The present lot is an elegant head study for The Sirens (Ringling Museum, Sarasota, Florida, fig. 1), a late, unfinished oil painting which, whilst originally considered in the early 1870s, was not designed until 1880, and only committed to canvas in 1891. Throughout the 1890s Burne-Jones created numerous sketches in connection with this oil, and ‘the bevy of beautiful female figures provided the need (or the excuse) for many individual head studies, all dated 1895 or 1896, which rank among his most delicate pencil drawings’ (S. Wildman and J. Christian, Edward Burne-Jones: Victorian Artist-Dreamer, New York, 1999, p. 321, no. 157). A very similar pencil study is held in the collection of the Fogg Museum in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
The Sirens was commissioned by one of Burne-Jones’s greatest patrons, Frederick Leyland (1831–1892), and in describing the work to him, the artist remarked that he didn’t wish to capture a specific mythological scene, but to depict ‘any sirens, anywhere, that lure on men to destruction’ (G. Burne-Jones, Memorials, London, 1904, p. 222). The scene is therefore not drawn directly from mythology, but is an imaginative and deeply evocative composition. The moment captured is fraught with foreboding as a ship of sailors draw into a bay, surrounded on all sides by the eponymous sirens. The discarded helmets in the foreground betray the coming fate of the sailors who have been lured to shore by these ethereal figures. Executed in dark crepuscular tones, this further imbues the scene with dread and contributes to the work as a meditation on the darker side of desire.