I’ve just returned from a few days in the West Country, and I’ve seen what I believe to be the greatest work of art I’ve ever been privileged to stand in awe of. Move over, Michelangelo’s David and Beethoven’s Ninth. Move over, Mona Lisa and Midsummer Night’s Dream. I’m talking Edward Burne-Jones.
I’ve always admired Burne-Jones. Recently while I was attending a Freedom Association gig at Southampton University, I took the opportunity to visit Southampton Art Gallery to see Burne-Jones’ Perseus cycle. In Wiltshire, on a cultural week-end focussed on the work of William Morris and his collaborators, I went (across the county boundary) to Buscot Park (National Trust, www.buscot-park.com), and there in the saloon I saw Burne-Jones’ “Legend of the Briar Rose” cycle.
Burne-Jones painted four great canvasses illustrating the Sleeping Beauty legend, over a period of as long as twenty years. They represent “The Briar Wood”, with the hero, sword-in-hand, viewing the remains of former knights-errant who have sought and failed to break the spell. Then “The Council Room”, where the aged king sleeps, surrounded by courtiers, and, behind a lattice, soldiers (the lattice was of course a favourite theme of Morris). Third is “The Garden Court”, where maidens sleep beside a well and a loom, their limbs reflected in the shiny marble floor (surely it would be dusty after a hundred years?). Fourth is “The Rose Bower”, with the Princess (modelled on the artist’s fourteen-year-old daughter) asleep among her maidens.
Perhaps oddly, Burne-Jones stopped there. He did not attempt to show either the apotheosis of the story, the awakening, nor the wedding festivities that followed, preferring to leave those to the imagination of the viewer.
These four great canvasses caused a public sensation when they were shown in London at Agnew’s Bond Street Gallery in 1890. Thousands came to see them. They were eventually purchased by Arthur Henderson (later Lord Faringdon) for the then enormous sum of £15,000, and hung in the great saloon of his house, Buscot Park, in Oxfordshire.
Just a few years later, Burne-Jones was staying at Kelmscott Manor, summer home of his friend and collaborator William Morris, and just a short walk across the fields from Buscot. So he decided to walk across and see his work in situ. Feeling that they were not hung to best advantage, he offered (apparently at no extra charge) to reorganise the display, providing a number of linking panels, and integrating the framing into a continuous frieze around three sides of the room.
Anyone with an interest in the Pre-Raphaelites will be familiar with the individual paintings, especially the Briar Wood and the Rose Bower, but the effect of the complete installation and the saloon is simply breath-taking.
Morris provided some lines of verse for the Briar Rose cycle, which appear beneath the four pictures. I wrote them down:
The Briar Wood
The fateful slumber floats and flows
About the tangle of the rose,
But Lo! The fated hand and heart
To rend the slumberous curse apart
The Council Room
The threat of war, the hope of peace,
The Kingdom’s peril and increase
Sleep on and bide the latter day
When fate shall take her chain away
The Garden Court
The maiden pleasance of the land
Knoweth no stir of voice or hand
No cup the sleeping waters fill,
The restless shuttle lieth still
The Rose Bower
Here lies the hoarded love, the key
To all the treasure that shall be.
Come fated hand the gift to take
And smite this sleeping world awake.
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