Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Edward Burne-Jones - Hill-Fairies

oil on canvas, a pair
each 184 by 62 cm., 72 1/2 by 24 1/2 in.
Hammer Price with Buyer's Premium: 240,000 GBP


The two parts became separated on the occasion of the studio sale after Burne-Jones's death, in 1898, and were reunited in 1993

Left part:
Burne-Jones studio sale, Christie's, London, 16 July 1898, lot 87 (sold for 100 guineas to Grosvenor);
The Hon. Norman Grosvenor;
By descent to his daughter Susan Buchan, later Lady Tweedsmuir;
Sale, Christie's, London, 4 June 1982, lot 61

Right part:
Burne-Jones studio sale, Christie's, London, 16 July 1898, lot 86 (sold for 310 guineas to Agnew);
Thos Agnew & Son, by whom sold to Colonel Sir George Holford;
Sale of the Holford Collection from Dorchester House, Christie's, London, 18 May 1928, lot 97 (as 'The Spirit of the Hills') (sold for 200 guineas to Greig);
David Greig and by family descent

The two parts together:
Peter Nahum, London, 1993;
Sale, Christie's, London, 26 November 2003, lot 19;
Private collection


Possibly London, New Gallery, The Works of Sir Edward Burne-Jones, 1898-99, no. 151 (both parts);
London, Tate Gallery, Centenary Exhibition of Paintings and Drawings by Sir Edward Burne-Jones, Bart, 1933, no. 30 (the right part only, lent by David Greig);
London, Peter Nahum, Burne-Jones: A Quest for Love, 1993, no. 25 (both parts)


G(eorgiana) B(urne)-J(ones), Memorials of Edward Burne-Jones, two volumes, 1904, II, p.116;

Right part:
Robert Benson (ed.), The Holford Collection, Dorchester House, two volumes, 1927, II, p. 41, no. 182, pl. CLXIV;
Martin Harrison and Bill Waters, Burne-Jones, 1973, p.154


Burne-Jones's two canvases known as 'The Hill-Fairies' were made in connection with the great composition The Sleep of Arthur in Avalon (Museo de Arte de Ponce (The Luis A. Ferré Foundation), Puerto Rico), with which project the artist was intermittently occupied from 1881 to his death. The main canvas shows the sleeping figure of King Arthur, wounded at the Last Battle and having been carried by his sister Morgan le Fay to the Island of Avalon where it had been foretold that he should enter a deathlike sleep until called again to come to mankind's rescue. The king lies on a byre and beneath a canopy made of embroideries which show his great victories. Around him are seen the figures of three queens attending upon him and playing mournful music. Other figures occupy the marble pavilion to which the king has been brought, and a wider landscape is glimpsed on each side. Burne-Jones took the subject of Arthur in Avalon from Book XXI, chapters 5 and 6, of Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur. The two side panels, showing two groups of five nude figures, females on the left side and males on the right, among strange ravines and eroded stacks of rock. These figures represent the hill fairies who appear from the landscape as Arthur sleeps.

Arthur in Avalon and the present associated compositions amounted to a project of vast personal significance for Burne-Jones as a meditation upon death, and one in which he seems to have sought to create his own memorial. The artist's close friend George Howard had originally commissioned the subject, hoping that it might be placed in the library of his house in Cumberland, Naworth Castle. In 1882, when Burne-Jones was devoting time to the recently undertaken work, he could say of it: 'The Sleep of Arthur in Avalon is my chief dream now and I think I can put into it all I most care for'. The scale of the central compartment was so large that extra studio space had to be found, in Campden Hill; as Georgiana Burne-Jones explained, 'there it remained for nearly ten years, advancing slowly but the thought of it constantly with him'. Between 1881 and about 1885 the composition of the subject evolved, always tending towards a more elaborate scheme and causing Burne-Jones to doubt whether the painting would be appropriate for its originally intended position at Naworth, partly it seems on grounds of the sheer size that it had assumed but also perhaps because it was becoming so personal to him that he might not want to give it up. Burne-Jones explained all of this to Howard, and proposed to him a simpler version of the subject, which may be seen in the compositional sketch of c. 1885 now in the National Museums & Galleries of Wales in Cardiff. In this treatment draped figures stand within a wooded landscape like sentinels and with the byre at the centre. The alternative version of the subject did not get beyond the stage of preliminary sketches, and eventually Burne-Jones provided a sculpted relief of the Battle of Flodden Field as a substitute for the unfulfilled commission.

The motif of the male and female fairies seems to have been intended at some stage in the conception of the main composition to occupy the compartments at the far right and far left, where in the final scheme landscape details are seen. A photograph by Frederick Hollyer (reproduced Martin Harrison and Bill Waters, Burne-Jones, London, 1973, p.169) of the canvas at a relatively early stage in the evolution of the subject shows the surfaces of eroded rock and with blank areas above where the figures of the fairies would have been intended to be introduced. According to Harrison and Waters, these parts of the composition were subsequently painted out at the suggestion of Helen Mary Gaskell, presumably on the grounds that the rocks and intended figures were visually distracting and too complicated, and that a calmer and more decorative periphery to the composition would work better. The present canvases were presumably made as experimental test-pieces for the lateral parts, probably largely by Burne-Jones himself, and to be used to guide the studio assistants working on the main painting. Their having been made as cartoons rather than intended as finished paintings would explain their rather rough and incomplete condition, with little attempt to produce a refined or decorative surface by glazing or final manipulation of texture.

However, the theory that the motifs explored in these two canvases were to be incorporated into the actual composition of Arthur in Avalon is possibly contradicted by Georgiana Burne-Jones's explanation of her husband's intentions for the painting in the mid-1880s: 'In the original scheme was a central picture of the sleeping King, and on each side another narrow one containing what he called "Hill Fairies" - the magical side of the story being thus insisted upon'. This seems to imply that the scheme was to be in three separate parts, in the form of a triptych, in which case the present canvases might be the envisaged wings left in their unfinished state and later dispensed with. This theory is not impossible to reconcile with Burne-Jones's demonstrated intention to incorporate the fairies into the main compartment; he might, for example, have decided to make the fairies and their landscape setting into separate compositions after the decision had been made to paint out the rocky landscapes in the main canvas, or the change may have been the other way round with the separate canvases being abandoned in favour of a single composition, and then the final elimination of the fairies from any part of the scheme. The problem is that the present canvases would seem to be out scale with the central compartment (they are each 184.1 cms high, while the compartment is 277.5 cms high, which would mean a considerable step down into the side parts); furthermore, the relative scale of the figures would seem to be at odds with the overall scheme.

We know that Burne-Jones had the motif of the Hill-fairies in mind in 1883, because he informed a correspondent in November of that year that 'the fairies in the mountains listening to the music the Queens make in Avalon have all been designed', and that they were 'he-fairies and she-fairies, looking ecstatic and silly and very uncombed'. In 1885, he noted in his work record that he had 'worked on Avalon, and made the design of the Fairies in the hills of that picture', indicating that the element of the fairies - however placed within the scheme - was intact at the end of the first period of intensive work on the project.

Burne-Jones seems to have found little time to work on Arthur in Avalon in the second half of the 1880s. In 1891 the project was revived, with the canvas transported to the artist's studio in Fulham. He worked on it when he had time and right to the end of his life, leaving it almost but not quite finished at his death on 16 June 1898. At the memorial exhibition of the artist's works, held at the New Gallery the following winter, two canvases of the same dimensions and subjects as the present were displayed together. It seems likely that they were identical with the present lot (although they were said in the catalogue to have been lent by Burne-Jones's executors, whereas in fact the two canvases had by then been sold from the artist's estate to two different collectors).

Also in the New Gallery exhibition was Arthur in Avalon itself, which the artist's executors had retained. This important painting is to be displayed at Tate Britain in the near future, on loan during the temporary closure of the Muse de Arte de Ponce.

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