This is a study for a painting in the National Gallery of Canada, Ottowa. Perhaps it would be more accurate to describe it as a cartoon since it is identical in size to the canvas. The painting was formerly in the Holford Collection at Dorchester House, and is illustrated in Robert Benson's catalogue of the collection (Oxford, 1927), vol. II, pl. CLXIV. According to Bill Waters and Martin Harrison in their pioneering monograph on Burne-Jones published in 1973, the picture is 'mostly' by the artist's assistant T. M. Rooke.
The drawing dates from about 1870 and is possibly related to the so-called Troy Triptych, a Renaissance-style polyptych telling the story of the fall of Troy that Burne-Jones designed that year. Although the subject does not form part of the Triptych as we know it from an oil sketch in the Birmingham Art Gallery, it is very much in keeping with its iconography, especially that of the four narrow upright panels representing the Triumph of Love that frame the main sections of the predella.
In Western art Mercury often personifies Eloquence or Reason, especially when he is playing the role of teacher. A famous example is Correggio's painting in the National Gallery, London, showing him giving Cupid a reading lesson in the presence of Venus.
The drawing is traditionally said to have belonged to Maria Zambaco (1843-1914), the Greek beauty, related to his patrons the Ionides, with whom Burne-Jones conducted a tempestuous affair in the late 1860s. Matters reached a dramatic climax in January 1869, but the lovers remained in touch and some of Burne-Jones's best studies of Maria date from the early 1870s.
There is therefore no reason why Maria should not have seen the drawing in Burne-Jones's studio, taken a fancy to it and been given it as a present. It may even be significant that its subject could be read as a comment on their relationship. Other works of this date, such as the watercolours Phyllis and Demophoön (1870; Birmingham Art Gallery) and Love among the Ruins (1870-73; private collection), can certainly be interpreted in this light, especially as on both occasions Maria was the model for the female figure. But in some ways an even better comparison is offered by a picture that relates to the liason but in which, as in our drawing, Maria does not appear. This is the watercolour Love disguised as Reason (South African National Gallery, Cape Town), begun in 1870 and dated 1875. If Love is seeking eloquence in our drawing, he is offering sage advice, presumably tongue-in-cheek, in the contemporary watercolour.