Burne-Jones first came across Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur in Birmingham in 1855, and used its stories for his subject matter throughout his life. First printed in 1485, Malory's version became the main source in English of the legends surrounding King Arthur. Merlin and Nimue depicts the wizard falling in love with Nimue, a 'lady of the lake' who he taught some magic secrets. Once she tired of him, she lured him under a rock from which he could not escape, shown here as a gravestone rising under the spell she recites from her magic book.
The present drawing is after Burne-Jones' watercolour of the subject, painted in 1861 with Fanny Cornforth modelling the figure of Nimue, now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. It relates closely, and is the same size. Copying was common practice among the Pre-Raphaelites with Edward Clifford (1844-1907) regularly making copies of works by Burne-Jones in the 1860s, as well as Charles Fairfax Murray (1849-1919) who made copies for both Burne-Jones and Rossetti, and Henry Treffry Dunn (1838-1899) who was Rossetti's studio assistant and was chiefly employed producing copies for him. In some cases patrons commissioned another version of a work, and in others the copies were made more speculatively, of popular images.