Edward Burne-Jones (1833 - 1898)

Lot 29: Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones, Bt, A.R.A., R.W.S. (1833-1898)


November 24, 2004
London, United Kingdom

More About this Item

Description: Head-study of Maria Zambaco, probably for 'The Wine of Circe'
red chalk
12 x 11 3/4 in. (30.5 x 30 cm.)
Artist or Maker: Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones, Bt, A.R.A., R.W.S. (1833-1898)
Provenance: with Charles Cholmondeley, London

The drawing appears to be a study for the head of Circe in The Wine of Circe (fig. 1), exhibited at the Old Watercolour Society in 1869. The picture had been commissioned by John Ruskin in 1863. A keen student of classical myths, which he saw as repositories of revealed truth, Ruskin regarded Circe not as the sinister temptress of popular perception but as a force for good, 'her power', as he wrote in Munera Pulveris, being that of 'frank and full vital pleasure, which, if governed and watched, nourishes men'. Burne-Jones's picture was to illustrate this concept, and the design was visualised in terms of the heavy 'gothic' style that he was only beginning to outgrow at this date. Preliminary sketches show Circe in a dark interior with massive pieces of furniture, while the sails of Ulysses' ships add to the sense of claustrophobia by filling the window.

By the time the picture was finished six years later it had been transformed. The ships had been pushed back and light flooded into the room. Details and general style had all become more classical, with Circe herself showing a marked resemblance to the famous charioteer from the Mausoleum (British Museum). In fact in every way the picture was now a fine expression of the emerging Aesthetic movement. No longer was the artist primarily concerned with the evocation of mood. Carefully balanced linear rhythms now preoccupied him, while the colour scheme was what Whistler would have called a 'harmony in yellow'.

When the picture appeared at the O.W.C.S. in 1869 it received the critical abuse to which Burne-Jones had become accustomed. The Art Jounal, admittedly incorrigibly reactionary in its opinions, found it 'supremely disagreeable' and 'altogether abhorent'. But the more enlightened recognised it as one of the artists finest works to date. By now Ruskin seems either to have lost interest in it or resigned his claim to it, and it was bought by the Liverpool shipowner F. R. Leyland, who was currently creating a great Aesthetic interior at 22 Queen's Gate, his new London house on the borders between Knightsbridge and Kensington. Circe was in fact the first of many paintings by Burne-Jones that Leyland was to purchase, and it pleased him so much that he added £100 to the asking price.

In 1866, when the picture had been on the easel for three years and had still to undergo another three years' development, Burne-Jones met the only woman with whom we know he conducted a passionate physical affair. It would be wrong to call Maria Zambaco the most important woman in his life. His wife Georgiana, although she could irritate him intensely, gave him a lifetime of rock-like moral support, and there would be other affairs no less significant for being platonic. But Maria offered him a combintation of physical beauty and sexual generosity that brought a new dimension to his life, remained unique in his emotional experience, and had an incalculable impact on his art.

Maria was Greek by birth. Her maiden name was Cassavetti and she was a cousin of the Ionides, the large, affluent Anglo-Greek family which plays such a prominent role in the annals of Victorian art. In 1861 she married Demetrius Zambaco, a doctor serving the Greek community in Paris, but four years later, having borne him two children, she left him and returned with her offspring to London. There at the age of twenty-three she was introduced to Burne-Jones, her senior by ten years, and it is not hard to see why he was swept off his feet. Wayward, headstrong and artistically talented (she later made her name as a sculptor), Maria was also ravishingly beautiful, with soulful, well-like eyes and what the young A.C. Ionides described as 'glorious red hair and almost phosphorescent white skin'. Nothing in Burne-Jones's rather sheltered life had prepared him for an encounter with so passionate and elemental a creature, nor could there have been a greater contrast, either in looks or temperament, with Georgiana, who, incidentally, handled the situation with immense self-control and magnanimity.

There may also have been a more intellectual aspect to Burne-Jones's infatuation. Maria represented in corporeal form the Greek ideal that he was currently seeking in his pictures. At all events, the experience was devastating. The emotional turmoil put a severe strain on his health, and the affair reached a bizarre climax in Janauary 1869, when Maria tried to commit suicide in the Regent's Canal. Restrained by her lover, she failed, and the relationship continued at a less feverish pace until well into the 1870s. Some believed that it went on even longer.

The present drawing is almost certainly one of Burne-Jones's earliest studies of Maria. The technique of red chalk on heavily grained paper is characteristic of his work in the mid-1860s and dates the drawing firmly to about 1866, the year they met (for another good example, in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, see Martin Harrison and Bill Waters, Burne-Jones, London 1973, p. 88, pl. 116.) As for the association with Circe, this is admittedly slightly ambiguous in that the drawing could be seen as an independent portrait study. On the other hand, Circe was in progress at the time, and the heads in both painting and drawing are in much the same position. There is, moreover, a freer study in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, which acts as a sort of link between the two, being undoubtedly a study for Circe and undoubltedly modelled by Maria (fig. 2). Furthermore, a connection with Circe underlines the notion that Maria embodied the Greek ideal at a moment when Burne-Jones was experienceing a classical phase. He was not of course alone in this, even if no other artist was fortunate enough to encounter so appropriate a muse. Everyone in the circle was touched by classicism in the 1860s, some (Rossetti, Madox Brown, Burne-Jones himself) finding it a temporary experience, while for others (Leighton, Poynter) it indicated a permanent way ahead.

There is another reason for connecting Maria Zambaco with Circe. The paintings by Burne-Jones in which she appears nearly all have an autobiographical dimension. In Phyllis and Demophoön (1870; Birmingham), the next picture he completed for Leyland, the heroine leans from the branches of the almond tree into which the gods have transformed her to forgive her faithless lover. Love among the Ruins (1870-73; private collection) shows two lovers tremulously clinging together in a devastated building symbolic of a hostile world; while The Beguiling of Merlin (1872-7; Port Sunlight) depicts the old wizard lulled to sleep in a hawthorn tree by his pupil in the necromantic arts, Nimue, who has the features in Maria Zambaco. Circe clearly falls into the same catagory. Ruskin might have seen the enchantress as benevolent, but Burne-Jones finds a metaphor for her wiles in the sinuous, serpentine forms of the figure herself, her throne and her attendant panthers. Similarly, the story of her entrapment of Ulysses acts act a metaphor for his own captivation by Maria.

Maria was undoubtedly beautiful. Even if she had never met Burne-Jones, we would know this form the testimony of A.C. Ionides, three drawings by Rossetti, and an etching by Charles Keene. Yet her looks seem to have improved with time and experience. As Rossetti put it when he was drawing her in 1870, 'she is really extremely beautiful when one gets to study her face...(and) I think she has got much more so within the last year with all her love and trouble'. Burne-Jones's accounts of her not only confirm this but show a parallel development in his own appreciation of her beauty as their affair unfolded.

The present drawing is like a flower in bud; neither Maria's allure nor Burne-Jones's reaction to it seem fully formed. But this was soon to change, for it must have been almost immediatly afterwards that he drew the ostensibly very similar but nonetheless quite different head at Wightwick Manor, Wolverhampton (National Trust). Again in red chalk, the drawing appears to be a 'fair copy' of ours, following it closely in such details as the curls of the hair but idealising the features and creating a more dream-like impression by the use of a softer sfumato. The drawing is mounted as a roundel, perhaps an indication that Burne-Jones wanted to create the effect of a Greek coin; and in subtle allusion to his feelings for the sitter, it is signed 'E B J' in a heart-shaped cartouche.

A drawing of Maria as Cassandra, part of the Ionides Bequest in the Victoria and Albert Museum, is again in red chalk and must date from this period or a fraction later (see T. Martin Wood, Drawings of Sir Edward Burne-Jones, London, 1907, pl. 46). Yet strangely enough it was only after the melodramatic events of Jaunary 1869, when the two parties had recovered their senses and a less feverish mood prevailed, that Maria achieved her apotheosis in her lover's work. She is first seen in what we think of as her most authentic form in the Phyllis and Demophoön of 1870 and the extraordinary allegorical portrait that he painted for her mother the same year (Clemens-Sels Museum, Neuss; both pictures illustrated in Stephen Wildman and John Christian, Edward Burne-Jones: Victorian Artist-Dreamer, Metroplitan Museum, New York, 1998, cat. pp. 137, 139). There is also a group of drawings of 1870-71, no longer in red chalk but the hard pencil that he was now adopting as he moved into his most Florentine phase. Never had Maria looked more glamorous or seductive, with her enormous, fathomless eyes, exquisite lips, and hair blowing with Botticellian abandon. (For an example, see the catalogue of the Arts Council's Burne-Jones Exhibition, 1875-6, no. 116, illustrated). At least one of these drawings was a study for The Hesperides (Kunsthalle, Hamburg), another classical subject completed in 1873.

Meanwhle in 1872 Burne-Jones had embarked on The Beguiling of Merlin and made the life-sized gouache study for the head of Nimue in which Maria is seen at her most compelling (Bancrof Collection, Willmington, Delaware; illus, Wildman and Christian, p.172). Gone is the prettiness of the slightly earlier drawings, to be replaced by an almost frightening intensity, a Michaelangelesque terribilità dictated by the subject but reflecting as never before Maria's overwelming impact on the artist. She had come far from her first appearance in his work some eight years earlier, moving from the almost schoolgirlish presence seen in our drawing to this dramatic evocation of the destructive power of love. How rewarding it would be to illustrate, or better still exhibit, all the images together. To do so would reveal an anatomy of a liaison as fascinting as many we encounter in the history of Victorian art.

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Important British Art

November 24, 2004, 12:00 AM EST

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