did sow the seeds of one of his most important pictures of this period, The Wine of Circe (private collection), eventually completed, after six years on the easel, in 1869.
St Barbara, St Dorothy and St Agnes was one of the first pictures to be acquired by William Graham (1817-1885). Graham was Burne-Jones's greatest patron, not only acquiring more of his works than anyone else but probably having the deepest understanding of his aims as an artist. In his invaluable account of Graham's collection, Oliver Garnett describes him as 'coming from the prosperous merchant class of western Scotland'. Born and educated in Glasgow, he succeeded his father as senior partner of the family business, W. & J. Graham & Co., which specialised in cotton-spinning and importing dry goods from India and the Continent. Their firm had its head office in Glasgow and branches in Bombay and Lisbon. Graham's Port, still a well-known brand name, was one of its most popular commodities. Graham entered parliament in 1865, though more from a sense of duty than because he enjoyed politics. For nine years he represented Glasgow in the Liberal interest, loyally supporting Gladstone and backing initiatives for moderate reform. His political views were not in fact unlike those of Burne-Jones, a circumstance that no doubt played a part in their close relationship.
Graham's two passions as a collector were the early Italian masters and the Pre-Raphaelite school. He was a devout Presbyterian, and his belief that art should reflect the divine had a profound bearing on his taste. As Garnett puts it, 'Graham's approach to art was essentially emotional rather than intellectual', an attitude that often led him to be over-optimistic in attributing his old masters. He once astonished Burne-Jones by kissing one of his pictures because 'it had a part of it painted so much to his mind'.
Graham started collecting in both his areas of interest in the 1860s, when he was already in his forties. His uncle John Graham was a notable collector of modern pictures. So was the cotton and shipping magnate Samuel Mendel with whom he had business contacts in Manchester, where he lived before moving to London in 1860. So far as the old masters were concerned, the chief influence was probably the famous Art Treasures Exhibition held at Manchester in 1857.
Graham remained active as a collector until the late 1870s, when ill-health and family tragedy, in the form of the deaths of his two sons, took their toll. Graham himself died on 16 July 1885, and the following April his collection came up at Christie's. The sale lasted five days, of which two were devoted to modern pictures and three to old masters. Burne-Jones accounted for no fewer than thirty-three lots, but this did not represent Graham's entire holding of his work since many items were retained by the family. The high prices they realised, following hard on the success of King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid (Tate Britain) at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1884, did much to sustain his reputation, which was at its zenith in the late 1880s. The star lots were, predictably, The Days of Creation (Fogg Museum of Art, Cambridge, Mass.), Le Chant d'Amour (Metropolitan Museum, New York) and Laus Veneris (Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle), all three of which are still among the artist's most celebrated works. The latter two pictures, which Graham thought of as pendants, were richly-coloured Giorgionesque compositions highly characteristic of his taste. In fact he owned not only the large oils but the small watercolour versions as well.
Graham first encountered Burne-Jones's work in 1864, seeing it at the Old Water-Colour Society, to which the artist was elected that year. In 1865 he made his first purchases, and by 1867 artist and patron were on friendly terms. Graham's first surviving letter to Burne-Jones dates from 30 May 1868, and mainly concerns the question of Burne-Jones borrowing the early Chant d'Amour, executed in 1865, in order to paint the large oil. Graham had been offered the refusal of this, and accepted readily.
St Barbara, St Dorothy and St Agnes is mentioned in the next letter to survive, dated 4 August 1869. 'I have the pleasure', Graham writes, 'to enclose a cheque for £200 on account. My cash memoranda receipts etc. are all kept in Glasgow so that I cannot at the moment trace what money I have previously paid you, but I find an acknowledgement of £250 5th Sept. last year which is I have no doubt what Mrs Jones had in view as you told me yesterday. If so it just pays for the three Saints (or Saintesses!) and the Cupid and Psyche, but is not it lamentable to think that after our two years of friendship this is all I have been able to acquire of your work notwithstanding my being so very hungry for it from the first day I knew you.'
It is a little mysterious that Graham laments his failure to acquire more work from the artist when in fact by now he owned several of his early watercolours, but perhaps he was thinking of commissioned works rather than ones that had been completed independently and caught his eye in the studio. Whatever the case, it is not hard to see why he was attracted to St Barbara, St Dorothy and St Agnes, with its theme of Christian piety, its brilliant colours, and its references to the old masters. It is indeed the quintessential 'Graham' picture.
At Graham's sale in April 1886 the picture was bought for 300 guineas by John Edward Gray Hill (1839-1914). He also bought drawings by Burne-Jones's master D.G. Rossetti, whom Graham had patronised on an equally extensive scale, and his follower Robert Bateman, together with works attributed to George Romney and A.B. Donaldson, a minor painter of historical and religious genre.
Gray Hill, a nephew of the postal reformer Sir Rowland Hill, was a distinguished Liverpool solicitor. Specialising in shipping and commercial law, he was involved in many important cases and was president of the Liverpool Law Society in 1885. By 1904 he was president of the national Law Society, and when Edward VII opened the Society's new building in London that year, he was knighted. A great traveller, Hill owned property near Jerusalem and on one occasion was captured by Arabs, an experience he wrote about in a book called With the Beduins. He had only just returned from the East when he died suddenly at Mere Hall, his home near Birkenhead.
Hill's collection was sold at Christie's in 1911, three years before his death. Why he decided to sell it is unclear, since he remained active and in good health to the end. It was a miscellaneous assortment of thirty-six lots, including old masters and works by the British school. Constable, Bonington, Wilkie, Crome, G.F. Watts and Arthur Hughes were represented among the latter, Watts by a portrait of Lord Chancellor Lyndhurst that would have had an obvious interest for Hill.
It seems likely that Hill's picture-buying owed something to professional contact with the many late nineteenth-century Liverpool merchants and shipowners who formed important collections. Pre-eminent among them was Frederick Leyland (1831-1892), whose patronage did so much to drive the Aesthetic movement, but George Holt, T.H. Ismay, William Imrie and John Bibby followed in his wake. These men, however, tended to favour the later Pre-Raphaelites, buying works by Rossetti, Burne-Jones and J.M. Strudwick. Hill conformed to this pattern only to the extent of acquiring a Rossetti and a Burne-Jones at the Graham sale in 1885. There were no more examples of these artists when his own collection came up for sale twenty-six years later.
St Barbara, St Dorothy and St Agnes is one of many pictures that Burne-Jones forgot to note in his autograph work-list (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge). It is therefore not included in the essential early monograph, Malcolm Bell's Edward Burne-Jones; A Record and Review (1892), which is closely based on the worklist. (Bell was a relation of Burne-Jones by marriage and seems to have had access to the relevant notebook). The picture makes its first appearance in the Burne-Jones literature in Fortunée De Lisle's little volume of 1904, although for some unaccountable reason she dates it 1869-79. There seems to be no evidence to suggest that it was not begun and finished in 1869.
The picture has also had remarkably little exposure in terms of exhibitions. It was not shown in Burne-Jones's lifetime, although Hill did lend it his memorial exhibition at the New Gallery in the winter of 1898-9. It then disappeared from view until a later owner, Lord Lambton, lent it to the Burne-Jones exhibition held at the Mappin Art Gallery, Sheffield, in 1971. Since this pioneering venture thirty-five years ago, a sign of the artist's return to favour after decades of eclipse, the picture has not been seen in public.