Sunday, October 30, 2011

Edward Burne-Jones - Portrait of Lady Lewis

Signed with monogram and inscribed EBJ to HW 1881

Watercolour and bodycolour on paper

20 1/2 x 18 inches, 52 x 46 centimetres

Burne-Jones has dedicated the drawing to HW. This almost certainly refers to a private joke, a nick-name for Elizabeth Lewis. As in a number of his private works, the composition of this portrait of 1881 has no equal in the Victorian age. It is reminiscent to our eyes of a composition from Northern Europe at the beginning of the twentieth century When not creating works to go in front of the public, Burne-Jones allows his natural inclination to innovation to roam free.

Lady Elizabeth Lewis, the second wife of the eminent solicitor George Lewis, was one of the greatest hostesses of her day. A woman of good looks, good plays, good pictures and, above all, good music, she entertained many famous and talented dinner guests in her home in Portland Place, including Burne-Jones, Whistler, Sargent, Henry James and Oscar Wilde. Burne-Jones became a close friend, often turning to Elizabeth for her opinion on practical matters and her husband George for legal advice.

The two families often stayed together in the Lewis's country house, Ashley Cottage at Walton-on-Thames, Here, Burne-Jones entertained friends with his whimsical drawings and caricatures. Elizabeth Lewis was very much town-bred and the summers that she spent there were her first tastes of country life. Insects and creepy crawlies intimidated her and naturally, Burrie-Jones, with his wicked sense of humour, found this an extreme source of amusement. He depicts his hostess perched on a chair, peering fearfully down at a tiny lizard.

Lady Lewis gave this very personal portrait to Ilona Eibenschutz, one of the most talented pianists in Europe. Ilona graduated from the Vienna Conservatory at the age of twelve and as a child impressed some ofthe most illustrious musicians of the day, including Mahler, Liszt, Verdi and Anton Rubinstein. When she first arrived in London, Lady Lewis became her chaperon. She was soon to be married to Carl Berenburg and afterward abandoned her career, only performing in private before Lady Lewis and her circle.

Provenance: Lady Lewis; given by her to: Ilona Eibenschutz; and thence by descent

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