This exciting rediscovery is one of a pair of designs for a monument to the Hon. Charles Howard (1814-1879) and his wife Mary in Lanercost Priory, Cumbria. Commissioned by their son George Howard (1843-1911), 9th Earl of Carlisle, in 1879, the monument was executed in bronze relief by the sculptor Sir Joseph Edgar Boehm (1834-1890). The Nativity was dedicated to Mary Howard, whilst its pendant, The Entombment - for which the preparatory drawing is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (Fig. 1; inv. no. 63.200.3) - was to commemorate her husband. The restrained elegance and echoes of classical relief carvings reference Mary Howard’s death giving birth to her son in 1843.
George Howard was a great patron of Burne-Jones; he commissioned him to design the east window of Philip Webb’s Church, St Martin’s Brampton, Cumbria as a further memorial to his father, who had been a leading campaigner for the rebuilding of the church. This project, executed by Morris & Co., is widely regarded as both Burne-Jones and Morris’s masterpiece in stained glass. The decorative arts were an inherent part of Burne-Jones’s artistic practice throughout his career, and his cartoons for stained glass and designs for tapestry are works of art in their own right. However, he executed far fewer designs for sculpture, not least because it was a medium he came to later in his career.
Burne-Jones studied northern Gothic sculpture into the 1860s, and was also encouraged by John Ruskin (1819-1900) to look at classical sculpture. Whilst its influence on his drawings and stained glass designs is clear, and he went as far as to make small gesso reliefs, the present drawing and its pendant were the first designs he had made for stone sculpture. The use of thick, heavy bodycolour and a dry brush gives a richly sculptural relief effect, and its smooth flowing lines and forms demonstrate Burne-Jones's understanding of both mediums and the interaction between them. He was fascinated by sculpture and his great friend Lady Lewis noted him saying, ‘If ever my eyes grow dim, I will give up painting and turn to sculpture.' (Quoted by J. Christian, in ed. B. Read & J. Barnes, Pre-Raphaelite Sculpture: Nature and Imagination in British Sculpture 1848-1914, London, 1991, p. 77).
Another version of the designs for this project, formerly in the collection of Charles Fairfax Murray, are in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, and the present work is the only study for the monument to remain in private hands.
Fig. 1. Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones, The Entombment, New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art