This is an illustration of the fairy tale Sleeping Beauty, which regained popularity in the nineteenth century as it was subject to a number of significant retellings: by The Brothers Grimm (1812) and by Tennyson in his poem The Day Dream (1842). Edward Burne-Jones dedicated a twenty-year period to illustrating the story (1870-1890). Most notable were his set of four canvasses, The Briar Rose Series (fig. 1, 1870-1890, The Faringdon Collection Trust), commissioned by Agnew’s for the immense sum of £15,000. It is likely that Wakley may have seen the works at the free exhibition held at Agnew’s Bond Street gallery which attracted thousands of visitors.
Both artists present the ‘Sleeping Beauty’ lying horizontally across the canvas, in a white dress reminiscent of the Byzantine style. However, Wakley replaces Burne-Jones’ darker palette and more enigmatic atmosphere with a more spacious composition and vivid tones, which highlight the Beauty’s pallor. Wakley’s thorned foliage, supposedly entrapping the princess, is in full bloom, creating an Arcadian landscape. Presented as the only figure on the canvas, the ‘Sleeping Beauty’ lies like a statue upon a glittering gold plinth, bejewelled with miniature ‘Aesthetic’ peacocks.
This sensitive portrayal of the famous fairy tale provides hope accentuated by the inclusion of the Latin phrase ‘Amor Vincit Omnia’ (Love Conquers Everything) around the plinth of the sundial, reminding us that the princess will soon be awakened by the prince’s kiss. Through this motif, the artist juxtaposes the passing of time with the notion of enduring love, prompting the viewer to decide which will prevail.
Archibald Wakley was heavily influenced by the second generation of Pre-Raphaelites, particularly Edward Burne-Jones and Evelyn De Morgan. Despite his artistic promise his career was short-lived and his oeuvre small, as a result of his untimely death. As if echoing one of the tragic stories that inspired the Pre-Raphaelites and their followers, Wakley was murdered in his studio on the night of 24 May 1906, possibly following a tryst. The present picture was exhibited posthumously at the Academy where it was noted that ‘The murder in his studio … of Mr Archibald Wakley, naturally directed much attention to his picture … The Sleeping Beauty.’ (The Art Journal, London, 1906, p. 222).