This unfinished and very early work illustrates the opening stanza of what is probably Dante Gabriel Rossetti's most famous poem:
The blessed damozel leaned out
From the gold bar of Heaven;
Her eyes were deeper than the depth
Of waters stilled at even;
She had three lilies in her hand,
And the stars in her hair were seven.
Written in 1847, when Rossetti was nineteen, the poem describes the longing of a girl in heaven for her surviving lover, anticipating the time when he will join her and they will enjoy eternal bliss. This Platonist vision, Rossetti told Hall Caine many years later, was conceived as a sequel to Edgar Allan Poe's poem The Raven. 'I saw that Poe had done the utmost it was possible to do with the grief of the lover on earth, and so determined to reverse the conditions, and give utterance to the yearning of the loved one in heaven'.
The poem was originally intended for a magazine called The Hodgepodge that was circulated in manuscript within the Rossetti family. It was first published properly in February 1850 in the second number of the Pre-Raphaelite organ The Germ, and in this form came to the attention of Burne-Jones and William Morris when they were still undergraduates at Oxford. Its impact on them was enormous, combining with other writings by Rossetti and the pictures they saw simultaneously in the collection of Thomas Combe to inspire an adherence to Pre-Raphaelite values that they never outgrew, even if the forms in which they expressed it changed dramatically. Burne-Jones praised the poem in the first issue of The Oxford and Cambridge Magazine, the journal, based on The Germ, that he and his circle produced throughout 1856. This paved the way for his fateful meeting with Rossetti in January that year, and 'The Blessed Damozel' itself was re-published in the magazine the following November. It was finally ensconced in the canon of Rossetti's writings when it appeared in his Poems of 1870.
Given this background, it is not surprising that the poem was the subject of one of the first paintings that Burne-Jones undertook after he had left Oxford and settled in London to begin his career as an artist under Rossetti's guidance. The opportunity arose in March 1857 when he was commissioned to paint an unspecified subject by the Leeds stockbroker Thomas Edward Plint (1823-1861). Plint was one of the Pre-Raphaelites' staunchest and most adventurous early patrons. In spite of his youth (he was only thirty-eight when he died) and financial insecurity, he acquired an astonishing number of masterpieces, supporting not only the movement's more established figures (Millais, Madox Brown, etc.) but Rossetti and his young, untried followers: Simeon Solomon, William Morris, J.R. Spencer Stanhope and Burne-Jones himself. He was an ardent Evangelical, closely associated with the Christian Socialists, and to some extent this coloured his collecting. 'I have a fancy for a Scripture Subject', he told Burne-Jones when giving the commission. He was wise enough to add that he left the final choice to the artist. 'You must have [a subject] you can delight in yourself. Let me have your best work and thoughts and the subject I leave to you'. Nonetheless Burne-Jones may have felt that 'The Blessed Damozel' would be an acceptable compromise, satisfying the religiosity of Plint's taste while at the same time being a theme in which he could take 'delight' himself.
Whatever the case, by June 1857 Rossetti was reporting to his old friend William Bell Scott that 'Jones, who is... getting commissions fast,... has an order for an oil picture from Mr Plint of Leeds, and has done me the honour of choosing for subject my Blessed Damozel, which he is to illustrate in two compartments'. He added that the picture would 'no doubt be in our next year's exhibition', a reference to the privately organised show of Pre-Raphaelite paintings that had just been held in Russell Place, Bloomsbury, but which was destined not to be repeated.
Burne-Jones himself described the two pictures he intended to paint. 'In the first... I shall make a man walking in the street of a great city, full of all kinds of happy life; children, such as he will never have, and lovers walking, and ladies looking from windows all down the great lengths of street leading to the city walls; and there the gates are wide open, letting in a space of green field and cornfield in harvest; and all round his head a great rain of swirling Autumn leaves blowing from a little walled graveyard'. The companionpiece was to represent 'Heaven, where the lady stands at the edge of the garden and leans over, trying to count a thick flight of little souls in bright flames, and the garden of Heaven full of all flowers on every side of her and of lovers who have met again, Oh dear, I daresay it will turn out something awful'.
Nothing more is heard of the scene with the earth-bound lover walking in 'a great city', but the present picture seems to be the second compartment in an unfinished condition. The fact that the Damozel faces left suggests that this subject was intended to form the right-hand side of a diptych, while the lover was to be shown on the left in a complementary pose. In her biography of her husband, Lady Burne-Jones recorded him 'studying apple-blossom' for one of the designs 'in the spring of this year  and the next'. In 1857 he found it 'in Warwickshire and Worcestershire orchards' when paying a two-month visit to his native Birmingham, although 'the bitter wind of an English May blew it all to the ground before it could be painted'. Back in London after this frustrating experience, he settled for the blossom of a cherry tree growing in the garden of William Morris's mother at Leyton. Remarkably, he also found the lilies he needed in the garden of Red Lion Square, Bloomsbury, where he and Morris were currently sharing rooms at No. 17.
All this painting of flowers must refer to the scene with the Damozel, standing, as Burne-Jones put it, 'at the edge of [a] garden... full of ... flowers'. As for the lilies found in Red Lion Square, they were presumably models for the three that Rossetti describes her as having 'in her hand'. At this date Burne-Jones was clearly making strenuous efforts to be a Pre-Raphaelite in the original sense of the term, painstakingly working directly from nature. This would have been with the active encouragement of his other great mentor, John Ruskin. In his Academy Notes for 1858, Ruskin was to urge artists to study the beauty of apple-blossom against a blue spring sky, with the result that a whole crop of such pictures appeared at the Royal Academy the following year. One was Millais' well-known Spring (Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight), another The King's Orchard by Arthur Hughes (Lloyd-Webber Collection). It is no accident that when, in the spring of 1858, Burne-Jones made one last attempt to paint blossom into the background of The Blessed Damozel, he did so in the Maidstone area in the company of Arthur Hughes, who was already working on this picture.
Despite all this evidence, apple-blossom is conspicuous by its absence from our panel. Burne-Jones clearly found the whole experience of working en plein air uncongenial, and perhaps he either scraped the blossom out or began the painting afresh. In the upper part, where the blossom presumably was, we now see a row of figures, probably intended to represent the 'souls mounting up to God [who] went by her like thin flames' in Rossetti's poem. This idea was much more in keeping with Burne-Jones's natural inclinations as an artist, and could be realised in the studio from imagination or drawings. Yet the picture is not without reference to Pre-Raphaelite orthodoxy. The sunflowers seen in the foreground, astonishingly early harbingers of the Aesthetic cult of this flower that was to develop some twenty years later, show every sign of having been painted from life.
Despite that last attempt to paint blossom at Maidsone in the spring of 1858, Plint's picture had been effectively shelved the previous summer, when Burne-Jones was summoned by Rossetti to join him, Morris and others in painting scenes from the Morte d'Arthur in Benjamin Woodward's new building for the Oxford Union. This quixotic and ill-fated enterprise, one of the most celebrated episodes in Pre-Raphaelite annals, was to occupy him from August 1857 to February 1858, and was followed by other circumstances that continued to delay Plint's commission. Soon after his return from Maidstone he suffered a nervous and physical collapse, and was taken to recuperate at Little Holland House. There, under the protective care of Mrs Prinsep and the professional eye of G.F. Watts, he remained until the autumn, working on the small pen-and-ink drawings that were better suited than paintings to his delicate health. There followed a series of further upheavals and new preoccupations: a move from Red Lion Square following Morris's engagement and plans to build Red House; the launching of the Hogarth Club; involvement in teaching at the Working Men's College from January 1859; and the great adventure of his first visit to Italy that autumn.
In other words, as Lady Burne-Jones observed, 'a sense of change was in the air', and The Blessed Damozel, begun with such high aspirations, was simply a casualty. Yet Plint could not be totally ignored, especially as he remained so patient and attentive, often sending 'cheques on account' and accompanying them with 'the kindest expressions of sympathy about Edward's health'. At some point Burne-Jones must have decided that he had to resolve the situation, and completed a watercolour on a smaller scale (fig. 1). Evidently by this stage the second compartment had been completely abandoned, and the Damozel is now turned to the right as if Burne-Jones felt this was more appropriate to an independent composition. Somewhat surprisingly, however, the idea of filling the background with blossom has been revived, although this time it was probably painted in the studio from memory or some plein-air sketch. A drawing for the figure at Birmingham (fig. 2) shows her facing right, and must have been made for the watercolour rather than our version.
Dated 1860, the watercolour evidently reached Plint before his death on 11 July the following year since it appeared in his posthumous sale at Christie's (8 March 1862, lot 203). Our version probably remained in Burne-Jones's studio until his death in 1898, and was certainly inherited by his daughter, Margaret Mackail, after whose own demise in 1954 it came up for sale at Christie's. At this time Burne-Jones's reputation was still deep in the doldrums, and the picture makes a pathetic appearance in the sale catalogue. It is lotted up with another work, 'A Nymph, in blue dress', and both together fetch a pitiful twenty-six guineas. Even the subject of the panel goes unrecognised, being identified as 'A Saint in a Garden'.
The picture was bought by the respected Leicester Galleries, but then disappeared until the mid-1970s, when it belonged to Christopher Hewett. Hewett, who died too young, was the owner of Taranman, an innovative gallery at 236 Brompton Road, in the shadow of the Brompton Oratory. A man of great taste, he mounted exhibitions noted alike for the adventurousness of their subjects and the exquisite typography of their catalogues. In 1975 he lent The Blessed Damozel to the Burne-Jones exhibition organised that year by the Arts Council, an event which finally marked the artist's return to critical acceptance.
Despite the fame of Rossetti's poem, it has inspired surprisingly few pictorial interpretations. Rossetti himself painted an oil version in 1875-8 (Fig. 3; Fogg Museum of Art, Harvard University), and there is another, much later and more ephemeral account in Burne-Jones's so-called 'Secret Book of Designs' in the British Museum (see Harrison and Waters, op.cit., p. 152, pl. 228). Otherwise his youthful treatment of the theme remains unique in the work of Rossetti's circle. Nor did the subject have much currency when a younger generation attempted to revive Pre-Raphaelite values in a more academic spirit. A single example comes to mind, a painting by Byam Shaw of 1895 (Guildhall Art Gallery, London), and it is far from being the finest performance of that clever but limited artist. Indeed, the picture's leaden theatricality, however it may have struck contemporaries, now seems embarrassingly banal.