Monday, March 7, 2011
The Lost Sea Nymph of Burne-Jones
Sold at Christie's in 2005
Important British Art lott 34
Description: A Sea-Nymph
signed and dated 'EBJ 1881' (lower left)
oil on canvas (unlined), in the original frame
48 1/8 x 48 1/8 in. (122.2 x 122.2 cm.)
Provenance: Bought from the artist by William Connal before 1888.
His sale; Christie's, London, 14 March 1908, lot 37, 100 guineas to Arthur J. Sulley on behalf of a member of the Connal family, and thence by descent.
Exhibited: Glasgow, International Exhibition, 1888, Fine Arts Section, no. 166, lent by William Connal.
London, New Gallery, Exhibition of the Works of Edward Burne-Jones, 1892-3, no. 44, lent by William Connal.
London, Christie's, Daughters of Delight, March 2005, no. 1.
Published: Burne-Jones's autograph work-record (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge), under 1880.
Malcolm Bell, Sir Edward Burne-Jones: A Record and Review, 2nd ed., London, 1894, pp. 55, 103; 4th ed., 1898, pp. 60, 131. The book was also translated into German by Rudolf Klein, appearing in the Die Künst series, 1902; while the catalogue was reprinted in O.G. Destrée, Les Préraphaélites, Brussels, 1894.
Robert Walker, 'Private Picture Collections in Glasgow and West of Scotland. III - The Collection of Mr William Connal, Jun.,' Magazine of Art, 1894, p. 339.
Julia Cartwright, 'The Life and Work of Sir Edward Burne-Jones, Bart', Art Annual, London, Christmas 1894, pp. 19 (illustrated), 22-3.
Otto von Schleinitz, Burne-Jones (Künstler-Monographien, no.LV), Beilefeld and Leipzig, 1901, pp. 89 (illustrated), 118.
Fortunée De Lisle, Burne-Jones, London, 1904, pp. 127, 185.
Arsène Alexandre, Sir Edward Burne-Jones, Second Series (Newnes Art Library), London, 1907, p. 9, illustrated.
Martin Harrison and Bill Waters, Burne-Jones, London, 1973, p. 136, caption to pl. 195.
Burne-Jones, exh. Hayward Gallery, London, Southampton Art Gallery and Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (Arts Council), 1975-6, cat. p. 89, under no. 325.
Burne-Jones and his Followers, exh. circulated in Japan by the Tokyo Shimbun, 1987, cat. p. 77, under no. 24, illustrated.
John Christian, 'Burne-Jones and Sculpture', in Pre-Raphaelite Sculpture, exh. Matthiesen Gallery, London, and Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, 1991-2, cat. p. 89, illustrated.
The Earthly Paradise, exh. Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, 1993, cat. p. 68, under no. A: 21 a-b.
Notes: A rediscovery
There can be few scholars working on an artist who do not have a mental list of pictures by their subject of research that are recorded but lost. Some they will know are beyond recovery, having been destroyed by enemy action or act of God, but there will be others for which no such information exists and the tantalising possibility remains that they may turn up. Such works represent a perpetual challenge to the art-historian concerned. Ultimately, of course, he wants to find them, but this he knows he may never achieve. Meanwhile there is a more pressing obligation: to use his existing knowledge to visualise the missing works and gauge what bearing they may have on received perceptions of the master's career and development. An old description, engraving or photograph, while obviously helpful, will only partially fill the gap.
Burne-Jones is no exception to this rule. His work is documented in remarkable detail, beginning with the year-by-year record that he kept himself. Now in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, the account has certain limitations. Since he only began it in 1872, the entries for the years prior to this date are based on memory and sometimes inaccurate. Even from the time when the record becomes contemporary, the jottings are often too cryptic to give a full picture of what is afoot. Only by reading between the lines, for instance, can we piece together the complex development of the famous Briar Rose paintings (Buscot Park, Oxfordshire) and their subsidiary versions.
Nonetheless the record is invaluable, nor is it by any means our only resource.The two early monographs by Malcolm Bell (four editions 1892-8) and Fortunée De Lisle (1904) contain further lists, Bell's clearly being based on Burne-Jones's own record, to which he must have had access, (Bell was a nephew of Edward Poynter, who was Burne-Jones's brother-in-law, their wives being sisters). Lady Burne-Jones's Memorials of her husband (1904) is another essential source of information, even if this too sometimes needs decoding. Then there are the catalogues of the artist's lifetime retrospective exhibition at the New Gallery in 1892-3 and the two memorial shows of 1889-9, the main one again at the New Gallery, and a smaller one, focusing on drawings and studies, at the Burlington Fine Arts Club. As for other books and articles, Professor Fredeman's 'bibliocritical study' of the Pre-Raphaelite movement (1965) lists well over 100 items specifically related to Burne-Jones, the majority dating either from the artist's lifetime or the years before he fell out of favour in the early twentieth century. Many, including Julia Cartwright's account of his life and work and Aymer Vallance's important essay on his decorative art, published by the Art Journal respectively in 1894 and 1900, are lavishly illustrated.
There was, then, no shortage of information when Burne-Jones once again attracted attention as part of the general revival of interest in Victorian arts (a phenomenon usually dated to the 1960s, although green shoots had begun to push their way up long before then). The main problem was rather to trace and identify the pictures. Many, of course, were safely lodged in museums, even if they had been consigned to storerooms during the long years of eclipse; others remained in private hands or were coming onto the market as renewed interest drove prices up. Whatever the case, it was not long before most things were located and a fairly comprehensive picture of the artist's oeuvre emerged.
Even today, however, over thirty years after the Burne-Jones revival had found its first major expression in Martin Harrison's and Bill Waters' 1973 monograph (a book which, significantly, includes a gazeteer of relevant public collections), certain desiderata compromise that picture in one form or another. Some fall into the already mentioned category of irrevocable losses. The outstanding case is the pictures once belonging to the architect George Edmund Street, who had known Burne-Jones from very early days. Having descended in Street's family, they were destroyed when bombs fell on Bath in 1941. Among them were such important items as The Waxen Image, an elaborate pen-and-ink drawing of 1856, illustrating a scene of witchcraft, and St Theophilus and the Angel, a watercolour exhibited in 1867. The Waxen Image was the first work that Burne-Jones would acknowledge as belonging to his canon. Executed soon after his meeting with Dante Gabriel Rossetti in January 1856 and inspired by his hero's poem 'Sister Helen', it would have told us much about his initial response to the man who exercised such a crucial influence on his early development. St Theophilus also represented a decisive moment in Burne-Jones's career, being painted with Ruskin at his elbow to embody the critic's ideal of 'constant art', a concept that went far to define the aesthetic of his later style. At least St Theophilus is known from an old photograph, but the only record of The Waxen Image is a description in the catalogue of the 1899 exhibition at the Burlington Fine Arts Club.
If these works have gone forever, leaving us to cut our critical cloth accordingly, others belong to our second category: pictures for which no evidence of destruction exists and the strong or remote possibility remains that they may re-surface. Until its recent discovery in a private collection, A Sea-Nymph was among the most important of these provokingly elusive items.
The picture was by no means unknown. It is mentioned in Burne-Jones's own work-record, and although it was not exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery following its execution in 1880-1, it was included in his retrospective at the New Gallery twelve years later. Its appearance was also familiar since it was photographed by Frederick Hollyer, the Kensington photographer who had the monopoly for reproducing Burne-Jones's work. His images were syndicated widely, and A Sea-Nymph was illustrated on several occasions, for example in Julia Cartwright's Art Annual of 1894 and in Otto von Schleinitz's book on Burne-Jones in the Künstler-Monographien series (1901), the principal contemporary account of the artist's work in German. Last but not least, the picture had an interesting stylistic and historical context defined by a group of associated drawings and designs.
All this only made it more frustrating that the picture itself was missing. It was evident that it was not only a good-sized oil painting dating from the very height of Burne-Jones's career but a work of startling originality and boldness of conception speaking volumes about the impact of his decorative work on his painting. Further increasing the sense of loss was the fact that the picture was one of a pair, having a companion, A Wood-Nymph, that was exactly contemporary, identical in scale, and comparable in design. They had been together until March 1908, when they appeared in the William Connal sale at Christie's, but, finding separate buyers, had then been split up. A Sea-Nymph, it now emerges, was bought by a dealer who was probably acting for a sister of Connal's, in whose family it has descended. A Wood-Nymph was acquired by another dealer and, having passed through the hands of two collectors, found its way into the South African Museum, Cape Town, in 1944.
Had the whereabouts of both pictures been known, an attempt would almost certainly have been made to bring them together either for the Arts Council's Burne-Jones Exhibition in 1975, another early milestone in re-assessment, or for the centenary exhibition that was mounted by the Metropolitan Museum, New York, in 1998, and subsequently seen in Birmingham, Burne-Jones's birthplace, and Paris, the city where he had enjoyed such a vogue during the Symbolist era. The nearest anyone came to achieving this marriage was in 1987, when A Wood-Nymph was included in Burne-Jones and his Followers, an exhibition circulated in Japan by the Tokyo Shimbun, and A Sea-Nymph was illustrated (from the old Hollyer photograph) in the catalogue.
However, the re-discovery of the Sea-Nymph inspired Christie's to mount a small exhibition at their King Street premises in March 2005, in which the picture was briefly reunited with its companion in South Africa. Borrowing its title, Daughters of Delight, from Spencer's Epithalamion ('Bring with you all the Nymphes... daughters of delight'), the exhibition not only put the two pictures side by side for the first time in nearly a hundred years but set them in the context of a group of related works, kindly lent at very short notice by museums and private collectors. Miraculously, both pictures were still in their matching original frames, making the sense of kinship all the more complete.
The exhibition had a fully-illustrated catalogue, which has been adapted for the present sale-catalogue entry. Not only have the entries for the other exhibits been dropped but, in accordance with Christie's usual practice, we have omitted the footnotes which gave the references for quotations and other subsidiary data. For all this, the exhibition catalogue should be consulted. At the same time, one or two facts which emerged during the exhibition have been incorporated in the present entry. In particular, it is now clear that the drawing of a mermaid and her babies in the Fitzwilliam Museum is one of two that Burne-Jones made to be traced into William Morris's fabric design of 1875, rather than being some indeterminate later version as we originally supposed.
The mermaid theme
Burne-Jones's fondness for the theme of the sea-nymph or mermaid is usually linked to his acquisition of a house at Rottingdean, a picturesque village on the Sussex coast four miles east of Brighton. He bought the house in 1880 as a holiday retreat, somewhere that offered an escape from the hectic pace of life in London and a more stable, hassle-free alternative to the conventional ad hoc vacation. North End House, as he called it, partly because of its position in the village, partly after North End Road, Fulham, where he lived in London, was to serve this purpose admirably until his death in 1898. After that his widow sold the Fulham house and moved there permanently.
Burne-Jones's letters post-1880 are full of references to the charms of Rottingdean: the church, the windmill, the duck-populated village pond and the rolling Downs in the distance. These delights received pictorial expression as well, featuring in many of his ephemeral drawings and even his more Rabelaisian caricatures; after all, fat ladies, his speciality as a humorist, revealed so much more when caught in a brisk sea breeze. Meanwhile, at a more serious level, he was pondering the possibilities of underwater life. The work-record shows that in 1882 he 'made many designs of sea nymphs and sea children'. More expansively, in her account of this year in her Memorials, his widow quotes him as saying: 'I designed many scenes of life under the sea; of mermaids, mermen and mer-babies: the best was a mer-wife giving her mer-baby an air bath and it is howling with misery. There are four designs of hide-and-seek, and a coral forest and mermaids dragging mortals down, and tragedies, comedies, and melodramas in plenty.'
The phrase that particularly resonates here is 'mermaids dragging mortals down', since it anticipates Burne-Jones's most famous mermaid subject, The Depths of the Sea. Painted early in 1886 and exhibited that summer at the Royal Academy (the only time he was represented at Burlington House), the picture shows a mermaid, with an enigmatic expression on her face, carrying a drowned sailor down to her watery lair. These mermaid subjects, whether tinged with sadism, like this one, or more playful, like A Sea-Nymph, are a graphic illustration of the way Burne-Jones approached natural phenomena. He did in fact study nature closely; as Henry James put it in 1877, his pictures 'could not have been produced without a vast deal of "looking" on the painter's part.' Nonetheless, it was typical that the proximity of the sea at Rottingdean resulted not in pictures of the sea itself, or even in its use for backgrounds, but in an exploration of its literary and mythogical associations. A close parallel exists in the well-known 'Flower Book' (British Museum) that Burne-Jones began in 1882 and continued intermittently until his death sixteen years later, often working on it during holidays at Rottingdean. The thirty-eight designs are entirely inspired by the more fanciful names of flowers; no flower itself appears.
And yet, close as the association undoubtedly is between Burne-Jones's penchant for mermaid subjects and his move to Rottingdean, it would be wrong to think of him arriving on the Sussex coast and suddenly acquiring an interest in submarine life. The Depths of the Sea itself looks back to one of his very earliest drawings, an account of a man drowning from the illustrations to Archibald Maclaren's Fairy Family that he executed in the mid-1850s. Burne-Jones would never acknowledge these immature drawings, most of which were made before his all-important meeting with Rossetti and lack that artist's transforming influence. Nonetheless, at some subconscious level the image of a man plunging through the waves to his death must have remained with him, to re-emerge as a major painting some thirty years later.
Decorative origins of the design
A Sea-Nymph represents a similar development in less dramatic form. In Burne-Jones's work-record for 1875, he noted that he had designed some 'mermaids for woven stuffs'. There were two of these figures, one swimming from left to right, holding fishes in either hand, the other moving from right to left, clasping a couple of mer-babies to her breast. They represent Burne-Jones's only contribution to a repeating pattern for fabric or wallpaper by his lifelong friend and collaborater, William Morris. His drawing for the mermaid holding fishes seems to be lost, but the one for her companion, carrying two mer-babies, survives in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. We also have Morris's design for the fabric, showing the two figures against an incongruous background of foliage (or is it meant to be sea-weed?) within some characteristic scrolls of flowering acanthus. An unknown hand, probably that of an assistant in Morris's workshop, has traced each of Burne-Jones's figures six times, and Morris himself has then developed the central section, including one example of each figure, in watercolour. That the Fitzwilliam drawing was used in the tracing process cannot be doubted. Details and size correspond exactly, and someone, probably the artist himself, seems to have deliberately strengthened the outlines of the drawing to assist the tracer.
The fabric design is not altogther successful, and it is perhaps not surprising that the material was never woven. As Peter Cormack has observed, however, Morris did use the background pattern for his 'Wreath' wallpaper of 1876, while Burne-Jones's two figures of mermaids were both recycled. In 1878 he noted in his work-record that he had 'designed three panels for low relief of woodnymph, water nymph and Hesperides'. The last of these panels was based on one of the illustrations he had made for Morris's narrative poem The Life and Death of Jason in the mid-1860s. A long, frieze-like composition, it shows the serpent Ladon guarding the Golden Apples in the garden of the Hesperides on the slopes of Mount Atlas; one sister feeds him from a bowl while another plays a lyre. Of the other two designs, the 'sea nymph' was also a reworking of an existing idea, being based on the figure of the mermaid carrying mer-babies conceived for 'woven stuffs' two years earlier. Only the 'woodnymph' seems to have been a new invention, designed as a pair to her aquatic sibling.
As for the second mermaid, carrying her mer-babies, she re-appears in a small, unfinished oil painting of about this time. It can be dated not only on grounds of style but because a study exists in a sketchbook dated 1877 in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. The study is little more than a drawing from life of a female torso. Such mermaid-like attributes as windblown hair and a scaly lower body are lightly indicated, but as yet the mer-babies are lacking.
Ultimately this mermaid's sister, the one swimming from left to right, holding fishes, was also to achieve pictorial form in our painting A Sea-Nymph, but she had, as it were, to wait until she had passed through her intermediate incarnation as a relief. Studies for her in this form and for the companion 'woodnymph' appeared at Christie's on 17 June 1975 and are now in a private collection in Canada. Executed in bodycolour on brown paper, they are extraordinarily free and assured in handling, revelling in the possibilities for serpentine linear patterns inherent in the subjects. The sea-nymph particularly, her hair blowing in extravagant arabesques that match the rolling forms of the waves, is a design of astonishing sophistication; no better example could be found of Burne-Jones the adventurous precursor of Art Nouveau. Equally remarkable is the way he has conceived the figures in terms of reliefs, framing them within a narrow border that is occasionally broken by the enclosed forms: the wood-nymph's by some of the leaves of the tree she sits in, the sea-nymph's by her tail and the fish she brandishes aloft in her left hand.
An artist in his prime
As one might guess from the confidence of these drawings, Burne-Jones
was fast approaching the zenith of his career. After years of relative obscurity following his resignation from the Old Water-Colour Society in 1870, he had leapt to fame on the opening of the Grosvenor Gallery in 1877, the eight large works he exhibited confounding critics and gaining him a host of devoted admirers. During the next decade no artist did more to define the ideals and determine the course of the
Aesthetic movement. Each year his reputation was enhanced by a new masterpiece appearing at the Grosvenor: Laus Veneris (Newcastle) and Le Chant d'Amour (Metropolitan Museum, New York) in 1878; the Pygmalion series (Birmingham) in 1879; The Golden Stairs (Tate Gallery) in 1880, and so on. His failure to submit anything in 1881 caused Henry James to comment that 'a Grosvenor without Mr Burne-Jones is a Hamlet with Hamlet left out.' The next year he was back in force, showing no fewer than nine pictures, including The Mill, now part of the Ionides Bequest in the Victoria and Albert Museum, and another major work, The Wheel of Fortune (Musée d'Orsay, Paris), followed in 1883. But the climax came in 1884 when, at the age of
fifty-one, he exhibited King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid. A major statement by any standard, large in scale, portentous in theme, elaborate in treatment and rich in references to the old masters, it seemed to remove any shadow of doubt as to the artist's pre-eminence. Even the Times, which had by no means always been friendly to him in the past, was moved to superlatives. 'Ever since the Grosvenor Gallery was established', wrote its art critic, 'the work of Mr Burne-Jones has supplied the dominant note of each exhibition. This year it does far more. His superb pictures King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid as far transcends all else in the gallery as (Raphael's) Sistine Madonna transcends all else at Dresden, and scarcely leaves the visitor any eyes for the rest of the display. We are only echoing the opinion which is all but universal... when we say that it is not only the finest work that Mr Burne-Jones has ever painted, but that it is one of the finest pictures ever painted by an Englishman.'
Five years later, when Cophetua was shown at the Exposition Universelle in Paris, it enjoyed a similar triumph, earning the artist a gold medal, the cross of the Légion d'honneur, and a rapturous reception in Symbolist circles. No other picture caught the public imagination so completely until the Briar Rose series was exhibited at Agnew's in 1890. In fact this event marked Burne-Jones's apotheosis. Artistic taste was changing rapidly, and his very success made a ferocious reaction inevitable. Within a few years there were already signs of the decline in popularity that was to last for so much of the twentieth century and was only reversed in comparatively recent times.
Experiments with low relief
While painting was always his primary concern, Burne-Jones never abandoned the decorative work for which he had shown such an aptitude from the start. True, he was making slightly fewer stained glass cartoons in the 1880s than in the previous decade,when he was drawing about forty a year, often of unparalled scope and ambition. There was also a lull in his work as an illustrator between the 1860s, when he produced literally hundreds of designs for Morris's Earthly Paradise, and the 1890s, when Morris's launching of the Kelmscott Press once again brought his talents in this field to the fore. But if some commitments receded, others emerged. In 1881 he was commissioned to design mosaics for the new American Church in Rome, an enormous task that was still incomplete at his death seventeen years later. A year or two earlier William Morris developed an obsession with tapestry, and
Burne-Jones had to supply designs whenever figures were involed.
Beginning modestly enough with single-figure panels representing Flora and Pomona, designed 1882-3, the collaboration culminated in the early 1890s in the famous Holy Grail series, one of the supreme achievements of the Arts and Crafts movement. Meanwhile Burne-Jones was nursing a private obsession of his own, the reproduction of his designs in low relief.
Burne-Jones's interest in this art form, so closely associated historically with antiquity and such artists as Donatello, Agostino di Duccio and Desiderio da Settignano, was part of his general adherence to classical and Renaissance prototypes during the middle years of his career. Significantly, it was not an area of decorative art that made much appeal to Morris, a much more thoroughgoing Goth, although it was exploited by Walter Crane, a true eclectic who was happy to mix motifs drawn from classical, medieval, Renaissance, or even Japanese, sources. It is possible, in fact, that Crane helped to fire Burne-Jones's enthusiasm. As early as 1874 he was carrying out a decorative scene involving panels in low relief, whereas Burne-Jones's first use of the medium dates from a year or two later, when he planned to adopt it for four of the panels illustrating the story of Perseus that Arthur Balfour commissioned him to paint for the drawing room of his London
house, 4 Carlton Gardens, in 1875. The two artists were in close touch at this time, working together on yet another decorative project, the Cupid and Psyche frieze destined for the dining-room at George Howard's new London residence, 1 Palace Green.
The use of gesso relief for some of the Perseus subjects proved ill-considered. When the first panel to be completed in this way, Perseus and the Graiae, was exhibited at the Grosvenor in 1878, it baffled the critics and the idea of using this medium for part of the project was abandoned. But Burne-Jones did not lose interest in low relief as such. This very year he produced not only the three designs already mentioned, 'of woodnymph, water nymph and Hesperides', but what the work-record calls a 'golden panel of triumph of love'. Executed for Hugh Lupus Grosvenor, first Duke of Westminster, this seems to have been a gilt gesso version of the design known as The Passing of Venus, which also exists as a painting and at various dates was adapted for a set of tiles, a monumental tapestry, and even the decoration of a fan. Two years later the Duke commissioned a pendant, Cupid's Hunting Fields, described in the work-record for 1880 as being 'in raised work, gilded and stained'. In the event, negotiations with the Duke fell through and the panel was bought by
another patron. It is now in the Bancroft Collection at Wilmington, Delaware.
Burne-Jones's last and most ambitious experiment with gesso relief was a memorial to Laura Lyttelton, a much-loved member of the social set known as the Souls, who died at the age of twenty-four in May 1886. Representing a peacock, symbol of the Resurrection, perched on a laurel bush growing out of a tomb, the relief was exhibited at the Grosvenor the following year and exists in two versions, one in Mells Church, Somerset, the other in the Victoria and Albert Museum.
When Douglas Schoenherr catalogued Burne-Jones's designs for the 'woodnymph' and 'water nymph' reliefs for the exhibition The Earthly Paradise: Arts and Crafts by William Morris and his Circle from Canadian Collections, held at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, in 1993, he suggested that they and the Hesperides composition 'were all originally conceived for some ensemble'. He pointed out that the designs are not only listed together in the artist's work-record, but that the 'woodnymph' and the 'water nymph' are the same height as what appears to be the corresponding watercolour drawing for The Hesperides, last recorded when it appeared in Burne-Jones's studio sale at Christie's on 16 July 1898, lot 50. Given this relationship and the size of the three drawings (approximately 25 inches high), Schoenherr argued that the reliefs were to decorate a cassone, with The Hesperides, a long landscape-shaped composition, appearing on the front, and the 'woodnymph' and 'water nymph' at either end. There is more to support this theory. When the 'woodnymph' and 'sea nymph' designs passed through Christie's in 1975 they were described in the catalogue as being 'for gesso panels for a chest', an identification sufficiently precise to suggest that it may have depended on some old label on the back. Furthermore, a cassone with the Hesperides design in painted gesso relief on the front does exist in the Birmingham Art Gallery, although admittedly the ends are adorned not with nymphs but with inscriptions. The cassone was executed in 1888 for Burne-Jones's close friend Frances Graham, by then Lady Horner, another pillar of the Souls' circle. An earlier version had been carried out in 1882 for Sir George Lewis, the artist's solicitor, and his German wife Elizabeth. Conceived as an overmantel for the dining-room at Ashley Cottage, their country retreat at Walton-on-Thames, it is now in the Victoria and Albert Museum.
A second watercolour version of the 'woodnymph' design strongly suggests that Burne-Jones had every intention of carrying out this composition in gesso. As schematic and formal as the version in Toronto, it nonetheless shows significant differences. The design has a totally new colour scheme and a much wider border. The wood-nymph's dress and hair have been reconsidered, while a pair of rabbits have appeared under the tree, a touch of the humour that was so characteristic of Burne-Jones and occasionally found a place in his decorative work, although it was excluded almost entirely from his paintings. However, despite the existence of this second watercolour, the relief itself does not seem to have been carried out.
On the other hand, there is evidence to suggest that the 'water nymph' was. In 1889 the Burne-Joneses bought a small house adjacent to their own in Rottingdean, and proceeded, with the help of the young architect W.A.S. Beason, to knock them into one. Burne-Jones, according to his widow, 'seized on (the) little brick-floored kitchen' of the new addition, 'chasing out kitchen-range and sink, and putting in a
quantity of old oak furniture' with the aim of making it look 'as like the snug bar of an old country inn as possible'. It was, in his own words, to be 'a pot-house parlour, where men can drink and smoke and be vulgar'. To emphasise its pub-like atmosphere, he placed above the fireplace 'a painted bas-relief of a mermaid sporting in the waves' and called the place 'The Merry Mermaid'.
This certainly sounds like a gesso version of the 'water nymph' design, perhaps executed some years previously but never sold and now put to appropriate use by the artist himself. It might even have been executed for the Horner cassone, but for some reason never incorporated in that piece. Unfortunately the relief itself does not seem to survive, nor is it indicated in Burne-Jones's sketch of the room where it hung. It is, however, interesting to note that in placing it above the fireplace he was repeating the idea of an overmantel that the Lewises had already put into effect by hanging a gesso version of the Hesperides design at Ashley Cottage. In fact, Lady Lewis had a hand in the decoration of the 'Merry Mermaid', ordering 'gay-coloured jugs, bowls and platters of common German earthenware' to be 'sent over from Mannheim fair' for display in the oak dresser that lined one side of the room.
Who would have actually carried out these gesso reliefs? The question is a vexed one, and will probably never be satisfactorily answered. Some of the work may have been done by Burne-Jones himself, but he also relied on assistants. Osmund Weeks seems to have executed several of his designs in this medium, including the Hesperides on the Horner cassone. A young sculptor's apprentice, Weeks had worked for Walter Crane on gesso decoration in the 1870s, and it was probably Crane who
recommended him to Burne-Jones. Another assistant involved in this work was Matthew Webb, who joined Burne-Jones's studio in 1877 and was responsible for an unidentified gesso relief made to his master's design that was shown by the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society in 1893.
Such essays in gesso relief sculpture can be placed in a wider context, since in later life Burne-Jones also produced designs for others to carry out in bronze or silver. The earliest were a Nativity and an Entombment, executed in 1879 for a memorial to the parents of his friend George Howard, Earl of Carlisle (the same
patron for whom he was currently working with Crane on the Cupid and
Psyche frieze at 1 Palace Green). The memorial was erected in Lanercost Priory on Howard's Cumberland estate, and the reliefs were cast in bronze by the Hungarian-born sculptor Joseph Edgar Boehm, a favourite in aristocratic circles who was to be appointed Sculptor in Ordinary to Queen Victoria in 1881. In 1882 Burne-Jones and Boehm collaborated again on a more ambitious project for Howard, a relief representing the Battle of Flodden Field, in which one of the Earl's ancestors had
played a decisive part. On this occasion, however, Burne-Jones was so dissatisfied with the way Boehm had translated his design into three dimensions that he got Osmund Weeks to remodel the piece under his own supervision.
Burne-Jones's last ventures into the field of low relief date from the 1890s. In 1894 he designed the seal of the new University of Wales, an institution with which his son-in-law, the classical scholar J.W. Mackail, was involved. The composition was modelled in wax by two specialists in this medium, Nelia and Ella Casella, and then presumably cast by the cire perdu process. Finally, some of his last and most mannered designs, executed in metallic paint on coloured paper, were
reproduced as beaten silver plaques by J. Catterson Smith, better known for translating his pencil drawings for the Kelmscott Chaucer into pen-and-ink outlines suited to wood-engraving. Some of these reliefs appeared at the Arts and Crafts exhibition of 1896.
The pictorial version
One of the defining characteristics of Burne-Jones as an artist was his willingness to blur the boundaries between his painting and decorative work. It may be hard to think of a decorative project that derives from an existing painting, but an enormous number of paintings are based on designs for book illustrations, stained glass, tapestry, tiles, furniture decoration, gesso reliefs and even mosaic. The impact of this practice on both areas of activity was profound. His designs for
stained glass and tapestry, for example, could be highly pictorial, too much so, sometimes, for purists worried about questions of surface integrity and fitness to purpose. Equally, even if the paintings do not depend directly on some decorative scheme, they invariably have a formal quality that reflects Burne-Jones's protean activity in the applied art field. Here again he did not please everyone. Henry James
complained of the pictures' 'element of painful, niggling embroidery - the stitch-by-stitch process that had come at last to beg the painter question altogether'. On the whole, however, the interdependence of the two spheres was greatly to the paintings'
advantage, lending them a degree of abstraction that is desert manna in the context of Victorian art. 'I don't want to pretend that this isn't a picture', Burne-Jones would say, as if consciously distancing himself from all those contemporary artists who were hooked on naturalism.
The three relief designs of 1878, the 'woodnymph', the 'water-nymph' and the 'Hesperides', were all typical examples of this working method. Two, as we have seen, were already re-cycled designs, the 'Hesperides' having previously been a book illustration, the 'water-nymph' a unique contribution by Burne-Jones to a repeating pattern by Morris. Now all three designs were to be re-cast as easel pictures. The Garden of the Hesperides is in the Owens Art Gallery at Sackville, New Brunswick, while the 'water nymph' and the 'woodnymph' became our Sea-Nymph and its pair in Cape Town .
The Wood-Nymph was evidently started first and finished last. In his work-record Burne-Jones noted that he began it in 1879 and worked on it in 1880, but it must have been on the easel for considerably longer since it is dated 1883. This would tie up with the fact that the canvas is comparatively densely worked and that certain details, such as the figure's left sleeve and the design of her bodice, have clearly undergone revision. By contrast, the Sea-Nymph is exceptionally spontaneous and un-laboured in its handling, pointing to a fairly rapid execution. This again corresponds to external evidence; the picture makes only a fleeting appearance in the work-record for 1880, and is dated 1881.
The designs of 1878 give little indication of how the reliefs were to be coloured, but the second watercolour version of the 'woodnymph', the existing versions of the Hesperides and the Lyttelton memorial all suggest that Burne-Jones envisaged them painted in much the same tones as the subsequent canvases, and that these, conversely, conform to the original schemes. Chromatic harmonies of greens and blues, offset by a variety of warmer tones provided by flesh, hair and incidental details, both reliefs and paintings were ideally suited to some Aesthetic ensemble. In 1881, the very year that saw A Sea-Nymph completed, W.S. Gilbert had coined the phrase 'greenery gallery, Grosvenor Gallery' in his comic opera Patience, a satire on the current Aesthetic craze. The phrase referred not only to the tonal values of many a Grosvenor picture, but, more generally, to the taste of those self-consciously cultivated souls who were busily creating Aesthetic interiors in places like Bedford Park, replete with Morris fabrics and wallpapers, blue-and-white pots, peacock feathers, and Walter Crane picture books for the children. Nor, of course, was Gilbert alone; George du Maurier was currently sending up Aesthetic pretensions in his weekly cartoons in Punch, poking fun at earnest young couples rhapsodising over six-mark teapots, or 'fair aesthetes' asking their bemused menfolk 'Are you intense?' Such squibs were aimed primarily at the middle-classes; A Sea-Nymph and A Wood-Nymph, at least in their pictorial manifestations, were destined for something more upmarket than the 'Queen Anne' villas of Norman Shaw's new garden suburb or the terraces of 'passionate Brompton' : the Wyndhams' 'Clouds', perhaps, or the Horners' manor house at Mells, or the Alexander Ionides' London palazzo, 1 Holland Park. Indeed, they would not have disgraced that grandest of all Aesthetic town houses, F.R. Leyland's at 49 Prince's Gate, designed to realise the wealthy Liverpool shipowner's dream of living 'the life of an old Venetian merchant in modern London'. As we shall see, it is even conceivable that this magnificent display of Aesthetic values helped to inspire the collection in which the Sea-Nymph and her companion were to find their initial home.
In other ways, too, the paintings adhere closely to the original concepts. There is even a touch of wilful perversity in Burne-Jones's decision to retain the pronounced borders, what would have been a framing device when the designs were carried out as reliefs now acting as a sort of 'mount' within the 'real' frame. As already noted, both pictures are still in their original frames of vaguely 'Venetian' type, probably considered more appropriate to the square format than the 'Florentine' tabernacle frames that the artist tended to favour for upright compositions.
This eccentricity apart, the Wood-Nymph is a fairly conventional image. It is a picture easy on the eye, unmistakably by Burne-Jones but making none of the intellectual demands with which he so often taxes his viewers. The Sea-Nymph, on the other hand, refuses to compromise; it is as if the artist was painting only for himself, indulging every whim that he might have felt obliged to rein in in
other circumstances. There is no attempt to make the boldly formalised waves look more naturalistic than they do in the relief design, while the nymph's hair claims an even greater degree of licence than in its previous incarnation. Burne-Jones must have been thinking here of the windblown tresses of the central figure in
Botticelli's Birth of Venus , one of the great linear inventions in Western art. He knew the picture well, having seen it on his first visit to Florence in 1859, and again on return journeys in 1871 and 1873. But he was not a slave to the august prototype, sweeping his mermaid's auburn locks into an extraordinary flame-like shape at the top of the design, crucial from a compositional point of view but
bearing almost no relation to the figure's head. Within his chosen conventions, pictorial freedom could hardly go much further.
Only the fishes show a certain concession to the priorities of oil painting. In the relief design they are little more than fish-shaped smears of paint, but they now acquire a relative degree of realism. They have been identified as gurnards, and they probably appealed to Burne-Jones not because they have any symbolical
significance (it seems they don't) but for their decorative possibilities. Although they look so exotic, they are not in fact a stranger to British fish-shops, and Burne-Jones appears to have acquired a specimen, making studies of it in all the relevant positions. The only important difference between the studies and the
painting is that in the latter the fish in the mermaid's right hand turns to look at the spectator, displaying a curiously human expression somewhere between a laugh and a snarl. It is another example of the engaging humour that so often lurks beneath the surface of both sea-nymph and wood-nymph designs.
Paradoxically, the relative realism of the fishes emphasises the abstract nature of the composition, drawing attention to the way they are dispersed for almost entirely strategic reasons. One dives into a wave to enliven the lower right corner, another (a 'flying fish', presumably) swoops through the sky to carry the eye back to the sea
after it has surged up the mermaid's body to dwell on her head and the fish brandished in her right hand. Meanwhile that fish and the mermaid's tail (itself a little gurnard-like) stress by their new-found definition the perverse idea of placing them in front of the painted border while the sea and her ropes of hair go behind.
Nothing adds more to the wit and sophistication of the design than this deliberate and teasing spacial ambiguity.
The Wood-Nymph was sent to the Grosvenor in 1884, playing the daunting part of second fiddle to the magnificent King Cophetua , the only other picture Burne-Jones showed that year. There is in fact a certain resemblance between the nymph and the beggar maid. One may be a child of light-hearted fancy, the other a brooding
presence, but their poses and the cut of their dresses are not dissimilar.
So overwhelming was the impression made by Cophetua that very few critics mentioned A Wood-Nymph; dazzled by one picture's brilliance, they simply overlooked the other. Only Claude Phillips, writing in the Academy, had a word to say of 'Mr Burne-Jones's
second contribution,... an agreeable, if somewhat monotonously coloured, decorative work in which varying shades of green are harmoniously treated'.
Perhaps discouraged by this lack of response, Burne-Jones did not send A Sea-Nymph to the Grosvenor. Indeed it was never exhibited in London until it appeared at his retrospective at the New Gallery, the Grosvenor's successor as a radical alternative to the Royal Academy, in the winter of 1892-3. Or was there another reason why he kept the picture back? Is it not equally likely that he thought it too personal, quirky and idiosyncratic to be received sympathetically, that those very qualities that we now find so exciting would be misunderstood by a late Victorian audience and invite hostile comment? After all, Malcolm Bell, a sort of nephew by marriage who wrote the first full account of Burne-Jones's work in the early 1890s, saw the Sea-Nymph as a rare example of the artist confusing decorative and pictorial values. 'His
generally impeccable appreciation of the subtle limits of each seems for once to have failed him, and we find a highly modelled and finished figure, and fish most carefully studied from nature, against an unconsonant background of crudely conventionalised waves'. With apologists like this, who needed critics?
William Connal, junior
In the mid-1880s A Wood-Nymph and A Sea-Nymph were both bought by the Glasgow collector William Connal, junior . The exact date is unknown, but assuming that the pictures were acquired together, the purchase probably took place between 1884, when A Wood-Nymph appeared at the Grosvenor Gallery, and 1886, when Connal lent the same picture to the Glasgow Institute of the Fine Arts. Both pictures were certainly in his possession by 1888, when he lent them to the great International Exhibition held in Glasgow that year.
Recent research has shown that William Connal was born on 1 February 1853 at 200 St Vincent Street, Glasgow, his parents' first house after their marriage in 1851, and that he died on 11 March 1942 at 16 Lyndoch Crescent, in the same city. His dates have sometimes been confused with those of his father, William Connal, senior (1819-1898), and this in turn has led to biographical errors. William Connal, junior, for example, has been described as having a wife and a large family of five sons and four daughters. While this is true of his father, the younger William Connal remained unmarried.
Both father and son belonged to a prosperous and well-established Stirlingshire family. Their ancestor Michael Connal, a cloth merchant and banker, had been a leading figure in Stirling, holding the Provostship three times between 1803 and 1812. Michael's fourth son, William (1790-1856), moved to Glasgow in 1806, entering the counting house of Findlay, Duff & Co., one of the city's most extensive mercantile establishments. By the time he was twenty-two, William had proved himself such an astute businessman that he was made a partner; in fact he was soon running the company, which was re-named Findlay, Connal & Co. in 1822. In 1828 he left to set up in business on his own account as a commission merchant and produce broker, diversifying into shipping and acquiring a partnership in the Cunard Line in 1839.
In 1845 William Connal took on as partners three young men who had worked as his assistants for many years. Two of them were his nephews, William and Michael. William was as canny an operator as his uncle, but instead of specialising in such colonial products as cotton, tea, sugar and tobacco, staples of the firm hitherto, he chose to concentrate on the brokering and warehousing of pig-iron, eventually dominating the Glasgow market and expanding to Middlesborough. He was a leading member of the Middlesborough Exchange from 1877 until his death twenty-one years later.
Burne-Jones's patron was the eldest child of this wealthy pig-iron broker, usually descirbed as William Connal, senior, although, as we have just seen, he himself was the second of that name. Unlike the shrewd merchants, shopowners and financiers from whom he sprang, young William had no interest in business or in holding positions of civic or commercial responsibility. Taking after his mother, Emily, who came from an aristocratic Argyllshire family, the Campbells of Ormidale, who tended to look down on the more bourgeois and self-made Connals, he preferred to live quietly and to enjoy his enviable inheritance by indulging his love of collecting. Somehow it was typical that he never married, although he seems to have taken the occasional mistress. After his death, with no son to take over, the firm that had provided him with such a handsome income dwindled away.
Several early photographs of Connal exist, including ones in which he appears in kilt or fancy dress. We also have Albert Moore's portrait of him, painted in 1883 when the sitter was thirty. Well dressed and good looking, with fair hair and moustache and an engagingly twinkly expression, he looks every inch the civilised man of the world, someone who could afford to dispense with ambition and take a detached, quizzical view of life. In his heyday, Connal was the master of three houses: 21 Blythewood Square in Glasgow, 23 Berkeley Square in London, and Solsgirth, a country estate near Dollar in Perthshire. All three survive, Solsgirth as a home for the elderlu and 23 Berkeley Square as prestigious Mayfail?offices. Solsgirth had been built by William Connal, senior, in the early 1870s as a retreat for his large family, replacing Hillfoot, a more modest Regency villa just north of Glasgow. He is said to have felt that its baronial style was too pretentious, but been overruled by his eldest son, William, the connoisseur of the family. It is even tempting to wonder if the younger William Connal had a hand in the design of 23 Berkeley Square, which must have been recently built when he lived there. He could well have been responsible for its distinctly French appearance, most obviously represented by the steep mansard roof.
Whatever Connal's architectural ambitions, it was as a collector that his feeling for art was most fully expressed. There are many styles of collecting, and his was perhaps the most attractive. Far from wanting to bag eye-catching trophies, the policy pursued by such contemporaries as Sir John Aird, George McCulloch or Cuthbert Quilter, he used the activity creatively to express his own personality and individual taste. As the critic Robert Walker put it in the Magazine of Art in 1894, his collection had 'a character all its own', not because 'it contain(ed) the greatest pictures in the world, but because it (was) the direct outcome of the collector's own personal tastes and sympathies'. Not that those tastes were narrow. Connal owned several old masters, including paintings attributed to Dürer, Cranach, Paris Bordone and a follower of Van Eyck. He also, perhaps inevitably, patronised a number of Scottish artists, from Noel Paton to Lavery and Stuart Park. But what characterised the collection above all was his feeling for the Aesthetic and Symbolist schools, two groups whose aims were theoretically opposed but who in practice overlapped at every turn, often being represented by the very same artist.
Dominating the collection was a group of some fifteen works by Albert
Moore, ranging from such late masterpieces as Reading Aloud and Midsummer to comparatively slight works and drawings. Hardly less prominent were the eight Burne-Joneses, all except one substantial works in watercolour and oil. The largest was
Danaë and the Brazen Tower, the smallest an Angel, now, like Danaë, in the Glasgow Art Gallery at Kelvingrove. In between came A Wood-Nymph and A Sea-Nymph, The Bath of
Venus (Gulbenkian Collection, Lisbon), a version of The Wheel of Fortune (Leighton House, London) and two illustrations to Chaucer's 'Romance of the Rose'. After Connal had owned them, these Chaucer subjects spent many years in India in the possession of the Maharajahs of Jamnegar. Having returned to the London art market in the 1980s, they are now separated, The Heart of the Rose being in a private
collection and The Pilgrim at the Gate of Idleness in the Art Gallery at Dallas.
No collector alive to the charms of Aestheticism and susceptible to Albert Moore could be without an example of Moore's close friend and artistic ally, Whistler. True to form, Connal owned a Sympathy in Silver and Grey by the Anglo-American master, although unfortunately the picture is lost and no photograph is known. Similarly, Connal's Burne-Joneses had a rich context of works by artists of the Pre-Raphaelite, Symbolist or classical persuasions. D.G. Rossetti, Ford Madox Brown, Frederick Sandys, J.R. Spencer Stanhope, Evelyn De Morgan, Edward Poynter and G.F.Watts were all represented in the collection. There was also a group of works by the Belgian Symbolist Fernand Khnopff, a friend of Burne-Jones who may even have introduced him to Connal. These must have struck a particularly bizarre note north of the border; no wonder Walker wrote that Connal's collection 'could not be compared with any other... in Scotland'. Even when Connal was inclined to look at such a traditional area as English landscape painting, his choice was typical. No late Victorian landscapist was more idiosyncratic, even 'difficult', than the so-called 'idyllist' J.W. North, with his quirky compositions, evanescent form, and highly personal symbolism. Connal had no fewer than nine examples, including seven of the rare oils.
Connal seems to have started collecting when he was still in his twenties. He acquired two works by Moore about 1877, and it may be that the opening of the Grosvenor Gallery that year acted as a catalyst. He also appears to have been aware of older, pioneering collectors in his chosen field. Significantly, perhaps, he bought Moore's early masterpiece Elijah's Sacrifice (Bury Art Gallery) when it came on the market in 1897. The picture had previously belonged to the Tyneside industrialist James Leathart, who had patronised several of the artists in whom Connal was interested, not only Moore but Noel Paton, Madox Brown, Rossetti and Burne-Jones.
Connal also bought a Rossetti, Mnemosyne (Bancroft Collection, Wilmington, Delaware), that had been owned by the Liverpool shipowner F.R. Leyland. Leyland's collection, a superb accumulation of Pre-Raphaelite and Aesthetic masterpieces, rich in the work of Rossetti, Burne-Jones, Whistler and Moore, as well as some fine old
masters, was sold at Christie's in 1892. It is even conceivable that he and Connal had had some personal contact through their mutual involvement with shipping. How fascinating it would be to discover that as a young man Connal had visited the Liverpool maecenas's London mansion, 49 Prince's Gate, and been impressed by the dazzling display of pictures in a setting specially designed for them by Norman Shaw and the marchand amateur Murray Marks.
No less tempting is to imagine Connal learning from William Graham, who was Liberal member of parliament for Glasgow from 1865 to 1874 and, like the Connals themselves, a wealthy merchant. Could he have met Graham at some local function, stayed at Urrard, his house in Perthshire (where Rossetti had spent a week in 1871), or called at his London house, 44 Grosvenor Place? Graham's style of collecting was very different to Leyland's in that he loved pictures for their own sake rather than as components in a decorative ensemble; but, like Leyland, he patronised Rossetti and Burne-Jones on a princely scale, while his collection of Italian old masters was unrivalled. He also had examples of other artists who were on Connal's shopping list, including Brown, Watts, Whistler, Fred Walker and J.W. North. Indeed, his thirteen North watercolours ask to be seen as a bond with Connal in themselves.