The contemporary art world may not value the ability to draw as highly as previous generations, yet the immediacy with which an artist makes a mark on a page can tell us much about their thinking and the way in which their ideas develop. What’s more, drawings can offer an appealing combination of affordability, name recognition and, on occasion, direct lineage to famous paintings in the world’s greatest collections.
A previously unseen group of drawings that ticks all three boxes comes to auction for the very first time in December as part of Classic Week at Christie’s in London. The studies in question, which are offered at estimates starting from £3,000-5,000, are from a sketchbook used by the important late Pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898) in preparation for painting The Golden Stairs (1880), which is on permanent display at Tate Britain.
‘To hold an artist’s sketchbook in your hands and touch the drawings and studies inside it and know that they have never been exhibited, shown or sold before, is something I find very romantic and beguiling,’ says Harriet Drummond, International Head of the British Art on Paper department at Christie’s. ‘The fact that these little drawings were part of the creative process towards one of Burne-Jones’s most important paintings — and that they have never been published — is extremely exciting.’
The Golden Stairs is a tall, dream-like canvas, depicting 18 pale-skinned maidens in diaphanous gowns meandering down a winding stone staircase. Completed and first shown in 1880, it was hailed at the time as ‘beyond all question the painter’s masterpiece’, while Burne-Jones’s biographer Fiona MacCarthy describes the work as ‘the defining painting of the Aesthetic movement’.
The Victorian audience that came to view The Golden Stairs when it was unveiled at the Grosvenor Gallery 136 years ago, however, were left feeling rather bewildered by the artist’s decision to create something beautiful and evocative yet deliberately enigmatic. If the subject of the work is ambiguous, the identities of the models that sat for Burne-Jones are more revealing, offering insights into the high-society circles the artist moved in, as well as his well-documented susceptibility to female beauty.
The group of drawings offered in London include wonderfully intricate studies of details seen in the finished painting, and have descended through the Lewis family from Sir George Lewis (1833-1911), one of the most eminent solicitors of the late 19th century, whose second wife became a close friend of Burne-Jones.
The ethereal figures in The Golden Stairs were studied from professional models, however many of the heads are likenesses of Burne-Jones’s close friends and family, including his own daughter, Margaret (1866-1953), who is thought to appear more than once in the finished painting. An alternative reading of The Golden Stairs might therefore be as a Victorian equivalent to one of Annie Leibovitz’s dramatically staged group cover shots for Vanity Fair.
Holding cymbals at the bottom of the stairs (above) is Frances Graham (1854-1940), later Lady Horner, with whom Burne-Jones fell in love. Frances was the daughter of one Burne-Jones’s closest friends and patrons, the Liberal MP William Graham. Mary Gladstone (1847-1927), who is behind Frances Graham, was the daughter of William Gladstone MP, who became Prime Minister for a second time a day before the painting was first exhibited. May Morris, the daughter of the artist’s close friend and associate William Morris, is standing halfway down the stairs holding a violin.
Also seen in The Golden Stairs are Mary Stuart Wortley (1848-1941) — later Lady Lovelace, Laura Tennant, who would marry the British Liberal politician and sportsman Alfred Lyttelton, and Margot Tennant, who became the wife of Herbert Asquith, who was Prime Minister of Britain from 1908 until 1918. Their exact places on the stairs have not been determined.
In the same Christie’s sale on 14 December, two further studies for The Golden Stairs — in oil this time — appear to shed intriguing new light on the identity of one of the young women in the masterpiece.
It had long been thought that the stooping figure just above the halfway point on the staircase was the actress known as Edith Chester. The two oil studies are, however, accompanied by letters from Matthew Webb, one of Burne-Jones’s studio assistants, in which he states that one of the subjects is the actress Dorothy Dene.
Dene went on to become the favourite model and muse of Frederic Lord Leighton, the long-serving President of the Royal Academy. Years after posing for Burne-Jones, she would most famously be immortalised in Leighton’s much-travelled masterpiece Flaming June (1895), which is currently on a five-month loan to the Leighton House Museum in Holland Park, west London.
The other study in oil offered in London is believed to be of Mary Stuart Wortley. The daughter of Rt Hon. James Archibald Stuart-Wortley, Mary married Ralph King-Milbanke, 2nd Earl of Lovelace, in 1880. It is thought she met Burne-Jones through the artist Edward Poynter, Burne-Jones’s brother-in-law. Mary was an aspiring artist and her correspondence with Burne-Jones, begun in 1875, shows the closeness that had developed by the time he would have been looking for models for The Golden Stairs.
These two oil sketches have descended through the family from Frank Chapman, a Victorian entrepreneur who lived at Albert Hall Mansions in London. Along with the drawings discussed above, and those listed below, they are offered in the Victorian, Pre-Raphaelite and British Impressionist Art sale on 14 December at Christie’s London. ‘Handling drawings like this and sharing the excitement with collectors,’ Harriet Drummond says, ‘is one of the great privileges of my job.’