Although it is recorded in the early Burne-Jones literature and was exhibited at the Burlington Fine Arts Club in 1899, this drawing has long been lost, nor did a photograph exist to give us the composition. It dates from 1883, and was a product of the artist's recent purchase of North End House, Rottingdean, as a country retreat. Facing the Green in this then idyllic village four miles east of Brighton on the Sussex coast, the house had been acquired as a holiday home, a haven from the feverish pace of London which precluded the hazards of the ordinary ad hoc vacation. It was to serve this purpose admirably until Burne-Jones's death in 1898, after which his widow sold their London house in Fulham and lived there permanently. Burne-Jones's letters during this later period are full of references to the charms of Rottingdean, the church, the windmill, the duck-friendly village pond and the rolling downs in the background, and the area found many reflections in his work. While this is particularly true of his ephemeral drawings and caricatures (fat ladies revealed so much more when caught in a brisk sea breeze), his serious work was also affected. The clearest example is the number of mermaid subjects inspired in the 1880s by the proximity of the sea, culminating in the well-known Depths of the Sea (private collection), exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1886.
The Spirit of the Downs is mentioned in Burne-Jones's own work-record under 1883. That summer, as so often, his health was poor, and he retired to Rottingdean to gain strength. There, he tells us, 'I made some small watercolour drawings - Hope in a prison - and a girl with a background of down country, and others - very slight'. Lady Burne-Jones also refers to the drawing in her Memorials of her husband. Having discussed the benefits to him of Rottingdean, she adds: 'The second summer we were there he drew a delicate watercolour head which he called The Spirit of the Downs, and we all recognised the portrait'.
It is tantalising, but not untypical, that she does not say who the 'portrait' was of. Penelope Fitzgerald, in her 1975 biography of Burne-Jones, had no doubt in claiming that the model was Frances Graham, the daughter of his patron William Graham, with whom he was on intimate terms. Frances married in 1883, and the writer hints that the drawing was a sort of farewell gesture to the Egeria who was leaving him for another man. But she gives no evidence for this assertion, which it is tempting to read as a novelist's embroidering of an all too meagre account. In any event, the identification is wrong.
The real model was Venetia Benson, the second daughter of the landscape painter Alfred William Hunt (1830-1896). Venetia (or Venice as her family called her) was born in Durham in 1863. She was a year younger than her better known sister Violet, who was to make her name as a novelist, write some controversial accounts of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, lifting the lid on old scandals, and achieve notoriety on her own account as the mistress of her fellow novelist Ford Madox Ford. A third sister, Silvia, was born in 1866.
Venetia's name was chosen as a compliment to John Ruskin, who was asked to be her god-father. Ruskin had long been known to her parents. He was a mentor to her father, who shared his passion for Turner, while her mother, a clever and ambitious woman who, like Violet later, wrote novels, made a point of cultivating his friendship. Asking him to be Venetia's god-father was part of this strategy. Another opportunity to use Venetia to further the connection occurred in 1873, when the child was nine. As so often, Ruskin was in despair about his relationship with Rose La Touche, and Mrs Hunt suggested that Venetia might bring him comfort by staying with him at Brantwood. Not surprisingly, the experiment ended in tears. Venetia became homesick. appeared frightened and reserved, and annoyed Ruskin by bullying a local child with whom she was asked to clear undergrowth. Mrs Hunt had to be summoned to take her away.
In 1865 the Hunts had moved from Durham to London, renting 1 Tor Villas, on the slopes of Campden Hill, Kensington, from their friend William Holman Hunt. From then on the girls grew up in an almost exclusively Pre-Raphaelite environment, mixing with the Morrises, the Burne-Joneses, the Bell Scotts, the Millais and many others. It was this experience that provided so much grist to Violet's mill in her later role as muck-raker. They also attended the Notting Hill High School, a progressive institution, founded by Lady Stanley of Alderley, which sought to dissolve class and social barriers. Madox Brown's daughter Catherine, Margaret Burne-Jones and May and Jenny Morris had all either been or still were pupils.
Both the Hunt girls were strikingly good-looking, and their appearance was enhanced by the Aesthetic clothes that, like so many Pre-Raphaelite children, they were expected to wear. The fashion was not only considered more artistic than conventional modes but, no less important in bohemian circles, involved less financial outlay. Beneath these outward similarities, however, the girls were very different. Violet was alarmingly precocious and high-spirited, Venetia quieter and withdrawn to the point of being secretive. Violet was never to marry, at any rate legally, embarking on a series of affairs of which the liaison with Ford Madox Ford was only the most sustained and notorious. Meanwhile in 1886 Venetia had married the young architect and metal- worker W.A.S. Benson (1854-1924), and settled down to conventional family life. In later years the sisters would be at loggerheads, Venetia and Silvia strongly disapproving of Violet's erratic lifestyle and accusing her of wasting family money. The quarrel resulted in litigation and permanent estrangement between Violet and 'Goneril and Regan', as she called her younger siblings.
Venetia's marriage to Benson only strengthened her connection with the Burne-Jones circle. Educated at Winchester and New College, Oxford, Benson had been articled to the architect Basil Champneys in 1878, remaining with him for two years and sharing lodgings with the designer Heywood Sumner, who later married his sister. In 1880 William Morris encouraged him to set up a workshop in Hammersmith for the production of turned metalwork, and in 1887 he opened a shop in Bond Street to sell this and other Arts and Crafts commodities.
Burne-Jones first encountered Benson about 1877, the year he leapt to fame at the opening of the Grosvenor Gallery. Attending a morning rehearsal of a concert by Wagner at the Albert Hall, he saw a girl whose features appealed to him and asked her to sit. She turned out to be Margaret Benson, a sister of the would-be architect, and her good-looking brother was soon modelling for the artist as well. He posed as the young dark-haired sculptor in the Pygmalion series, exhibited at the Grosvenor in 1879 (fig. 2), and has been associated with the King in King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid (1884; Tate Gallery), although other models, including W.J. Stillman, also seem to have sat for this figure. Meanwhile Benson was proving useful to Burne-Jones in other capacities: making armour for the Perseus and Briar Rose series and the King's crown in Cophetua, and helping to design a piano that substituted the pure lines of the harpsichord for the curves and bulges of the standard Victorian grand.
Above all, Benson was asked to re-model the house at Rottingdean. It was bought at the end of September 1880. On 9 January the following year Burne-Jones took Benson to look at it, and the young man was soon at work. 'Mr Benson, who was by profession an architect', wrote Lady Burne-Jones in the Memorials, 'was of great help to us with regard to the little house at Rottingdean, which he improved and adapted to our needs with admirable skill; designing also most of its furniture in plain oak. All this took time, and it was some months before we entered our new home'. In 1889 an opportunity arose to buy the house next door, and again Benson was called in. To quote the Memorials once more, he 'joined (the new house) onto the first one in the most ingenious way, building also a fresh entrance and above it a modest studio. The house was now large enough for us all to be together in it, and also, as they were born, the grandchildren with whom we were blessed' (fig. 1).
Venetia Hunt probably found herself at Rottingdean in the summer of 1883 as an old friend of the Burne-Joneses rather than as Benson's fiancée; her marriage was still three years hence, and she may not yet have been engaged. Nor is it clear why Lady Burne-Jones was so coy about revealing her name in connection with The Spirit of the Downs. Possibly the reserved and secretive Venetia herself asked to remain anonymous, and this was Lady Burne-Jones's way of complying with her request while including her in the record of her husband's life. In fact, despite being on close terms with the family and sitting to Burne-Jones for several drawings (figs. 4 and 5), Venetia makes no appearance in the book apart from this oblique reference, unlike her husband, whose relationship with Burne-Jones receives ample coverage. This omission, as we have seen, has led to confusion and error, but there can be no doubt that Venetia was the drawing's inspiration. For many years it has been wrapped in a piece of paper with an inscription identifying her as the model, possibly in the hand of either Lady Burne-Jones or her daughter, Margaret. Moreover, the drawing itself alludes to her name by depicting her in vaguely 'Venetian' dress - somewhat incongruously, it must be admitted, bearing in mind the background of Sussex downs.