Burne-Jones’s move in 1865 to 41 Kensington Gardens precipitated a great period of creativity for the artist, and the present work, Astrologia, was one of the first pictures produced following this relocation. By this period, Burne-Jones had stylistically begun to move away from the medievalism synonymous with his early works, and had begun to introduce Italian sources to his art. This aesthetic shift was occasioned by his first two trips to Italy: initially in 1859 with his fellow artist Val Prinsep, and again in 1862 alongside his wife, Georgiana, and John Ruskin. Ruskin was so keen to ‘improve’ Burne-Jones’s style that he financially funded the trip, in the belief that making copies of Venetian works would greatly aid in the artist’s draughtsmanship and formal maturation. These trips certainly proved influential, with Burne-Jones remarking upon his return to his studio assistant, T.M. Rooke, that he thought ‘there could be no paintings in the world but Carpaccio’s and the other Venetians’ (S. Wildman and J. Christian, Edward Burne-Jones: Victorian Artist Dreamer, New Haven, 2000, p. 98).
Astrologia was thus conceived at the height of the artist’s Venetian tendency, and this influence can be evinced in the composition, by the half-length portrait in profile, and the figure’s diaphanous pink gown. The artist was undoubtedly looking to Renaissance portraiture at the time, as he is known to have made copies of Giulio Romano’s Isabella d’Este, circa 1520, which he saw in the collection at Hampton Court. The intricate black brocade and billowing proportions apparent in Isabella’s costume were subsequently applied by Burne-Jones for his 1860 painting, Sidonia von Bork (Tate Gallery, London).
The model who sat to Burne-Jones for the present lot was Miss Augusta Jones, described by Georgiana Burne-Jones as ‘a noble looking girl’ for whom the artist had ‘much regard and respect’ (G. Burne-Jones, Memorials, London, 1904, p. 302, p. 360). Jones was a favourite of the artist during his early career, and he also employed her to model for Princess Sabra in the Princess and the Garden from the St George Series (Musée d’Orsay, Paris) of the same year. Both paintings render Jones’s androgynous and strong features in profile, clad in a loose pink gown and depicted deep in contemplation. However, in Astrologia, symbolism surpasses narrative, as the subject evokes the general art of astrology and doesn’t illustrate a specific scene from literature or myth. The background is dark and left entirely un-delineated except for a spray of laurel leaves, symbolic of transformation and triumph. The figure holds a dark and highly polished orb to her eyes, as she gazes deeply into it, prophesying what is to come. A heavy tome lies open in front of her, to assist with her divination.
The work is standout in Burne-Jones’s œuvre, and unlike many of his paintings that depicted themes or subjects he returned to over a long period of time, there are only two smaller sketches known; one pastel, drawn in 1863 (Private Collection), that was given by the artist to Francis Blanche, the Burne-Jones’s housekeeper. The other identified drawing is a red chalk and pencil head study, again using Miss Augusta Jones as the model (Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery, Birmingham).
In Astrologia Burne-Jones explores a more general mood of mysticism, as his model consults a highly-polished crystal ball, whilst she is otherwise plunged into darkness. The crystal ball was a fascinating motif employed by Burne-Jones throughout his career, and the ball itself stayed in his studio, being used in his 1895-1896 portrait of Baronne Deslandes (National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, fig. 1); the French symbolist author who wrote under the nom de plume, Ossit. In both pictures, Burne-Jones seems to relish the dual purpose of the orb as both a means of reflecting light, also apparent in his use of convex mirrors, but also as a symbol to signify the occult and the sublime. Interestingly, Burne-Jones similarly embellishes the backdrop of Baronne Deslandes with laurel leaves, indicating that he was looking back to Astrologia when considering ways to depict the enigmatic and shadowy Baronne. The orb is also evident in Burne-Jones’s Days of Creation Series (fig. 2) which he designed for William Burges’s Great Bookcase. Madame Deslandes saw these works herself in the artist’s 1892 exhibition, describing them as ‘symbols of the immeasurable distress of creation’ (A. Smith, Edward Burne-Jones, London, 2018, p. 166.)