Catalogue No. 35
The Briar Rose Series: the Garden Court

Artist: Burne-Jones, Sir Edward Coley, Bt., A.R.A.
The Briar Rose Series: the Garden Court

1833-98
Oil on Canvas 49 ΒΌ by 91 ins Signed and dated: E B J 1870/1890

Frame designed by the artist, and inscribed: "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 complete decoration comprises the four large canvasses, and ten connecting scenes - Nos. 35-38 and Nos.589-598

Collection Details

Thomas Agnew & Sons, purchased from the artist; Lord Faringdon - see below


Literature Details

M. Bell, 'Burne-Jones - A Record and Review', George Bell and Sons, 1892, pp. 8-10, 25, 60-63, 78, 91; Mrs. Cartwright, The Life and Work of Sir Edward 'Burne-Jones, Bart.', 'The Art Journal', London, Christmas 1894, pp. 3, 8, 15, 23, 24-5 (Garden Court illustration); O. von Schleinitz, 'Burne-Jones', 1901, p.86; Lady Georgiana Burne-Jones, 'Memorials of Burne-Jones', Macmillan & Co. Ltd., London 1904, ii, pp.29, 141, 145, 204-6; C. Hussey, Country Life, LXXXVII, 1940, p.526; exh cat. 'Burne-Jones' (by John Christian), Arts Council, 1975, p63; P. Fitzgerald, 'Edward Burne-Jones', 1975, pp.145, 198-99, 202, 209-10, 218-219, 225-6, 260, 276 (Rose Bower illus); M. Harrison and B. Waters, 'Burne-Jones', 1973, pp101-3, 149-53, 154, 177, 185 (illus.); K. Powell, 'Burne-Jones and the legend of the briar rose', 'Journal of Pre-Raphaelite Studies', vi, 1986, pp15-28; exh cat 'Burne-Jones', Galleria dell'Arte Moderna, Rome, 1986, pp161-3; exh cat 'The Reproductive Engravings after Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones', Julian Hartnoll, 1988, pp42-5 (notes by John Christian, whose help the present author gratefully acknowledges).
 

Exhibition Details

Agnew's London and Liverpool, 1890; Toynbee Hall, Whitechapel, 1891
 

Related Works

see below

Like many of Burne-Jones' major projects, the evolution of the Briar Rose cycle was complex.  The cycle began life as tiles commissioned in the mid-1860s from Morris & Co. by, among others, the artist Myles Birket Foster, who used them as overmantels (now in the Victoria & Albert Museum) for his house, The Hill, at Witley in Surrey.  In August 1869, the most important patron of Burne-Jones' middle years, the Glasgow businessman and MP, William Graham, asked the artist to paint 'the Sleeping Princess Knights enchanted', and with this encouragement, Burne-Jones seems to have first contemplated expanding the series to larger oil paintings.  Burne-Jones produced one scene, The Briar Wood (offered for sale, Christie's, 27 November 1987), almost immediately, but seems not to have offered it to Graham.  Instead, he began work on a set of three paintings on the same theme, but on a slightly smaller scale (approx. 24in. x 45-53in.).  The result was the so-called 'small Briar Rose' series, painted 1871 and 1873, which was bought by Graham and is now in the Museo de Arte, Ponce, in Puerto Rico.  An unfinished nude study for the figures in the first scene, The Briar Wood, is in the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool.  The other scenes treated were The Council Chamber and The Rose Bower.  The Burne-Jones work record for 1872 notes '4 pictures of Sleeping Beauty - painted in oil for Graham', but no fourth scene ever appears to have been executed.  In 1871 Burne-Jones also painted a small version of The Rose Bower for Murray Marks (now in the Manchester City Art Gallery).


About 1873, Burne-Jones began considering expanding the cycle on to canvases up to 100in long.  The new project was offered to Graham, but he had to refuse it for lack of space.  The Burne-Jones work record for 1874 and 1875 mentions work on this second series, but Burne-Jones does not seem to have taken it up in earnest again until 1884.  According to Bell (op cit, pp. 60-1), he started the first subject in the series, The Briar Wood, in June 1884.  Shortly afterwards, he wrote to Lady Leighton Warren asking her for a specimen of briar rose 'hoary … thick as a wrist and with long horrible spikes on it … Three feet would be enough'.  By May 1885, it was sufficiently finished to show Agnew's, Burne-Jones' dealers.  Although Graham was by this time a dying man, he handled all the financial negotiations with Agnew's, and on 30 June 1885 wrote to Burne-Jones that the price had been settled at £15,000.


Despite the successful conclusion of the negotiations, Burne-Jones seems to have been dissatisfied with what he produced and started again on fresh canvases.  Finishing the series to his satisfaction took from the autumn of 1885 to April 1890.  In negotiating the sale to Agnew's, Graham had noted: 'Besides their artistic value I believe the Briar Rose pictures are likely to have a certain trade value for purposes of sensational exhibition which probably ought not to be overlooked'.  Graham's forecast proved accurate, for the set was exhibited at Agnew's galleries in Bond Street in 1890 with enormous success and subsequently shown in Liverpool and at Toynbee Hall, Whitechapel.  They were then sold to Lord Faringdon, who also owned such major Burne-Jones's as The Days of Creation (now in the Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, Mass, USA).  Burne-Jones was invited to Buscot to see the pictures and proposed extending the frames of the original four canvases to accommodate two further small canvases and eight slips which, with William Morris' verses inscribed at the base of the main frame, would give continuity to the series.  Six full-size gouache figure studies for the Garden Court scene are in the Birmingham City Art Gallery (50'61).  A study for the Rose Bower scene, painted in gouache with gold paint and inscribed 1886-8, was sold at Sotheby's, 23 March 1981 (illustrated in Harrison and Waters, op cit, fig. 208).  There are numerous other smaller studies.


In his final years, Burne-Jones spent much time making marketable material in his studio.  He completed the canvases he had abandoned when working on the Buscot Park series.  They were sold through Agnew's and have since been dispersed.  The third set comprises The Garden Court (Bristol City Art Gallery), The Council Chamber (Delaware Art Gallery, Wilmington) and The Rose Bower (Hugh Lane Gallery of Modern Art, Dublin).  There was once believed to have been a fourth subject in this set, The Briar Wood, but, as John Christian has established, this was never painted.  Photogravures of the main scenes of the Buscot Park series were published by Agnew's on 15 April 1892.


Burne-Jones drew his inspiration for the Briar Rose cycle from the 'Sleeping Beauty' fairy-tale, which had been retold in the eighteenth century by Charles Perrault in his Contes du Temps Passé and by Tennyson in his 1842 poem Day Dream.  Burne-Jones chose to focus on a single moment from the famous story - when the brave prince, having battle through the briar wood, first comes upon the bewitched court and the princess he is to awake with a kiss.  Burne-Jones carefully composed the series so that the eye passes naturally from the prince standing on the left in the first scene to the object of his quest, the sleeping princess, on the right of the final canvas.  Yet there is no narrative progression in the cycle, for Burne-Jones' primary concern was to create a hermetic world far from the problems of the modern world and to suggest a mood of langour.  He did this through the lazy arabesques of the briars, the abandoned poses of the sleeping figures, the shallow perspective, the intense but modulated colours and the verses inscribed beneath, which were written by William Morris expressly to be read in conjunction with the paintings.  The Briar Rose cycle is among the greatest achievements of Victorian painting, but it belongs more properly to a wider European tradition of enigmatic symbolism, which stretches from Giorgione's pastoral scenes to Klimt's Beethoven frieze. OG