The Wood-Nymph, and its companion The Sea-Nymph, were subjects and compositions which Burne-Jones explored over several years. The first concept of the sea nymph was as a contribution to William Morris's Mermaid fabric in 1875. The first iteration of the two nymphs as companion pieces was in a pair of drawings, dating from 1878 and sold in these Rooms on 15 December 2010, lot 34. These were probably the pair Burne-Jones referred to in his work record in 1878: ‘three panels for low relief of wood nymph, water nymph and Hesperides’, intended to be executed in gesso for the front and ends of a cassone, possibly that made for Frances Horner in 1888, which certainly includes the Hesperides panel (now in Birmingham City Art Gallery).
The designs were revisited in 1880-3 when Burne-Jones executed two large oils, intended to hang together. From this pair, The Wood-Nymph (exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1883) is now in the South African National Gallery, Cape Town, whilst The Sea-Nymph was sold in these Rooms on 14 June 2005, lot 34.
Although John Christian dated the present drawing to circa 1880, it has significant differences from both the relief design and the oil painting. Its formalised, abstract character suggests that it may be an alternative scheme for a gesso relief, probably pre-dating the large oil. Designs for low relief were a largely private aspect of Burne-Jones’s decorative work: although in 1881 he was commissioned to design mosaics for the new American Church in Rome (see lot 125), whilst also executing designs for tapestry for William Morris, the reliefs were something he came to on his own account.
The earliest realised example of the medium appears to be the 1879 designs for reliefs in bronze he designed as memorials to the parents of his friend George Howard, 9th Earl of Carlisle, at Lanercost Priory, Cumbria. The design for one of these, The Nativity, was sold at Christie’s, New York on 24 January 2017, lot 115. Whilst those drawings are monochrome, with rich, heavy, dry brush bodycolour giving a sense of the eventual medium, the present sheet with its bold colours and lighter atmosphere is much more reminiscent of classical frescoes. He continued to make a few low reliefs in different media into the 1890s, but always for personal projects, often for family members or his closest friends.