This remarkable picture is eloquent testimony to the survival of Pre-Raphaelite values well into the twentieth century. Dating from as late as 1921, it treats the famous fairy story of 'Sleeping Beauty' that had been told many times in European literature. Its origins obscure, in the seventeenth century it was included by Charles Perrault in his Contes du Temps Passé, while in the nineteenth century it was re-cast by the brothers Grimm and by Tennyson in his early poem 'The Day-Dream'. Only one Pre-Raphaelite seems to have illustrated the subject, but it obsessed him for the best part of thirty years. Edward Burne-Jones, the key figure in the later phase of the movement, turned to fairy stories for inspiration in the early 1860s, probably under the influence of his mentor John Ruskin, who attached great importance to their moral efficacy and the principles governing their illustration. Is is probably no coincidence that in 1862 an edition of Perrault's Contes was published in Paris with illustrations by Gustave Doré, an artist whose work Ruskin intensely disliked and regarded as epitomising the most socially harmful tendencies of modern art. Burne-Jones's interest in these stories was at least partly the result of Ruskin wanting to see them illustrated in England in a more elevating style.
While some of Burne-Jones's renderings of fairytale subjects took the form of watercolours, 'Sleeping Beauty' and others were treated at more narrative length as designs for sets of tiles to be incorporated into decorative schemes carried out by Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co., the firm of 'fine art workmen' that he had helped to found in 1861. Burne-Jones returned to the theme in the early 1870s, when he painted a series of three small canvases for his Scottish patron William Graham (Museo de Arte, Ponce, Puerto Rico). These are not only in the more Italianate style that he had developed by this date but reduce the story to its essentials. The paintings show the Prince entering the briar wood, the King and his courtiers asleep, and the Princess, surrounded by her maidens, awaiting the kiss that will bring the palace to life.
Hardly were these pictures finished than Burne-Jones embarked on a much larger series, this time adding a fourth subject, called The Garden Court, showing a group of servant girls who have fallen asleep in a courtyard as they work at a loom or draw water from a well. The paintings hung fire until 1884, but they were then taken up in earnest and sold in advance to his dealers, Agnews, for £15,000, the most he had ever received for a commission. After many vicissitudes, they were eventually completed in April 1890, when they were exhibited at Agnew's premises in Bond Street. They were bought by the financier Alexander Henderson, later first Viscount Faringdon, who installed them in the saloon at Buscot Park, his country house in Oxfordhire. They remain there to this day.
Burne-Jones's so called large Briar Rose series are important in the present context since it is almost impossible to imagine that the paintings were not seen by Collier. Their exhibiton was a phenomenal success, drawing enormous crowds that clogged the Bond Street traffic and receiving an almost universally rapturous response from critics, fellow artists and the public. In fact the event marked the zenith of Burne-Jones's career, the inevitable reaction setting in only a few years later.
Echoes of this revelation, which was sustained by Agnew's publication of magnificent photogravure reproductions of the four paintings in 1892, are common in the work of the many artists who felt Burne-Jones's influence and often continued to betray it well into the twentieth century. Aubrey Beardsley is perhaps only the most famous example. There were repercussions in Paris too, where Burne-Jones was highly esteemed in Symbolist circles in the 1890s. On 24 May 1894 a play inspired by the series, La Belle au Bois dormant, opened at the avant-garde Théâtre de l'Oeuvre. It was financed in part by the Baronne Deslandes, a fashionable Parisian bluestocking who had appointed herself high priestess of the Burne-Jones cult in the French capital and was to come to London to sit to her hero for her portrait in 1895.
Collier's painting, though executed more than twenty years later, belongs to this tradition. The composition owes much to The Rose Bower (fig.1), the scene with the Princess and her attendants asleep in the Buscot series, although there are obvious differences too. The main figure faces in the opposite direction, and the tableau is set not in the open air but inside the sleeping palace. Only through the leaded windows, studded with stained-glass medallions bearing heraldic devices, do we see the overgrown wood through which the Prince must force his way to bring everything to life. Morever, if the imagery is an astonishing example of Pre-Raphaelite survival, the formal language is far more academic than anything employed by Burne-Jones or his immediate followers.
This sense of form was the one constant in Collier's remarkably varied oeuvre. Born in London in 1850 (two years after the formation of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood), he was the son of a distinguished lawyer and judge, later raised to the peerage as Lord Monkswell. Having received his formal education at Eton, and briefly considered a diplomatic career, he decided to become an artist and was introduced to Lawrence Alma-Tadema, who had settled in England in 1870. Alma-Tadema declined to accept him as a pupil but continued to take an interest in him and Collier is generally seen as his follower. John Everett Millais, the Pre-Raphaelite Brother who had long since allied himself with the Royal Academy, also offered help and advice. For more formal instruction, however, Collier went to the Slade School, working there under its principal, E.J. Poynter. He then proceeded to further study in Munich and finally Paris, where he was taught by J.P. Laurens.
Collier was a prolific artist, he himself recording the production of over 1,100 works. To the Royal Academy alone he contributed 140 pictures between 1874 and his death sixty years later, although strangely enough he was never an associate member. He also exhibited 165 works at the Royal Society of Portrait Painters, of which he became vice-president. His flourishing practice as a portraitist was established in the late 1870s. He never cut the dash of Sargent or even J.J. Shannon, but he could always be relied upon for a good likeness, presented with solidity and style. Although he painted many women, including the actress Ellen Terry and the violinist Neruda, it was male portraits in which he specialised, and the range of his sitters during his long career was remarkable. They included such great high Victorians as Anthony Ashley-Cooper, the famous seventh Earl of Shaftesbury, Charles Darwin and his apologist, T. H. Huxley; numerous late Victorian and Edwardian celebrities, Henry Irving, George Bernard Shaw, Rudyard Kipling and Lord Kitchener among them; and figures like Sir Oswald Mosley and the novelist Aldous Huxley who belong essentially to the twentieth century. Huxley, whom he painted in 1927, was his nephew. Collier had married the daughter of T.H. Huxley in 1879, and, after her tragically early death in 1887, her younger sister, braving the social ostracism that such a step entailed before the Deceased Wife's Sister Bill was passed in 1907.
It was fortunate for Collier that he had this talent as a portraitist, and indeed for landscape, the subject of an exhibition he held at the Leicester Galleries in 1915. Literary subjects were increasingly unfashionable from the mid 1890s, and those who were unable to adapt often found themselves sidelined or simply gave up the unequal struggle. But Collier himself did not abandon these subjects. Indeed in the popular mind, both at the time and now, he was associated above all with the so-called 'problem picture', works with teasing titles like The Cheat, The Death Sentence, The Return of the Prodigal or The Fallen Idol, 'story-telling compositions', as his Times obiturarist put it, 'which still left something to the ingenuity rather than the imagination of the spectator'. Collier himself disliked the term 'problem picture', maintaining that these works were straightforward depictions of domestic tragedies, but if this was his aim he had a way of presenting his subjects as tanatalising psychodramas, or, in the words of the DNB,'conundrums to be unravelled by the viewer'.
Collier attempted other types of subject, too. A Priestess of Bacchus, a canvas sold in these Rooms on 26 November 2003, was a classical theme in the manner of Sir Frederic Leighton or one of Collier's early mentors, Poynter and Alma-Tadema, while A Glass of Wine with Caesar Borgia (Ipswich Art Gallery), a work celebrated in its day, is historical genre laced with melodrama. Or again, as the present work shows, he would look back to late Pre-Raphaelitism, exploring once again its chosen field of symbolism and dreams.
The Sleeping Beauty is not Collier's only picture of this type. In the Venusberg (Atkinson Art Gallery, Southport), a work shown at the Academy in 1901, treats the Tannhäuser legend that had previously inspired Burne-Jones, William Morris and A.C. Swinburne, not to mention, of course, Richard Wagner. Nor was Collier alone in seeking an accomodation between Pre-Raphaelite imagery and an academic approach. His almost exact contemporary J.W. Waterhouse, another artist much influenced at the outset by Alma-Tadema, pursued this course for many years, as, in a different mode, did the younger John Byam Shaw and others of his generation. But The Sleeping Beauty is in a class of its own, representing a particularly happy resolution of sentiment and form. It is not so much an illustration of a text as an evocation of mood, an attempt to mirror a certain frame of mind on the part of the viewer. Like other very late examples of Pre-Raphaelite survival (some of Frank Cadogan Cowper's last works are another), it seems to demand comparison not with contemporary painting (with much of which it obviously has all too little in common) but with current theatre and film. We appear to have reached a point where the art historian should hand over to an authority on stage and screen. In 1968 Mario Amaya published an article on Alma-Tadema entitled 'The Painter who inspired Hollywood', pointing to analogies between the artist's panoramic and exhaustively researched canvases and the epics of Cecil B. De Mille and others. A more extensive study, embracing the genre explored here by Alma-Tadema's follower, would be illuminating.
In 1921 the picture was exhibitied at one of the autumn exhibitions that were held at the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, and attracted many London-based artists seeking a northern market. It entered the collection of George Audley, a wealthy Liverpool exporter of beer and whisky who was a great benefactor of the Walker, giving £10,000 towards an extension in 1931 and the following year adding twenty-six paintings to its collection. The Collier seems to have remained in Liverpool until the 1930s or 1940s, when it reached Baltimore, Maryland, not perhaps coincidentally a vibrant centre of shipping like Liverpool itself. The picture has remained in Maryland ever since, being bought by the present owner's mother in the early 1980s.