Burne-Jones's early pen-and-ink drawings are among his rarest and most fascinating productions. Only some ten finished examples were executed. The first, now lost, was The Waxen Image, a scene of witchcraft in two compartments dating from 1856, the year he met D. G. Rossetti and began to work under his supervision. Not surprisingly, the drawing was inspired by a poem by his hero, 'Sister Helen'. The last drawing in the sequence is an illustration to Browning's poem 'Childe Roland' (Cecil Higgins Art Gallery, Bedford). This dates from 1861, by which time Burne-Jones was exchanging pen-and-ink for watercolour as his primary medium of expression.
Burne-Jones had several reasons for adopting the pen-and-ink technique. First, he was already familiar with it, having used it for the illustrations to The Fairy Family that he had begun as an undergraduate at Oxford in 1854. Intended for engraving, the drawings were commissioned by the author of the book, Archibald Maclaren, a fencing master whose gymnasium in Oxford was frequented by Burne-Jones and his friend William Morris. Burne-Jones continued to work on the drawings until 1856, but his meeting with Rossetti in January that year so opened his eyes to new stylistic horizons that he became dissatisfied with them and never completed the work. Only three drawings appeared in the book when it was published in 1857. Their authorship was not revealed, and he refused to recognise any of the drawings as part of the Burne-Jones canon.
A second reason for favouring pen-and-ink was that Rossetti himself was a devotee of the medium. It was obviously natural to continue using it now that he was Rossetti's most ardent follower. However, Burne-Jones's handling of pen-and-ink was always drier and more finicky than Rossetti's, and this suggests another influence. John Ruskin was almost as much admired by Burne-Jones and Morris as Rossetti himself. Having read him avidly at Oxford, they met him for the first time in November 1856, and Ruskin may well have encouraged the young artist to persevere with pen-an-ink. In The Elements of Drawing, published the following year but based on long experience of teaching at the Working Men's College, Ruskin urges his readers to begin with this medium and advocates a method very similar to that adopted by Burne-Jones, in which tones are built up with minute touches and dots and the pen-knife used to soften forms and erase unwanted lines.
Equally significant was the use Ruskin made of Dürer's prints as teaching instruments. He was collecting them eagerly from the early 1850s and constantly lending them to those he was trying to guide and influence: his pupils at the Working Men's College, the girls of Winnington School, or artists such as Lady Waterford and Rossetti's fiancée Elizabeth Siddal. The Elements of Drawing abounds in references to Dürer's engravings, which the reader is told to acquire and copy as aids to painstaking, accurate draughtmanship.
Although Burne-Jones was undoubtedly familiar with Dürer's work before he left Oxford in 1856, there can be little doubt that Ruskin lent him examples and encouraged him to study them. He may well have been the source of the 'drawings [sic] of Albert Dürer' that were hanging in the studio that Burne-Jones and Morris shared that year in Upper Gordon Street, Bloomsbury; and he was certainly to give Burne-Jones a group of Dürer's most important engravings and woodcuts - 'all perfect impressions', according to the lucky recipient - in 1865.
Whatever Ruskin's precise role, there is no doubt that Dürer's engravings were a major influence on Burne-Jones's pen-and-ink drawings. Rossetti virtually acknowledged as much when he described them to William Bell Scott (another Dürer enthusiast) as 'marvels of finish and imaginative detail, unequalled by anything unless perhaps Albert Dürer's finest works'. As this implies, Dürer not only shaped Burne-Jones's approach to the medium but supplied many of the quaint and picturesque details in which the ardent yet tongue-in-cheek medievalism of Rossetti's circle in the late 1850s found much of its expression. One drawing, the Sir Galahad of 1858 (Fogg Museum of Art, Harvard), derives its whole concept and design from the artist's famous engraving The Knight, Death and the Devil. This was one of the first Düreresque images to impinge on Burne-Jones and Morris since a reproduction had served as the frontispiece to Fouqué's Sintram and his Companions, a book to which they had been devoted at Oxford.
Most of the drawings are in public collections, but by a strange coincidence two of the very few that remain in private hands have been seen at Christie's during the last six months. The present drawing follows Alice La Belle Pélerine (fig. 2), which appeared in these Rooms on 9 June this year. It was resurfacing in public for the first time since it was sold at Christie's in 1908 as part of the collection of Richard Mills, who had almost certainly bought it from Burne-Jones when they were both young men at the outset of their careers.
Alice La Belle Pélerine belongs to a distinct sub-section of the pen-and-ink drawings, a group of medieval subjects executed in 1858. Most probably date from that summer, when Burne-Jones was staying at Little Holland House in Kensington, recovering from nervous exhaustion under the motherly eye of Mrs Prinsep and receiving artistic guidance from the house's genius-in-residence, G. F. Watts. This group of drawings also includes the Fogg Sir Galahad, Going to the Battle (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge), The Knight's Farewell (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford) and Kings' Daughters (private collection). Several reflect the leisurely, affluent lifestyle cultivated at Lttle Holland House as Burne-Jones experienced it that intensely hot summer, when, we are told, 'the thermometer stood at 90 in the shade'.
The Wise and Foolish Virgins, an illustration to the famous parable (Matthew, ch. 25), belongs to a slightly different category. Burne-Jones dated it to both 1859 and 1860 in work-records (see unpublished literature above), but 1859 is correct. (The list dating it 1860 was begun many years later, when his memory was sometimes at fault). The drawing is therefore a year later than those done at Little Holland House, and, as well as treating a different kind of subject, religious rather than medieval, it marks a considerable imaginative and technical advance. Significantly, while the medieval subjects are on small pieces of vellum, a ground perfectly suited to their preciosity and dependence on engravings, The Wise and Foolish Virgins is much larger in scale and on paper, qualities consistent with a more expansive, confident approach and a new interest in dramatic intensity and atmospheric effect. In fact the drawing has a good claim to be the masterpiece among Burne-Jones's early works in this medium. If the drawings of 1858, however exquisite, are immature by comparison, none of the later examples conveys such a sense of authority and conviction. Buondelmonte's Wedding (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge), the other main drawing of 1859, is almost too quirky, too reminiscent of George du Maurier's later parodies of the Pre-Raphaelite style; while Ladies and Death (1860; National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne) is too slight, and Childe Roland (1861; Bedford) has the disadvantage of being a single figure. Burne-Jones's later re-working of the knight's head also confuses the impact of this image.
Rossetti's influence, so obvious in the choice of subject for The Waxen Image, continued to pervade the medieval themes of 1858. Or rather it contributed an essential element to a consensus of ideas of which they were an outstanding product. Although Burne-Jones and Morris were adoring acolytes of their charismatic leader, Rossetti gained much from his followers too, and it was only after meeting them in 1856 and coming into contact with their already committed and highly developed medievalism, that his own work took on the 'chivalric' or 'Froissartian' tone that characterised it for the next few years. Thus Burne-Jones's pen drawings of 1858, Rossetti's watercolours of the same period, and Morris's first volume of poetry, The Defence of Guenevere, also published this year, may be seen as three sides of a triangle, expressing a medievalist vision with a unity of purpose and a common imagery that reflect the intimacy of the three men's social relations.
The Wise and Foolish Virgins again betrays Burne-Jones's closeness to Rossetti. The link here is with his elaborate pen-and-ink drawing Mary Magdalene at the Door of Simon the Pharisee (fig. 3), planned in 1853, begun in 1858, but not completed until 1859, the year Burne-Jones's own drawing was executed. Both subjects deal with the longing of the soul for God, and the compositions have much in common: the surge of the principal figures towards their spiritual goal from left to right; the head of Christ in each case brightly haloed and framed in a small window; and an animal, a fawn in the Rossetti, a peacock in the Burne-Jones, placidly going about its business in the lower right corner, its very imperturbability heightening our awareness of the surrounding drama. Significantly, these two details in Rossetti's drawing are exactly contemporary with the Burne-Jones, being added last in 1859 on a separate strip of paper. More tellingly still, the model for Rossetti's head of Christ was none other than Burne-Jones.
Nor was Burne-Jones only thinking of one particular Rossetti. By introducing a foil to the central drama, raising some of his figures on a platform, and framing the heads of others in windows, he was borrowing three of his master's most characteristic pictorial conceits, deliberately designed to tease the spectator, or, as Rossetti himself would have put it, to 'puzzle fools'. The raised gangway and a framed head, together with two other important motifs, the mill or boat-house and the rushing river, had already appreared in one of Burne-Jones's designs for Maclaren's Fairy Family (fig. 4). It illustrated a poem called 'The Rusalki', in which the fairy of this name rescues a baby that has fallen into the river Volga near a mill which is powered by the water rushing beneath. The drawing probably dates from early 1856, when Burne-Jones was making his first tentative efforts to assimilate Rossetti's style.
The motif of the mill, lock, boat-house or watergate clearly had some special appeal for Burne-Jones, finding its fullest expression in The Mill (Victoria and Albert Museum), exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1882. It was probably first suggested by a scene on the river in or around Oxford, such as the lock at Godstowe, the burial place of Fair Rosamond, the mistress of Henry II. To this he had made 'terminal pilgrimages' as an undergraduate, coming back 'in a delirium of joy', so intoxicated with 'pictures of the old days, the abbey, and long processions of the faithful, banners of the cross, copes and croziers, gay knights and ladies by the river bank' that he had had to 'throw stones into the water to break the dream'. We know that he revisited Godstowe, together with Charles Faulkner, an Oxford contemporary, and the painters G. P. Boyce and Eyre Crowe, in March 1859, probably about the time that he was planning The Wise and Foolish Virgins. He was also in the city later that year, first for William Morris's wedding in April and subsequently for an appointment with Dean Liddell at Christ Church. He was designing the window devoted to the life of St Frideswide, the patron saint of Oxford, in the Latin Chapel in the Cathedral, and this subject again would have focused his attention on the Thames above Oxford since the saint had reputedly lived in retirement at Binsey, not far from Godstowe. Perhaps not surprisingly, several of the scenes depicted in the window are similar in composition and spirit to The Wise and Foolish Virgins.
But this is a drawing at the crossroads. If it looks back to Burne-Jones's time at Oxford (an Oxford that still, as his son-in-law J. W. Mackail was to write, in his life of Morris, 'breathed from its towers the last enchantments of the Middle Ages'), and reflects an exclusive and self-conscious medievalism more recently forged by the coming together of himself, Morris and Rossetti, it also shows him beginning to outgrow Rossetti and evolve an independent style.
The moving spirit behind this development was Ruskin. For reasons that sprang from his most deeply held aeshetic and moral convictions. Ruskin was disturbed by the medievalism espoused by Rossetti's circle in the late 1850s. For him it was a self-indulgent departure form the lofty ideals of the Pre-Raphaelite movement that he had championed earlier in the decade. Mannered, cerebral and self-regarding, it seemed to have lost all contact with nature, the fundamental bedrock of beauty and truth, as he had spent so long explaining in Modern Painters. He was also unhappy about the new subject matter. Ruskin believed that the greatest themes an artist could attempt were religious, and that the religious subjects that Rossetti and Holman Hunt had painted in the early 1850s had 'formed the first foundation that has ever been laid for true sacred art'. He also approved of Rossetti's Dantesque subjects of the same period, these representing the second rank of 'noble subjects', namely 'the acts or meditations of great men'. But he had no use for the subjects derived from Malory or Froissart that Rossetti and his followers had suddenly gone 'crazy' about (his word), seeing them as essentially frivolous and lacking in moral weight.
Ruskin realised that he had done much to encourage the craze by showing or lending artists illuminated manustcripts and Dürer prints, but this only made him more anxious to bring about a reaction and play his favourite role of artists' mentor. The problem was that Rossetti himself, having already endured several years of Ruskin's fussy attempts at supervision, was becoming increasingly resistant and difficult to handle. Burne-Jones, on the other hand, seemed a much easier option. Ruskin admired him as an artist, liked him as a man, and, in view of his often-expressed hero-worship, probably saw him as more pliable. At all events it was on him that his hopes for reform were focussed.
Ruskin was not alone in having reservations about the medieval style. G.F. Watts was equally concerned about his pupil Val Prinsep, the artist son of Thoby and Sara Prinsep of Little Holland House. Prinsep, too, had come heavily under Rossetti's influence, having joined him, Burne-Jones, Morris and others in painting the ill-fated murals with Arthurian themes in the Oxford Union debating chamber in 1857. Watts distrusted Rossettian medievalism for much the same reasons as Ruskin himself, seeing it as divorced from nature and an aberration from the great tradition in Western art which for both of them was rooted in the Elgin Marbles. His other young protégé, J.R. Spencer Stanhope, who had also been involved with the Union murals, summed up his master's views on art training as follows: 'Watts', he wrote, 'utterly condemns all conventionality and mannerisms, and says that nothing ought to be studied (the Elgin Marbles excepted) but nature.'
In the autumn of 1858 Watts wrote to Ruskin, voicing his disquiet and hinting that Ruskin himself was not free from blame. In his reply Ruskin expressed wholehearted agreement and accepted that he was partly 'answerable' for the problem, 'not indeed for the principle of retrogression - but for the stiffness and quaintness and intensity as opposed to classical grace and tranquility.' Having given further reasons for his own disgust, he promised to have a 'serious talk' with Prinsep.
The phrase can be equally well applied to Ruskin's relations with Burne-Jones during the next few years. In fact both Ruskin and Watts were to do their share of 'talking' 'It was Watts', Burne-Jones later recalled, who 'compelled me to try and draw better'. We do not know exactly when this coercion took place, but it would be surprising if it failed to start when Burne-Jones was staying at Little Holland House in the summer of 1858. Spencer Stanhope's comment, moreover, tells us exactly what 'drawing better' meant: closer observation of nature and study of the Elgin Marbles, Watts's invariable touchstone of beauty ever since he had discovered them in the late 1820s.
Burne-Jones's 'serious talk' with his mentors can be followed in considerable detail. This is not the place to pursue the subject (which has been done elsewhere; see 'literature' above), except perhaps to note one of its most remarkable manifestations, his first visit to Italy in the autumn of 1859. He was accompanied, not surprisingly, by Val Prinsep, and no doubt Watts, a seaoned Italian traveller, gave them hints on what to see. Certainly Ruskin did. 'Ruskin in hand', Prinsep recalled, 'we sought out every cornice, design or monument praised by him. We bowed before Tintoret and scoffed at Sansovino. A broken pediment was a thing of horror'.
It would be interesting to know whether or not The Wise and Foolish Virgins was complete before the travellers set out in early September, and therefore its exact relationship to this important event, but whatever the case the drawing tells us fairly unequivocally that Burne-Jones was paying attention to the older men's advice. The most obvious sign is his sudden choice of a religious subject after the medievalisms of 1858. It was as if he was consciously trying to re-establish the 'foundation... for true sacred art' that Ruskin had seen in Rossetti's work of the early and mid 1850s. In fact this may be the real significance of the drawing's relationship with Rossetti's Mary Magdalene (fig. 3), since this was one of the religious subjects that Ruskin rated so highly. He described it at the time as 'magnificent... in every possible way', and later as of 'quite imperishable power and value'. He even had thoughts of buying it, although in fact, as we shall see, it went to another owner.
No less consistent with the 'serious talk' is the wealth of naturalistic detail that Burne-Jones brings to the composition; here is evidence, surely, that he was using his eyes in the manner advocated by Ruskin and Watts. By comparison with the drawings of 1858, there also seems to be less willfully eccentric detail and a greater command of overall design, an enhanced capacity, as Ruskin would have put it, to 'harmonise truths' and exercise 'a quality of grasp' analogous to 'the power of... a great poet over his conception'. Last but not least, it is tempting to see in the frieze-like disposition and repetitive drapery forms of the foolish virgins a hint that Burne-Jones had been studying the Elgin friezes and was attempting to express the 'classical grace' that Ruskin so admired. There is evidence in his contemporary sketchbooks of a new awareness of the antique, and it should not be forgotten that throughout this period he was living in Bloomsbury, which gave him easy access to the British Museum.
A number of related drawings are of interest in this context. Three composition sketches survive, one being illustrated here (fig. 5). All are more confused in design than the eventual solution, suggesting that Burne-Jones had to struggle to attain the lucidity he finally achieved and that the 'Elgin' solution came late in the evolutionary process. There are also three studies for the figures of the foolish virgins (figs. 6-8), perhaps a response to Watts's injunction to 'draw better'.
The reference to the drawing in the Fitzwilliam work-record reads as follows: 'I also drew in pen and ink the parable of the ten Virgins, meaning afterwards to paint it.' Nothing more is heard of this painting, which was probably never started, although it is possible that the studies for the foolish virgins were made for it rather than the drawing. Stylistically they could well date from 1860-61 rather than 1859. The Wise and Foolish Virgins was not alone in being conceived as a trial run for a painting. Buondelmonte's Wedding, for which even more preparatory drawings exist, was (again according to the work-record) 'the chief' of 'many designs for a large oil picture.' This painting too failed to materialise, but the fact that Burne-Jones saw these drawings as anticipating paintings indicates clearly the way his mind was working. As early as 1859 his sights were set on working in oil and watercolour. Pen-and-ink was being reduced to a subsidiary role, and would soon disappear altogether.
The Wise and Foolish Virgins was bought by T.E. Plint (1823-1861), the Leeds stockbroker who was among the Pre-Raphaelites' most important patrons before his collecting career was cut short at the early age of thirty-eight. He owned a number of their most celebrated pictures, including Madox Brown's Last of England (Birmingham), Millais' Carpenter's Shop (Tate Gallery), Holman Hunt's Finding of the Saviour in the Temple (Birmingham) and Windus's Burd Helen (Liverpool). He also commissioned Brown's masterpiece Work (Manchester) and was an eager buyer of the more extreme Pre-Raphaelite productions of Rossetti and his followers. Not only Burne-Jones but William Morris, Simeon Solomon and J.R. Spencer Stanhope benefited from his patronage. In all, he had three pen-and-ink drawings by Burne-Jones, The Wise and Foolish Virgins, Buondelmonte's Wedding and The Waxen Image, as well as a watercolour, The Blessed Damozel (Fogg Museum of Art, Harvard). The Wise and Foolish Virgins must have been particularly to his taste since he was an ardent Evangelical and closely associated with the Christian Socialist movement. This proclivity was reflected in many of his purchases, and as early as 1857 we find him telling Burne-Jones that he had 'a fancy for a scripture subject'. Interestingly enough, he also owned Rossetti's Mary Magdalene at the Door of Simon the Parisee (fig.3) , suggesting once again a connection between this drawing and The Wise and Foolish Virgins.
Artists looked on Plint as a godsend, especially as he was in the habit of paying for their work in advance instalments. His death in 1861 hit them hard, and many, including Brown, Rossetti and Burne-Jones, found themselves having to re-imburse his estate for pictures not yet delivered. However, the sale of his collection at Christie's in March 1862, necessitated by the fact that he had died financially embarrassed, leaving a widow and children unsupported, had the advantage that it was the first of its kind and brought the artists concerned welcome publicity. George du Maurier captured the excitement the sale created in a letter to his friend Thomas Armstrong. 'I suppose you would like to have seen the sale at Christie's; Plinth's (sic) pictures - one of the jolliest and most interesting exhibitions that ever was. I went there with old Keene [Charles Keene, the illustrator], who humbled himself before almost every picture in the Room.' For Burne-Jones, who had previously exhibited only at the semi-private Hogarth Club, it was the greatest exposure his work was to receive until he was elected an associate of the Old-Watercolour Society in 1864.
From Plint the drawing passed to George Rae, a Liverpool banker who was a great patron of Rossetti; he owned over twenty examples, one of which, a chalk study for Veronica Veronese, was sold at Christie's on 8 November 1996. Rae, however, had no posthumous sale. The Rossettis remained in his family until 1916, when many, including a wonderful series of early watercolours and such middle-period masterpieces as The Beloved and Monna Vanna, were bought by the Tate Gallery. Others are now in the British Museum, the Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight, the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard and elsewhere.
The Wise and Foolish Virgins seems to have been Rae's only Burne-Jones. He lent it to the artist's retrospective exhibition at the New Gallery in the winter of 1892-3, and was still credited with its ownership in 1904, but it then disappeared from view. It was still missing as late as 1973, when the Harrison and Waters monograph appeared. Fortunately it re-surfaced at Sotheby's Belgravia in November the following year, in time to be included in the Arts Council's Burne-Jones exhibition of 1975-6, and it was naturally required again when the centenary exhibition was mounted in New York twenty-five years later.