This handsome drawing belongs to a series illustrating The Romaunt of the Rose that Burne-Jones made in the mid-1870s as designs for needlework. Begun by Guillaume de Lorris about 1230 and completed by Jean de Meun some forty-five years later, the Romaunt is a meditation on the nature and vicissitudes of love cast in allegorical form. Among the most popular secular texts of the late Middle Ages, it was also considered controversial, its sensuous language and imagery often being condemned by contemporary moralists.
Burne-Jones was a great admirer of a famous manuscript of the Romaunt in the British Museum (Hartley 4425), lavishly illuminated in Bruges at the end of the fifteenth century with miniatures that conjure up a picturesque and highly-coloured world in keeping with the poem's celebration of courtly love. In his well-known diary, G.P. Boyce records a visit to the Museum on 14 April 1860 when he, his sister, Joanna, and her husband, the painter H.T. Wells, were shown this exquisite book by Burne-Jones, who evidently knew it well. However, the text itself was familiar to him mainly through the translation into Middle-English made by Chaucer.
Burne-Jones had been a devotee of Chaucer ever since he and his lifelong friend William Morris had discovered him as undergraduates at Oxford in the 1850s. The opportunity to engage pictorially with the Romaunt occurred in 1874, when Morris was commissioned to decorate Rounton Grange at Northallerton, Yorkshire, a house built two years earlier to designs by Philip Webb for the industrialist Sir Isaac Lowthian Bell (1816-1904). It was one of the Morris firm's most important schemes, including wallpaper, painted ceilings, furniture, and an early example of the carpets that were woven at Merton Abbey from 1881.
The centrepiece was the dining-room, and in particular a needlework frieze with which Morris planned to decorate the upper walls. Illustrating the Romaunt of the Rose, it ran round three sides of the room, reaching to the ceiling above a massive fireplace and cabinets displaying ceramics in the Aesthetic taste. Burne-Jones designed the figures and Morris the backgrounds, while the needlework itself was carried out by Sir Isaac's wife Margaret and their daughters Ada and Florence. It took them eight years, finally being completed in 1882. The needlework is now in the William Morris Gallery at Walthamstow, and portions are illustrated in the catalogues of the Morris Exhibition held at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1996 (pp. 240-1) and the Burne-Jones Centenary Exhibition that followed at the Metropolitan Museum, New York, two years later (pp. 180-1). A photograph of the dining-room at Rounton Grange with the frieze in situ is reproduced in the Morris catalogue, p. 143.
The Bells belonged to a circle of cultured families in the North East of England who patronised the Pre-Raphaelites with the wealth they derived from local industry. They not only commissioned their house from Philip Webb and his associates but owned pictures by Millais, Boyce, Val Prinsep, Albert Goodwin and others. Margaret Bell was a cousin of William Watson Pattinson (1814-1895), who ran a chemical works, founded by his father, at Felling, Gateshead. He, too, formed a fine collection, and Arthur Hughes painted a well-known group of Mrs Pattinson and their children that was sold in these Rooms as part of the Forbes Collection on 19 February 2003 (lot 11). Florence Bell, who helped her mother execute the Rounton Grange frieze, copied another work by Hughes that was owned by the Pattinsons (sold here 26 November 2002, lot 110).
There were also links with James Leathart (1820-1895), the Newcastle lead-manufacturer whose collection of works by Madox Brown, Rossetti, Burne-Jones and their peers was second to none in its day. The main difference between Bell and his fellow entrepreneurs was that while they remained members of the bourgeoisie, he rubbed shoulders with the aristocracy. Intensely public-spirited, serving as mayor of Newcastle, Deputy Lieutenant and High Sheriff of County Durham, and an MP, he was created a baronet in 1885, and his daughter Mary married Lyulph Stanley, the brother of Rosalind, Countess of Carlisle. Once again, however, there was a Pre-Raphaelite connection since Rosalind and her husband George Howard were staunch patrons of Webb, Morris and Burne-Jones.
The drawings made by Burne-Jones for the Rounton Grange frieze are among his very finest. Executed within a few years of his last two visits to Italy (1871 and 1873), they vividly reflect these formative experiences. The Romaunt describes how a young poet dreams that he is led by Cupid to a secret garden where he discovers a wonderful rose symbolising perfect love. The walls of the garden are decorated with personifications of the Vices, while the garden itself is populated by more beneficent presences: Love, Beauty, Largesse, and so on. Burne-Jones's conception of these figures is very Italianate, while the drawings are in his most 'Florentine' manner, executed in hard pencil with great emphasis on linear invention.
Our drawing, which represents the poet or young lover experiencing his vision in sleep, is typical. His pose precludes the fluttering Botticellian drapery that characterises many of the figures in the scheme, but Burne-Jones's delight in intricate linear pattern is all too evident. As for the image itself, there is a distinctly 'antique' touch in the wreath of laurel leaves, the symbol since classical times of prophecy and poetic utterance, that adorns the dreamer's head.
Other drawings for the needlework, all in private collections, are illustrated in the catalogue of the Burne-Jones Centenary Exhibition, pp. 181-3. In some he has added backgrounds to make them pictorially self-sufficient, but in ours he has confined himself to the figure, as he does in so many of his stained-glass cartoons. Morris's setting for this part of the frieze consisted of a formalised dog-rose pattern (fig. 1). The effect is not unlike that of Burne-Jones's own Briar Rose paintings; indeed these may have influenced Morris since the early versions were in existence by 1874.
Stephen Wildman was right when he wrote of these drawings that they 'seem to have been taken to a degree of finish more out of pleasure than of necessity'. It is no accident that Margaret Bell and her daughters were given photographic enlargements from which to work their embroidery while Burne-Jones retained the originals. How highly he rated them is reflected by the fact that he gave the finest one to Frances Horner, the daughter of his patron William Graham, with whom he was platonically in love for years. Several of the designs, moreover, were re-cycled as easel paintings or Morris & Co. tapestries. The outstanding example is Love leading the Pilgrim (Tate Britain), his last major picture, exhibited at the New Gallery in 1897.