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Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones, Bt., A.R.A., R.W.S. (1833-1898)
Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones, Bt., A.R.A., R.W.S. (1833-1898)

The Altar of Hymen

Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones, Bt., A.R.A., R.W.S. (1833-1898)
The Altar of Hymen
signed with initials and indistinctly inscribed (within a cartouche on the altar)
pencil and watercolour heightened with bodycolour and gold and silver, on paper lined onto linen and stretched onto a wooden stretcher
14 x 10 in. (36.2 x 25.4 cm.)
In the original tabernacle frame
with Agnew's, Liverpool.
Sir Henry Tate (1819-1899) and by descent in the family to the present owner.

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Bernard Williams
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Lot Essay

The sculptor Pygmalion is seen embracing his bride, Galatea, in the temple of Venus. The goddess sits to the right, her son Cupid standing between her knees, while to the left is a small altar on which leaves, a votive offering, are consumed by flames. Decorative panels, one inscribed 'VENUS', appear on the wall behind.

The composition is based on one of the illustrations to William Morris's poem 'Pygmalion and the Image' that Burne-Jones made in 1867. The poem was part of Morris's great narrative cycle The Earthly Paradise, which he originally intended to publish with numerous woodcut illustrations designed by Burne-Jones. The scheme proved too ambitious and the book appeared with virtually no illustrations in 1868-70, but the designs provided Burne-Jones with a bank of compositional ideas on which he was to draw for easel pictures for years to come.

Our picture is a version of one that Burne-Jones painted as a wedding present when Amy Graham, one of the six daughters of his patron William Graham, married Kenneth Muir-Mackenzie in 1874. He entered the Graham/Muir-Mackenzie version in his autograph work-record for that year, describing it as 'a small picture in white and gold colours on vellum for the wedding at Graham's'. It was lent to his memorial exhibition held at the New Gallery, London, in 1898-9 (no.25); appeared at Sotheby's, Belgravia, on 20 June 1972 (lot 65), and is illustrated in Martin Harrison and Bill Waters, Burne-Jones, London, 1973, p. 116, fig. 166.

Our version is presumably later, although there is no documentary evidence for this and it could in theory precede the Graham/Muir-Mackenzie picture. It is of about the same size and again in watercolour, although there are certain variations. The panels on the temple wall, for example, do not appear in the other version. It is possible that our picture was also painted as a wedding present, the subject obviously being appropriate. On the other hand it may have remained in Burne-Jones's studio and been framed for sale many years after its execution. It is in one of the handsome tabernacle frames that Agnews' often gave his works when they became his dealers following the successful exhibition of the 'Briar Rose' series in 1890.

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