‘I want to tell no more, to leave all the afterwards to the invention and imagination of people’
The Prince Entering the Briar Wood was a preparatory work for Edward Burne-Jones’s celebrated painting cycle, The Legend of the Briar Rose. The only Briar Rose canvas left in private hands, its subject obsessed the artist for more than 20 years
Buscot Park, Lord Faringdon’s Neo-Classical house near the banks of the River Thames in Oxfordshire, is home to one of the greatest treasures of Victorian art: Edward Burne-Jones’s The Legend of the Briar Rose.
The cycle of paintings, linked by sinuous, drowsy bodies and creeping rose vines, recounts the scene in the story of Sleeping Beauty where the brave knight discovers a bewitched castle’s court and the princess he will awaken with a kiss.
It was the culmination of more than 20 years’ work and at least nine preliminary paintings by the Pre-Raphaelite artist.
‘It is Burne-Jones’s masterpiece,’ says Peter Brown, senior director of 19th Century European Art at Christie’s, ‘and it caused a sensation when it was first shown to the public.’
On 8 July, Christie’s in London is offering Burne-Jones’s The Prince Entering the Briar Wood — the painting that initiated the project and the only Briar Rose work left in private hands.
The story of Sleeping Beauty was well known to Victorian audiences. First told by Charles Perrault in his 17th-century Contes du Temps Passé, it was revived in the 19th century by the Brothers Grimm, and then by Tennyson in his poem The Day-Dream.
The tale’s chivalrous knights and fair maidens struck a chord with the Pre-Raphaelites’ amorous sensibilities and their obsession with the Middle Ages. The brotherhood had been founded on a belief that medieval culture possessed a spiritual quality sadly lost in the industrial age of the Victorians.
‘I mean by a picture a beautiful romantic dream of something that never was, never will be… in a land no one can define, or remember, only desire,’ Burne-Jones once wrote.
He had been painting scenes from Arthurian legends and depictions of knights since the early 1860s, and initially turned his attention to the subject of Sleeping Beauty for a series of tile designs in 1864.
But it wasn’t until 1869, following a suggestion from his patron William Graham, a Liberal MP for Glasgow, that Burne-Jones reworked the theme in oils for the canvas being offered at Christie’s.
‘The subject of the Briar Rose struck a chord with Burne-Jones in 1869 because he identified with the story’s prince, who battles his way through thorns in order to find true love,’ says Brown.
Indeed, 1869 was a tumultuous year for the artist. Aged 36, he had revealed to his lover, muse and pupil Maria Zambaco that he was abandoning their plan to elope.
Burne-Jones had met and fallen in love with the beautiful Greek heiress three years earlier, but when their whirlwind affair came to a head, he announced that he was going to stay in London with his wife and two children.
Zambaco responded by throwing herself into Regent’s Canal in an attempted suicide.
Emotionally shattered, Burne-Jones began working impulsively on his Briar Rose series, starting and then abandoning several canvases in rapid succession.
After painting The Prince Entering the Briar Wood, he placed it to one side and spent the next four years in his studio experimenting with other compositions of sleeping characters from the legend.
The works that resulted include the ‘small Briar Rose series’ now housed at the Museo de Arte de Ponce in Puerto Rico, The Sleeping Beauty, in Manchester Art Gallery, and Study for the Sleeping Knights in ‘The Briar Rose’, in Liverpool’s Walker Art Gallery.
In 1874, he began work on a series of four much larger Briar Rose canvases that would take him 16 years to finish.
‘Thousands of the most cultivated people… hastened to see, and passionately to admire, the painter’s masterpiece’ — The Times
‘I think he kept returning to the Briar Rose subject because he was fascinated by this idea of reawakening, new beginnings and what comes next,’ says Brown.
‘He even said: “I want it to stop with the princess asleep and to tell no more, to leave all the afterwards to the invention and imagination of people.”’
The four finished pictures were finally unveiled to the public at Agnews gallery in London in 1890. According to The Times, ‘thousands of the most cultivated people… hastened to see, and passionately to admire, the painter’s masterpiece’.
Agnews sold the paintings to Lord Faringdon for £18,000. In accordance with Burne-Jones’s wishes, he installed them in a north-facing room at Buscot Park and lit them with electric lamps.
After visiting Buscot Park, Burne-Jones painted 10 more pictures of thorn bushes and roses to hang around the room between the original paintings, adding a sense of continuity and bringing the total number of pictures to 14.
In 2018-19, the entire cycle was loaned to the Tate for the exhibition Edward Burne-Jones.
Burne-Jones spent his final years revisiting several other preliminary Briar Rose canvases that remained in his studio, including paintings now housed at the Delaware Art Museum, Bristol Art Gallery and Dublin’s Hugh Lane Gallery.
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He also reworked the picture now being offered for sale, which remained in his possession upon his death in June 1898. Four weeks later, it was sold on the first day of the artist’s studio sale at Christie’s.
Since 2001 it has hung in Houghton Hall, the Marquess of Cholmondeley’s seat in Norfolk.