The son of Apollo and the muse Calliope, Orpheus was a Thracian poet who played the lyre so skilfully that even wild beasts were entranced. He married Eurydice, a wood nymph, but the marriage was not blessed with happiness. Bitten by a snake as she fled the advances of a lusty shepherd, Eurydice died, and Orpheus determined to seek her in Hades. He pleaded with Pluto and Proserpine, the deities of the underworld, for her release, accompanying his words with strains on the lyre so sweet that all who heard shed tears. The gods relented and allowed Eurydice to follow her husband on condition that he did not look back during their journey. The temptation, however, was too great; just as they were reaching the upper world, Orpheus turned to look at Eurydice and she was snatched back into the shades.
Inconsolable at his second loss, Orpheus shunned female company and thereby excited the fury of the Thracian women as they celebrated the orgies of Bacchus. Tearing him limb from limb, they threw his head into the river Hebrus, where it continued to lament Eurydice as it floated down to the Aegean sea. The couple were finally united in Hades, and Jupiter placed Orpheus' lyre among the stars.
The subject appealed strongly to artists of the Symbolist period, who saw the head of Orpheus still singing after death as an image of the immortality of art. In France the theme inspired a famous painting by Gustave Moreau, exhibited at the Salon of 1866 (Musée d'Orsay); and it was subsquently treated by Puvis de Chavannes, Odilon Redon and others. In England its exponents included G.F. Watts, Burne-Jones, J.W. Waterhouse and Charles Ricketts.
It was typical of Burne-Jones's fertility of imagination that he made a long series of designs, illustrating every aspect of the story. They date from the early 1870s and are roundel in form, the artist clearly relishing the challenge this posed. Two distinct versions exist: a set of ten highly-finished pencil drawings (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford) and a number of more loosely handled designs in brown monochrome gouache. The present drawing and lot 25 belong to the latter category, of which there are further examples in the Tate Gallery and the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. Though so different in treatment, both sets of drawings betray the strong Italian influence that is characteristic of Burne-Jones's work at this period. He made his last visits to Italy in 1871 and 1873, studying Mantegna, Botticelli, Michelangelo and other masters intently.
The story of Orpheus obviously lent itself to the decoration of a musical instrument, and Burne-Jones did in fact adapt the ten pencil drawings when painting the so-called 'Graham' or 'Orpheus' piano in 1879-80. This famous instrument (private collection) was commissioned by his great patron William Graham as a twenty-first birthday present for his daughter Frances, herself one of the artist's most intimate friends. Made by the firm of Broadwood, the piano was both designed and decorated by Burne-Jones, whose idea was to replace the curves and bulges of the standard Victorian grand with a simpler and more vigorous design based on the harpsichord. The result was so popular that Broadwood was encouraged to market it commercially, although the original version, elaborately decorated by Burne-Jones and his assistants, remains unique. For further details and photographs, see Burne-Jones, exh. Hayward Gallery, London, etc., 1975-6, cat. nos. 208-10.