Edward Burne-Jones (1833 - 1898)

Lot 109: f - SIR EDWARD COLEY BURNE-JONES, BT., A.R.A. 1833-1898


December 14, 2006
London, United Kingdom

More About this Item

Description: PYGMALION

measurements note
57 by 44 cm., 22 1/2 by 17 1/4 in.

signed and dated in a cartouche scroll l.l.: E BURNE JONES/ PINXIT/ MDCCCLXXI.

watercolour with bodycolour


William Graham MP;
His sale, Christie's, London, 3 April 1886, lot 148 (bought [Edward] Clifford for 300 guineas);
Gertrude, Countess of Pembroke (1897); ...
Anonymous sale, Christie's, London, 4 March 1975, lot 166;
Piccadilly Gallery, London;
Private collection


London, West Ham Free Picture Exhibition, Third Annual Exhibition, 1897, no.11 (lent by the Countess of Pembroke);
On extended loan to the Phoenix Art Museum, Arizona.


Oliver Garnett, 'The Letters and Collection of William Graham - Pre-Raphaelite Patron and Pre-Raphaelite Collector', The Walpole Society, 1999-2000, pp.249, 254, 290 (no b26)


Burne-Jones's interest in the mythological legend of Pygmalion was led in the first place by his friend William Morris's poem 'Pygmalion and the Image'. This tells the story of 'a man of Cyprus, a sculptor named Pygmalion, [who] made an image of a woman, fairer than any that had yet been seen, and in the end came to love his own handiwork as though it had been alive; wherefore, praying to Venus for help, he obtained his end, for she made the image alive indeed, and a woman, and Pygmalion wedded her'. Morris was retelling a legend that is best known in the version given by Ovid in Metamorphoses. In 1867 Burne-Jones made a sequence of drawings based on the Pygmalion theme, which were intended as designs for illustrations for a projected edition of Morris's cycle of epic poems, which was to be called The Earthly Paradise. In these twenty-five preparatory drawings (which are now divided between Birmingham City Art Gallery and the William Morris Gallery, Walthamstow) lay both the first ideas for the compositions and the unfolding narrative that Burne-Jones would use in the Pygmalion Series.

The four panels of the complete Pygmalion Series are individually entitled The Heart Desires, which shows Pygmalion himself standing in his studio, inwardly reflecting on his loneliness; the second, The Hand Refrains, shows the sculptor before the completed image of a woman which was so beautiful that he himself fell in love with it. In The Godhead Fires, which is the third composition, Venus enters the sculptor's studio in response to Pygmalion's prayers that the work of art might come to life, to be his mistress and companion. By Venus' divine intervention, this wish was miraculously achieved, and so in the fourth composition, The Soul Attains, Pygmalion is seen kneeling before the woman. The Pygmalion Series is in the collection of Lord Lloyd-Webber, and was most recently seen in the exhibition Pre-Raphaelites and Other Masters, at the Royal Academy in London in 2003, catalogue nos.49 a-d.

The present watercolour repeats the composition of the first of the four subjects, The Heart Desires. Minor variations between the oil original and the watercolour version may be observed in the colours of the dresses of the two girls who stand outside Pygmalion's studio (blue and yellow in the oil, but changed to blue and green in the watercolour), while in the present version Burne-Jones has introduced a ribbon which flutters down from the right hand of one of the two figures. The architectural forms of the buildings seen across the courtyard are somewhat abstracted in the watercolour version, while the stances of the sculpted figures in the far part of the studio show slight changes (notably with the figure on the far right apparently looking downwards rather than towards Pygmalion). The watercolour version is slightly smaller than the oil, having been reduced by rather more than an eighth of the height and width of the original.

The watercolour version of The Heart Desires appears to be unique as an autograph reworking of a single image from the series. The first Pygmalion Series had been commissioned by Euphrosyne Cassavetti in 1868, and was completed in 1870. A second set of the Pygmalion Series was painted in the late 1860s, but not completed until 1878 (Birmingham City Museum and Art Gallery). The Heart Desires shows Pygmalion wrestling in his mind with the agony of having created an ideal of beauty, but yet remaining unsatisfied or comforted. He stands alone, his face and head cast down in confusion and despair, unheeding of the presence of the effigies of women of his creation or of the living girls who glance in at him, and therefore existing as a symbolical exemplar of existential agony and isolation.

Despite being very little known in its own right, the present watercolour has a most distinguished, and virtually complete, provenance. Its first owner was William Graham, the Glasgow collector and foremost patron and close friend of Burne-Jones. It seems that Graham saw the first Pygmalion Series in Burne-Jones's studio on 3 August 1869 (see Oliver Garnett, 'The Letters and Collection of William Graham - Pre-Raphaelite Patron and Pre-Raphaelite Collector', The Walpole Society, 1999-2000, pp.145-343; letter B2 from Graham to Burne-Jones, dated 4 August 1869, talks about 'the Pygmalion I saw yesterday', p.249). Possibly Graham asked Burne-Jones to make the watercolour version of the first subject of the series at this time. In the same letter he itemised the works that he had by then acquired from Burne-Jones - 'three Saints (or Saintesses!) and the Cupid and Psyche but is not it lamentable to think that after our two years of friendship this is all I have been able to acquire of your work! notwithstanding my being so very hungry for it from the first day I knew you' (Garnett. loc. cit. p.249). In a further letter, dated 9 January 1871, in which he told Burne-Jones how much he and his family were enjoying Love disguised as Reason, Graham asked what other works might be available: 'Have you not some of the Pygmalion set finished that [would] hang with it?' (Garnett, loc. cit., p.254).

The present watercolour is dated 1871 (which date is corroborated by Malcolm Bell (see Literature) and the catalogue of the 1886 William Graham sale (see Provenance). The watercolour Pygmalion was entered as item no.13 in the inventory of William Graham's collection, with an insurance valuation of £200. With it in William Graham's collection were many of the undoubted masterpieces of Burne-Jones's early and mid-career, including Danae's Tower (Glasgow Museum & Art Gallery), The Mirror of Venus (Gulbenkian Foundation, Lisbon), and Laus Veneris (Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle-upon-Tyne). All of these were dispersed in 1886, following Graham's death, allowing opportunities for acquisition by a new generation of Burne-Jones collectors.

A notable buyer at the Christie's sale, and in fact the purchaser of Pygmalion, was Edward Clifford, who seems to have been buying on his own behalf and perhaps also as an agent for others. Clifford was himself a painter who had worked with Burne-Jones and had exhibited at the Dudley Gallery as one of the group of Burne-Jones followers who established there in the 1860s. Furthermore, Clifford had sold works of his own to William Graham, and had been invited to Stobhall, Graham's country house in Perthshire, so had a particular interest in the sale. Of Clifford's three purchases at the Graham sale (with Pygmalion, the watercolours Zepherus and Psyche (Lord Lloyd-Webber collection) and Love disguised as Reason (on loan to South African National Gallery, Capetown)) all later belonged to Gertrude, Dowager Countess of Pembroke, who lived in London at 7 Carlton House Terrace. Lady Pembroke was a member of the circle of aristocratic art-lovers known as the Souls; her particular interest in the works of Burne-Jones may have been encouraged by Clifford, who incidentally had painted or drawn a portrait of her, and which was exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1879.

We are grateful to Oliver Garnett for his kind assistance with this catalogue entry.
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Victorian & Edwardian Art

December 14, 2006, 12:00 AM GMT

London, United Kingdom