This important canvas encapsulates the chivalric ideal that was central to the best Pre-Raphaelite art, and set the tone for much of the Victorian age. Begun in 1869 it is the first idea for a subject that would pre-occupy Burne-Jones for the next twenty years and result in, arguably, his greatest triumph: the Briar Rose Series. Shown to universal acclaim at Agnew’s in 1890, and thereafter in Liverpool and then at Toynbee Hall in Whitechapel, the set of four pictures attracted adulation from young and old at all levels of society. Its retelling of the story of Sleeping Beauty, with its themes of awakening and the redemptive power of love, resonated then and inspires now. While the finished series is at Buscot Park, Oxfordshire, (fig. 1, The Faringdon Collection Trust), all the numerous related canvases that were essentially preliminary versions to this climactic masterpiece are now are in museums. This is the only Briar Rose subject remaining in private hands.
The Sleeping Beauty was well-known to 19th century audiences. First told by Charles Perrault in his Contes du Temps Passé in the 17th century, it had been revived by the brothers Grimm and then by Tennyson in his poem The Day Dream. It was first treated by Burne-Jones in a series of tile designs for Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co in 1864. These were intended for the watercolourist Myles Birket Foster’s house, The Hill, at Witley in Surrey and were executed by Lucy Faulkner, sister of Charles, of the eponymous firm. A set can now be seen in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
It was Burne-Jones’s greatest patron, William Graham, the Liberal MP for Glasgow and importer of Graham’s port, who suggested that the theme might make a good subject for a series of pictures. Demonstrating the close relationship in his work of both the decorative and fine arts, Burne-Jones reduced the nine designs from the tile series to a set of four: The Prince Entering the Briar Wood, The Council Chamber, The Garden Court, and The Rose Bower – in which the Sleeping Beauty lies. Notably, The Prince entering the Briar Wood is the only composition where the figures bear some relation to the tile series: the other scenes were embarked on anew. Graham’s influence pervades the picture as he developed an interest in early Italian art. By the 1850s, thanks to the pioneering spirit of its Director, Sir Charles Eastlake, works by Botticelli, Bellini and Mantegna had started to enter the National Gallery. Graham began to collect examples when they became available and frequently lent them to Burne-Jones to live with for a few weeks, to encourage and emulate. The result of such generosity manifested itself in pictures such as Green Summer (1868, private collection) which Burne-Jones painted for Graham. By turns enigmatic and elegiac it is painted in the spirit of Giorgione, an artist Graham particularly loved. Burne-Jones would have seen Giorgione’s work at first hand on two visits to Italy in 1859 and 1863, undertaken in the company of Ruskin who hoped to direct the course of his art. The richly coloured tonality, achieved through the extensive use of glazes, partially rubbed to achieve a sfumato effect, can be seen both in Green Summer and the present canvas, which was begun the following year. The execution of the figures initially in monochrome owes much to Tintoretto who built up his compositions in layers of paint, a practice Burne-Jones admired, often with frequent re-working. The texture of the finished canvases were consequently the result of a rich process of accretion. As he wrote: ‘I love my pictures as a goldsmith does his jewels. I should like every inch of surface to be so fine that if all but a scrap from one of them were buried or lost, the man who found it might say whatever this may have represented, it is a work of art, beautiful in surface and quality of colour.’ (F. De Lisle, Burne-Jones, London, 1904, pp. 170-1.)
If Burne-Jones was devoted to the Venetian works he had seen (the Carpaccios in the Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni particularly impressed him with the power of their simple narrative, sustained through a sequence of subjects), a counterweighting influence begins to appear at this date from the art of Florence. The figures of the two recumbent knights in the centre of the composition emulate the poses of Venus and Mars by Botticelli (fig. 2, National Gallery, London), that he would have seen in the South Kensington museums (now the V & A) where they were lent, along with 87 other works, in 1869, the date of this picture’s execution, by Alexander Barker. Barker had acquired a substantial collection of Italian masters in the 1860s which were sold at Christie’s following his death in 1874. Another Botticelli, Primavera, (Uffizi, Florence), most probably inspired Burne-Jones to paint the sprays of briar roses, as a homage to its rich carpet of millefiori and arc of blossom above.
Briar roses were to become something of a leitmotif in Burne-Jones’s work. Their arabesques provide a sense of rhythm and forward movement to the narrative, and a decorative foil to the figures. They can be seen in arguably the artist’s best known work in recent times, Love Among the Ruins, a watercolour shown at the Dudley Gallery shortly after this canvas was executed, in 1873. Sold at Christie’s, London, on 11 July 2013, lot 3, (£14.8 million), the picture depicts two lovers embracing in a hostile and desolate world. The picture held deep personal significance for the artist as the features of the female protagonist are those of Maria Zambaco, successively the artist’s model, pupil, lover and muse. They met in 1866 after Maria’s separation from her husband in Paris: her mother, sister of the immensely wealthy patron Alexander Ionides, wanted Burne-Jones to paint her likeness to launch her into London society. The contrast of Maria’s warm, exuberant Mediterranean sensuality to his wife Georgie’s strict Methodist decorum proved overwhelming for the artist, and their affair came to a head in 1869. Burne-Jones felt unable to leave his wife and family and elope to a Greek island as the lovers had planned, and Maria subsequently attempted suicide by drowning. Shattered, Burne-Jones worked listlessly throughout the year, starting canvases but then abandoning them. This was consistent with his working practice throughout his life, but was exacerbated during this crisis. Although the canvas was begun in 1869, it was worked on further after the exhibition of the finished series in 1890. This accounts for its unfinished state in parts, although to what extent the artist intended a degree of completion is a moot point: the spectral passages contribute to the dream-like, other worldly atmosphere he was at pains to create. ‘I mean by a picture a beautiful romantic dream of something that never was, never will be – in a light better than any light that ever shone – in a land no one can define or remember, only desire’ he wrote. (Burne-Jones quoted in C. Wood, The Pre-Raphaelites, London, 1981, p. 119).
Burne-Jones would have no doubt identified with the Prince however: battling his way through thorns, and succeeding where others had failed, in order to find beauty and true love. In common with many other artists of the period he wanted the viewer to project their own interpretations on to the series: ‘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, and tell them no more’. (Burne-Jones quoted in F. MacCarthy, The Last Pre-Raphaelite: Sir Edward Burne-Jones and the Victorian Imagination, Harvard, 2012, p. 403). For William Morris however, the briar roses clearly represented ‘the tangle of the world’s wrong and right’. The critic Robert de la Sizeranne saw in the Briar Wood the moral that ‘the most righteous cause, the truest ideas, the most necessary reforms, cannot rise triumphant, however bravely we may fight for them, before the time fixed by the mysterious decree of the Higher Powers … The strongest and the wisest fail. They exhaust themselves with battling against the ignorance and meanness of their generation, which hem in and hamper them like the branches of the briar rose; and at last they fall asleep in the thorny thicket, like the five knights who were as valiant as their successor, but who came before their time’. (R. de la Sizeranne, ‘In Memomoriam, Sir Edward Burne-Jones: A Tribute from France’, Magazine of Art, 1898, p. 516.)
After starting this canvas, Burne-Jones embarked on a number of other versions before completing the Buscot series. The complex genesis of the final version was thoroughly explored by John Christian in the catalogue entry when this picture most recently appeared at auction (Christie’s, London, 13 June 2001, lot 11). In summary, these versions can be listed as follows. In 1871 Burne-Jones painted two subjects relating to the series: The Sleeping Beauty (Manchester City Art Gallery), and Study for The Sleeping Knights in ‘The Briar Rose’ (Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool). This latter picture shows Michelangelesque contortion in the figures of the recumbent knights and is the result of further study in Italy that year. He also embarked on what was intended to be four canvases (but eventually ended as a series of three, lacking The Garden Court), now collectively known as the small Briar Rose Series (Museo de Arte de Ponce, Puerto Rico). These were completed for William Graham in 1873. Immediately, Burne-Jones embarked on another, larger series as they are mentioned in his work record for 1874-5. It is probable that at this date he envisaged the series for four sides of a room (as encountered in the Venetian scuole he so admired). They do not appear again in his work records until 1884 when the series was offered to Graham. Graham, however, at this date was a dying man, and not only were the walls of his houses full, but canvases were stacked on the floor, and propped on chairs and tables. To accommodate them would have been impossible. Nevertheless, Graham offered to negotiate their sale to Agnew’s for £15,000, then a colossal sum which would have secured, as his patron intended, Burne-Jones’s financial security. Burne-Jones worked on The Prince entering the Briar Wood throughout 1884-5 revising the composition substantially not only in terms of the disposition of the figures, but also in terms of its colouring. By the middle of 1885 however, Burne-Jones had decided to abandon the three remaining canvases in the series to begin afresh. These were finally completed in 1890, and it is this set, the heavily reworked Prince, and the three new canvases, that comprise the finished series. These were bought by Alexander Henderson, later first Lord Faringdon, and were installed, with additional canvases of briar roses, in the Saloon of Buscot Park, Henderson’s newly acquired seat in Oxfordshire. They remain there to this day, although they were recently shown in the Burne-Jones exhibition in 2018-9 at Tate Britain.
Subsequently, the three discarded canvases were reworked and sold through Agnew’s. The Council Chamber was sold in 1892 to the American collector Samuel Bancroft and is now in the Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington. The Garden Court was sold in 1893 to Lord Wharncliffe, a patron of Burne-Jones’s brother-in-law, Sir Edward Poynter, and the owner of Burne-Jones’s King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid (1884, Tate Britain). It is now in Bristol Art Gallery. The Rose Bower was completed in 1894 and 1895 and entered the renowned collection of George McCulloch who also owned the second, oil version of Love Among the Ruins (1894, Whitwick Manor, National Trust Collections). This picture is now in the Municipal Gallery of Modern Art, Dublin.
This canvas was probably reworked in the 1890s, but remained in Burne-Jones’s studio until after his death. Thereafter it appeared on the first day of the artist’s studio sale held at Christie’s in 1898 and was bought by Agnew’s. Little is known of its first owner, T.H. Ward, but its medieval, romantic spirit would have appealed strongly to its second owner, the politician John Philipps who was ennobled as the first Viscount St David’s. He bought Roch Castle near Haverfordwest in 1900, and subsequently restored it. He parted with the picture in 1926. It has subsequently entered a number of distinguished collections, and latterly has hung in the picture gallery at Houghton Hall, Norfolk (fig. 3 & 4).
There it was placed below Charles Errard’s painting of Tancred and Erminia. Tancred was a Christian knight whose wounds were bound by the hair of the Saracen princess Erminia. His recumbent form is echoed in the figure of the first sleeping knight the prince encounters. Both were purchased by the 7th Marquess of Cholmondeley whose intention was to revive the picture gallery, and echo the collections of his distinguished forebears. Houghton was built by Sir Robert Walpole, de facto first Prime Minister of Great Britain, whose staggering collection of pictures was posthumously sold to Catherine the Great of Russia where they now form the basis of the Hermitage Museum. In a memorable exhibition, and a triumph of diplomacy, these were rehung temporarily at Houghton in 2013. The picture gallery also contains works from the collection of Horace Walpole of Strawberry Hill, and from Sybil, Marchioness of Cholmondeley who did so much to revive the house during her long custodianship throughout the 20th century. Many of the contents now at Houghton come from the collection of her brother, Sir Philip Sassoon, a notable connoisseur of both the fine and the decorative arts. The collections at Houghton continue to evolve, and the house is now famed for its collection of contemporary sculpture which embellishes the park. Burne-Jones’s quest for 'truth and beauty' continues.