The Sleep of King Arthur in Avalon (Museo de Arte, Ponce, Puerto Rico) was commissioned in 1881 by Burne-Jones's friend and patron George Howard, later Earl of Carlisle, its purpose being to fill a wall in the library at Howard's seat in Cumberland, Naworth Castle. However, the enormous canvas came to have such personal significance for the artist that Howard resigned his right to it. Burne-Jones continued to work on it for many years, and it was still not quite finished when he died suddenly in June 1898.
While the central part of the design remained more or less fixed, the lateral portions underwent radical revisions during the picture's long development. Having considered and discarded two very different iconographical solutions, battle scenes symbolic of human tribulations and hill-fairies among rocks (see lot 134), Burne-Jones finally opted for figures looking out over ramparts, watching for the moment when they must awaken the King to save his troubled world.
The present study is for the two watchers on the far left of the canvas. Its style suggests that it is a very late work, perhaps as late as 1898. In fact the same two figures appear in what is believed to be Burne-Jones's very last drawing; see Martin Harrison and Bill Waters, Burne-Jones, London, 1973, p. 169, fig. 255.