Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The Return of King Arthur

The last and (some say) greatest work by Edward Burne-Jones, The Sleep of Arthur in Avalon (detail shown below), has returned to the UK from Ponce, Puerto Rico, for the first time in 40 years.

This enormous painting, measuring over six metres in width, is on loan to Tate Britain through March 2009, along with Frederic Leighton’s masterpiece Flaming June (1895), from the Museo de Arte de Ponce while its galleries undergo renovation. These important paintings will be shown alongside other masterpieces of late-Victorian art from the Tate Collection.

Often described as Burne-Jones's magnum opus, The Sleep of Arthur in Avalon was originally commissioned by his patron, George Howard, Earl of Carlisle, to hang on a wall in the library of Naworth Castle. It was started in 1881 and Burne-Jones (DNB bio here; Wiki bio here) worked steadily on it for 17 years -- even moving into a studio large enough for the purpose -- but died before it was complete. The painting became increasingly autobiographical for the artist as he withdrew into himself. Toward the end of his life he wrote, “I need nothing but my hands and my brain to fashion myself a world to live in that nothing can disturb. In my own land I am king of it.”

Following the artist’s death the painting passed to a neighbour of Burne-Jones’s whose descendants, John and Penryn Monck, sold the work at Christie’s in April 1963 to Don Luis Ferré, Puerto Rico's governor and founder of the Museo de Arte de Ponce. Even at a time when Victorian art was unfashionable, the sale was considered a significant loss to Britain.

Flaming June (shown at left) by Leighton (DNB bio here; Wiki bio here) was last on display in the UK in 1996. It's one of the artist’s final works and shows a woman as she sleeps in the heat of the Mediterranean sun. The themes of sleep, death, and unconsciousness were important to both Burne-Jones and Leighton.

Related links:

"King Arthur Comes Home: How a Key Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood Painting by Edward Burne-Jones Ended Up on a Caribbean Island" (New Statesman / BBC Radio 4)

"Pre-Raphaelite Painting of Arthur Returns, Temporarily, to Britain" (Guardian)

"A Visionary Oddity: Fiona MacCarthy on Edward Burne-Jones" (TATE etc)

Where to Find the Pre-Raphaelites (via 24 Hour Museum)


Margaret said...

Great post! Did you know that Andrew Lloyd Webber almost bought the original Flaming June for 50 pounds from a London shop when he was a kid? His grandmother thought it was Victorian junk and wouldn't give hime the money! Big mistake!

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