oil on canvas
76 by 53cm.; 30 by 21in.
ESTIMATE 400,000-600,000 GBP
Lot Sold: 481,250 GBP
By descent to Margaret Mackail, née Burne-Jones (1866-1953);
To her daughter, Angela Margaret Thirkell, née Mackail (1890-1961);To her son, Lancelot Thirkell and thence by descent
Burne-Jones's hauntingly beautiful portrait of his wife Georgiana, and with their two children Margaret and Philip in the background, was begun in 1883 and then worked on at intervals. It was neither exhibited in his lifetime, nor shown at the memorial exhibition held at the New Gallery in 1898-99, presumably because it was regarded as too personal a document for public display. After the death of the sitter – Georgiana Burne-Jones died in 1920 – the portrait was left to Margaret, who herself died in 1953. The painting subsequently passed through three further generations of the descendants of Edward and Georgiana Burne-Jones, and is now offered for sale for the first time in its history.
The Burne-Joneses had been married in 1860, when Georgiana was twenty years old and Edward twenty-seven. The portrait therefore shows her at the age of forty-three and after twenty-three years of married life. The two children, Philip and Margaret, were born in 1861 and 1866 respectively, and were therefore twenty-two and seventeen when the portrait was begun.
Georgiana's father, the Revd George Browne Macdonald, was a Methodist minister. Her childhood – she was the fifth of eleven children (seven of whom survived into adult life) – was marked by material austerity and a high-minded dismissal of anything that might be considered worldly or frivolous. Even the reading of Shakespeare was prohibited
and the idea of attending a theatre unthinkable. The non-conformist upbringing that George Macdonald and his wife Hannah provided for their children, combined with frequent moves of home as their father was transferred from place to place within the Methodist ministry, seems to have instilled a quality of self-reliance and intellectual independence in their children. Among Georgiana's sisters, Agnes ('Aggie') married the painter Edward John Poynter, while Aliceand Louisa ('Louie') were respectively the mothers of the writer Rudyard Kipling and the prime minister Stanley Baldwin. The lives of these remarkable women are described in A.W. Baldwin's book The Macdonald Sisters (1960).
For Burne-Jones the purpose of portraiture was 'the expression of character and moral quality, not of anything temporary, fleeting, [or] accidental' (quoted Burne-Jones, exhibition catalogue, Hayward Gallery, London, and elsewhere, 1975-6, p. 76). Georgiana had an enormously strong character and was imbued with a moral quality that made her a demanding companion. She was absolutely stalwart in her loyalty to friends and family, standing by and supporting her husband despite his more wayward disposition, and enduring his craving for female attention. She was an adoring mother and gave emotional support to a wide circle of young people who gravitated towards her and looked to her as a mentor. Without side or selfishness, she had a vast gift for friendship, allowing complete honesty of exchange combined with total discretion. Her longstanding friendship with William Morris – her husband's friend since university, was probably the most important relationship of his whole life, and one upon which she also placed great reliance. Likewise, her shrewd intelligence allowed her to spot men and women who entered, or sought to enter, the circle of friends that formed around Burne-Jones who were self-serving or otherwise not to be trusted.
Unimpressed as Georgiana was by the false prestige of social rank, or indeed by the financial advantages of a successful professional life, she observed with dismay her husband's inability to resist the beguilement of worldly acclaim – notably on the occasion of his acceptance of a baronetcy. As Burne-Jones – once radical in his political views – became increasingly Tory, she more progressively embraced socialism, pacifism and feminism. A project designed to improve life for the London working classes was the establishment of the South London Art Gallery, and to which she devoted time and energy, and which was the practical fulfilment of John Ruskin's precept that works of art should be available for all to look at and study.
Georgiana Burne-Jones was a woman of artistic sensibility. In her youth she had learnt how to engrave wood blocks, collaborating with Elizabeth Siddal on a projected book of illustrated fairy tales. She sang and played the piano, to the delight of her friends and especially to Burne-Jones himself. She frequently served as a model for her husband in his imaginative subjects (most tellingly for the 1860 watercolour Clara von Bork (Tate Gallery), in which her personality was ideally matched to that of the caring and sweet-hearted figure represented, in contrast with the sinister and mendacious Sidonia von Bork, the subject of the pendant, for whom the model was Rossetti's mistress of the late 1850s, Fanny Cornforth). Among Georgiana's great achievements was the two-volume biography of her husband that she wrote after his death and which remains a vital source of information and insights, and in which she achieves extraordinary truthfulness and candour without ever betraying friends or family.
Although not conventionally beautiful, her physical appearance was a delight to those who loved her. As Walford Graham Robertson wrote, 'the quiet in those wonderful eyes of clearest grey was the centre of the strange stillness' that friends felt when they visited the Burne-Joneses at their home The Grange in Fulham (Time Was: The Reminiscences of W. Graham Robertson, 1931, p. 75). Burne-Jones himself well knew the power of his wife's formidable personality. As he wrote to May Gaskell: 'It makes me happy that Georgie welcomes you – some day come to see her for her own sake – she is the wittiest company, and very pious – I say pious because all things are serious to her – only she is bitter upon folly – she is not a Christian any more and yet she hates to be approached except on bended knees' (quoted Josceline Dimbleby, A Profound Secret, London, 2004, p. 94). As Penelope Fitzgerald wrote of the Burne-Joneses' marriage, 'Georgie, as Ned well knew, bore the burden of everything' (Edward Burne-Jones, London, 1985, p. 181), and in keeping with the unspoken dependence that he felt for her Burne-Jones provided an image of Georgiana that speaks of her sense of purpose. The solemnity of her expression and the unflinching gaze with which she returns the artist's inspection of her, may be regarded as indicating – as the Burne-Joneses' great grand-son Lance Thirkell said of it – 'something of the unhappiness of being the artist's long-suffering wife, which he perhaps did not see when he was painting it' (Jan Marsh, Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood, London, 1985, p. 334). Whether in his heart he acknowledged his transgressions – on occasions he allowed himself to be drawn into intenserelationships with other women – the portrait was undoubtedly intended as a token of his love for Georgiana.
She is shown at half-length and with her hands and forearms resting on a table or shelf that forms a parapet in the foreground. She is dressed in a dark coat the lustrous texture of which is seen in the outline of the sleeve. At the neck and cuffs, a simple fringe of lace appears, but otherwise her clothes are of the utmost simplicity. She appears to wear no jewellery; the ring finger of her left hand is obscured by the book she is holding, so the wedding-ring that she may be presumed to be wearing cannot be seen. Her dark hair is parted at the centre and carefully drawn to the back of her head, as it had been in the photograph taken of her at the age of sixteen, twenty-seven years earlier (see BurneJones, Georgiana, Memorials of Edward Burne-Jones, London, 1904, two volumes, I, illustrated opposite p. 134). The portrait was almost certainly done at The Grange; a dark coloured internal wall forms the immediate backdrop to the figure, while on the right a flight of three steps leads into a room beyond – more brightly lit than that occupied by Georgiana. In this further space are shown the figures of Philip and Margaret – he seated at an easel and with palette and mahl-stick in his left hand; she standing behind in a flowing white dress as she watches her brother at work. This device whereby a glimpse is given into a space beyond and in which figures are represented on a much smaller scale may have been derived from Burne-Jones's study of sixteenth-century Italian art – which had become important to him in the course of successive visits to Italy and which he took his opportunity to study in collections at home. John Christian has linked the portrait of Georgiana with a portrait by Giulio Romano of c. 1531, then and now at Hampton Court, (traditionally said to show Isabella d'Este but recently claimed as a portrait of Margherita Palaeologa) (New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, and elsewhere, Edward Burne-Jones – Victorian Artist-Dreamer, 1998-9, exhibition catalogue, p. 260), which like the Burne-Jones portrait has a subsidiary composition at the upper right showing much smaller full-length figures. A further suggestion is that the portrait may owe something to Burne-Jones's interest in Spanish Baroque art, which was the object of fascination among progressive British painters in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. A possible prototype for the division of the composition into two distinct parts is Velasquez's Christ in the House of Mary and Martha (National Gallery), of 1618, a work which was in turn dependent on a Flemish artistic tradition which permitted figures to be treated on dramatically differing scales, and with noticeable varied degrees of finish, to be combined in a single composition.
Unambiguous as a coded message of love on the part of the artist for the sitter, but also perhaps an admission of his failings as a husband, was the book that Georgiana holds. This is John Gerard's Great Herball, or Generale Historie of Plantes, published in 1597. Burne-Jones consulted this source when devising his series of watercolours exploring the mythological association of flower names which came to be called The Flower Book (British Museum), also made in the 1880s. In the portrait Georgiana holds the book open to show the illustration of a heartsease or pansy, while resting on the page is a blue flower of the same plant. Gerard says of the heartsease that it 'groweth in fields and in gardens also, and that oftentimes of itselfe: it is more gallant and beautiful than any of the wild ones'. According to the traditional language of flowers, the heartsease is regarded as symbolical of loving thoughts and memories, and of
undying affection, even if with associations of sadness and loss. Burne-Jones's choice of this particular flower emblem may also have been influenced by John Ruskin's book Proserpina – Studies of Wayside Flowers, issued in parts from 1879 onwards and which he and Georgiana must certainly have read and probably also discussed with the author.
Ruskin described particular flowers on the basis of his own observations, writing of the variety in question: 'The wild heart's-ease of Europe [is] not larger than a violet, but perfectly formed, and firmly set in all its petals [and] quite one of the most lovely things that Heaven has made'. In his more general discussion of the genus Viola, Ruskin identifies the Shakespearean heroines 'who love simply, and to the death; as distinguished from the greater natures in whom earthly Love has its due part, and no more', and in a passage which surely must have reflected his friendship with both Edward and Georgiana Burne-Jones and his appreciation of what each meant to the other he concluded:
'Practically, in daily life, one often sees married women as good as saints; but rarely, I think, unless they have a good deal to bear from their husbands' (Ruskin Works, volume XXV, pp. 416, 420).
An entry in Burne-Jones's studio work-list records that in 1883 he 'began [the] portrait of Georgie with Phil andMargaret in the background'. Georgiana herself, in her biography of her husband, states that it remained unfinished.
The area of the composition on which he might perhaps have intended to work further is that in which are placed the figures of Margaret and Philip, which are relatively lightly sketched, but effectively so and in meaningful contrast to the immaculately finished figure of Georgiana. CSN