The figure represents one of the heroines in Chaucer's Legend of Good Women. The poem is a celebration of the women of classical antiquity who suffered for their faith according to the religion of love. As so often with Chaucer, it takes the form of a vision. According to the Prologue, the poet has fallen foul of Cupid, the god of love, for writing heresies against his laws in such poems as Troilus and Criseyde and his translation of The Romaunt of the Rose. By way of penance, he is commanded to write a recantation or palinode, and the Legend is the result. As Chaucer sleeps in a verdant landscape full of flowers, Cupid appears to him in a dream, leading a procession of the so-called 'good women'. Each of their tragic stories, usually derived from Ovid, is then told.
Philomela and her sister Progne were daughters of King Pandion of Greece. Progne marries Tereus, the warlike Lord of Thrace, while Philomela remains at home with her elderly father. Five years into the marriage, Progne yearns to see her sister, and Tereus journeys to Athens to make the necessary arrangements. Pandion, who adores Philomela, is reluctant to let her go, but, yeilding to the girl's entreaties, he eventually gives his permission. After much feasting and giving of gifts, the travellers set out.
Even in Athens Tereus has been lusting after his sister-in-law, 'so young and fayr', and no sooner are they back in Thrace than he rapes her in a cave, cuts out her tongue so that she cannot incriminate him, and shuts her up in a castle for his further 'usage'.
Shedding crocodile tears, the treacherous warlord proceeds to tell his wife that her sister is dead. Meanwhile Philomela not only finds herself dumb but unable to get a letter to the outside world since she cannot write. She is, however, an accomplished needlewoman, and she embroiders her story on a tapestry, which she orders a servant to take to her sister. Angry and distraught, Progne pretends to go on a pilgrimage to the temple of Bacchus. She succeeds in finding Philomela, weeping alone in her castle, and Chaucer leaves them in each other's arms to share their sorrows.
Burne-Jones shows Philomela pointing a finger at her mouth to indicate her severed tongue, and holding the tapestry on which her tribulations, strip-cartoon fashion, are dipicted. On the far left she is seen bidding a fond farewell to her father, while Tereus looks on with lecherous intent. We are spared the rape in the cave, but to the right of the tree her wicked brother-in-law marches her swiftly towards the castle, through the window of which she appears again.
The drawing is one of a series that Burne-Jones executed in 1864 for his patron and mentor John Ruskin. In the summer of 1862 Ruskin had taken Burne-Jones and his wife Georgie to North Italy as part of his ongoing attempt to influtence the young artist's development. The journey had been a great success, not only in artistic but in personal terms; Burne-Jones had found in Ruskin the father-figure he was always subconsiously seeking, while Ruskin had discovered Burne-Jones to be a sympathetic and understanding friend to whom he could unburden his troubled soul. In dispair at the social condition of England, he was also wrestling with more private problems, being acutely aware of his burgeoning love for the much younger Rose La Touche, and increasingly frustrated by the restrictions of living with his indulgent but possessive parents. By August 1863, he was planning to escape them by building himself a house near Bonneville in his beloved Savoy.
Burne-Jones was dismayed when he heard of this project, dreading the 'grievous prospect of separation' that it would entail. As an alternative, he suggested that Ruskin should find a house in England, perhaps in the Wye Valley, and proposed that he himself should design a set of hangings for the principal room, illustrating Chaucer's Legend of Good Women. Ruskin accepted this offer with alacrity, and the present drawing is one of the cartoons for the projected tapestry.
From the outset the scheme was closely associated with Winnington Hall, the girls' school in Cheshire that Ruskin had adopted in the late 1850s. In the summer of 1863 Ruskin brought Margaret Bell, its high-powered headmistress, to Burne-Jones's studio, with the result that the artist and his wife were invited to accompany him when he visited the school that August. It was during this visit that Ruskin told Burne-Jones of his plan to settle in Switzerland, and letters discussing Burne-Jones's alternative idea flew backwards and forwards after Ruskin had left. The Burne-Joneses stayed on until mid-September, by which time plans for the tapestry were well advanced. Burne-Jones reported to Ruskin that he had 'schemed it all out'. The needlework was to be carried out by the girls under Georgie's supervision, and Miss Bell had already 'ordered the embroidery frames, and the holland for working upon and the wools for working with'. One way and another, Winnington was 'full of excitement about it', and Ruskin was to have 'the sweetest and costliest room in all the world'.
It must have been at this stage that Burne-Jones made the sketch for the tapestry that survives in the Birmingham Art Gallery (fig. 1). 'The ground thereof,' he wrote, 'will be green cloth or serge, and a fence of roses will run all along behind the figures, about half way up them, these roses to be cabbage and dog, red and white. All the ground will be powdered with daisies - only where Dido, Hypsipyle, and Medea and Ariadne come there will be sea instead of grass, and shells instead of daisies. First will come Chaucer, looking very frightened according to the poem, and inditing the poem with a thrush upon his shoulder - then comes Love, a little angry, bringing Alcestis: Chaucer in black, Love in red and white, and Alcestis in green. Then a tree, and a vision of ladies begins, all to have scrolls with their name and life and death written, above their heads. The ladies are to be in uniforms of blue and white, and red and white, alternately, and at the end of all - to come by your fireplace - will be Edward the Third and Philippa sitting and looking on. So on one side of your fireplace will be Chaucer beginning the subject, and on the other side of it the king and queen.'
It is not hard to see why Burne-Jones chose the Legend as the subject of Ruskin's tapestry. Since abandoning evangelical Christianity for humanism in 1858, Ruskin had looked to secular literature for revelation. Chaucer was one of the authors he most respected, believing him to be a teacher of 'the purest theological truth' and 'the most perfect type of a true English mind in its best possible temper.' The Legend of Good Women was a particular favourite with him, partly because it dealt with classical mythology, which he also regarded as a source of spiritual englightenment, and partly because it enabled him to dilate on the moral influence of women, a theme he treated in a lecture entitled 'Of Queens' Gardens' that he gave at Manchester in December 1864. For Ruskin, Chaucer's long-suffering heroines were 'types' or exemplars of abstract virtues. Alcestis represented 'the faithfulness and eternity of love', Hypsipyle 'the patience and protective gentleness of the affections', and so on. Even those who were not commonly regarded as saintly figures acquired attributes of sanctity when seen through Chaucer's eyes. This was a source of some puzzlement to the girls at Winnington, as Burne-Jones explained to Ruskin. 'I have had to give much explanation about the subject, for damozels such as those at Winnington can't see how Cleopatra and Medea can be good women - but now they are persuaded.'
What deeper significance Ruskin saw in the sufferings of Philomela is not easy to gauge from his published writings; he only mentions her once, enigmatically referring to her 'song...after the cruel silence' in an essay of 1880. But we can be sure that the question of how Burne-Jones handled her gruesome story was of the utmost interest to him. Ruskin's vivid awareness of social evils had made him intensely critical of artists who chose morbid subjects and deliberately exploited the human interest in horror. Gustave Doré was the modern practitioner whom he particularly associated with this trend, which he believed had a seriously deleterious effect on the social fabric.
Ruskin hoped that, with guidance from himself, Burne-Jones would show how even the most macabre subject could be presented in an elevating light. The topic was undoubtedly discussed when they were travelling in Italy in 1862; it is no accident that in Milan Ruskin made his protégé copy works by Bernardino Luini, the master whom he saw as the epitome of his ideal. The thesis is also reflected in the pictures that Burne-Jones painted during the next few years. The key example is St Theophilus and the Angel, an eminently restrained account of the execution of the early Christian martyr St Dorothy that he exhibited at the Old Water-Colour Society in 1867. In a lecture 'On the Present State of Modern Art' delivered at the British Institution in June that year, Ruskin used this work, currently on exhibition and easily available to his audience, to demonstrate how an artist should, in his view, treat such a ghoulish theme. He also brought along two of the Good Women cartoons, one showing Love leading Alcestis, the other the two wives of Jason, Hypsipyle and Medea. These too, he claimed, illustrated Burne-Jones's 'special gift' of 'seizing the good' in a subject and 'disdaining evil'.
Against this background, it is not surprising that Philomela draws such discreet attention to her severed tongue by pointing a finger at her cheek, or that her rape by Tereus is omitted from the embroidered banner.
The Burne-Joneses were at Winnington again in February and March 1864, this time without Ruskin. The artist, his widow recalled, was now 'hard at work on the cartoons for Chaucer's Good Women, one of which (Hypsipyle) was actually begun whilst we were there', that is to say begun in terms of the needlework itself. The present cartoon was almost certainly executed at this time, as perhaps was a preliminary study (fig. 2). The girls were not only to carry out the work but seem to have acted as models, although Georgie may have posed for some of the figures, including Philomela. It is interesting to compare the head with a full-face watercolour portrait that Burne-Jones painted of her in 1863 (Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery; exh. Hidden Burne-Jones, Birmingham, 2007, no. 20, illus. in cat., p. 41).
Ruskin was delighted with the results. Writing to Burne-Jones on 29 April, he described Philomela as 'exquisite in her expression'. Medea and Thisbe were also 'beautiful', although he was disappointed in Dido, and wished the artist had used one of the Winnington pupils, probably Annie Leadbeater or Amy Webster, as a model. Not the least of the project's charms for Ruskin was its close association with the Winnington girls, images of the virginal purity that always moved him so deeply and that found its supreme expression in Rose La Touche.
Despite all the enthusiasm and good intentions, nothing came of the scheme in its original form. Ruskin abandoned his building plans and the tapestry was never completed, although a screen based on the designs was later worked by Jane Morris for her husband's friend and patron the Earl of Carlisle. The cartoons, which are incorrectly dated 1862 in Burne-Jones's autograph work-record (many mistakes of this kind occur in the early entries), were acquired by Ruskin and are now scattered. The two that he showed in his 1867 lecture, Love leading Alcestis and Hypsipyle and Medea, are in the Ashmoleon Museum, Oxford. Thisbe, which is again reminiscent of Georgie Burne-Jones, is in the William Morris Gallery at Walthamstow (fig. 3), while the figure of Chaucer asleep in his study is in the Ruskin Gallery at Bembridge, Isle of Wight. Cleopatra is in a private collection.
Like Philomela, these cartoons focus exclusively on the figure and are executed mainly in sepia wash, but there is one, Lucretia, that was re-worked in 1867 to make an independent picture. The figure was given an architectural background, and the whole concept realised in full colour. Now in the Birmingham Art Gallery, this hybrid work was created as a wedding present for the dealer Charles Augustus Howell, who married his cousin Kate in September that year. He and Burne-Jones were intimate at the time, though their friendship would later turn to bitter hatred (see Hidden Burne-Jones, 2007, no. 30, illus. in cat., p. 42).
Dido, the cartoon that disappointed Ruskin, now seems to be missing, and others had probably not been started when the scheme was abandoned. We know, however, that Burne-Jones had envisaged all the heroines, not only from preliminary sketches but because he recycled the entire scheme in terms of stained glass. In fact the glass was conceived concurrently with the needlework, being designed as early as January 1864 for Birket Foster's house at Witley and repeated in 1869 for the Combination Room at Peterhouse, Cambridge, an odd choice for a men's college (see A.C. Sewter, The Stained Glass of William Morris and his Circle, Yale, 1974-5, vol.1, pls. 197-203). Some of the figures were also adapted for painted tiles, while the stories of two 'good women', Thisbe and Phyllis, were treated quite independently as easel pictures.
On Ruskin's death in 1900, some of the cartoons, including Philomela, were inherited by his cousin and carer Joan Agnew Severn. She died in 1924, and three - Philomela, Cleopatra and Chaucer - appeared in the sale of paintings and drawings from Brantwood that Sotheby's held in London following the death of her widower, the painter Arthur Severn, in 1931. Philomela was presumably bought by the art-historian Kenneth Clark, the future Lord Clark of Saltwood, who lent it to the exhibition Ruskin and his Circle that was mounted by the Arts Council at their premises in St James's Square, London, in 1964. Clark was a keen Ruskinian, and indeed wrote the introduction to the exhibition's catalogue. The cartoon returned to Sotheby's when his son, the Hon. Alan Clark, MP, of 'Clark Diaries' fame, sold it there in 1986.