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'The Beguiling of Merlin', by Edward Coley Burne-Jones (1833 - 1898)


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About the artwork

Edward Coley Burne-Jones is one of the great artistic figures of the nineteenth century. Born in Birmingham into a middle class family, he first trained as an artist at the Government School of Design. In 1853 he went up to Exeter College, Oxford where he met a young William Morris (who was to become the eminent nineteenth-century designer, illustrator and political writer). Both men had intended to enter the church. However, inspired by the work of the Pre-Raphaelites and the great medieval architecture of northern France they decided to pursue careers in the arts. Their working relationship was to be a long and fruitful one. This was especially so in their work on designs for Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co, set-up in 1861. Throughout his career, Burne-Jones used literature as a source of inspiration and his designs and decorative arts closely relates to his paintings. His most famous and ambitious works are his series pictures including 'The Briar Rose' (1873), 'Pygmalion' (1875-8), and 'Perseus' (1882).

This painting, purchased by Lever in 1918, is all about love, infatuation, power, entrapment and betrayal. Nimue was a Lady of the Lake who had been introduced to Camelot by King Pellinore. She enchanted an infatuated Merlin into a deep sleep. He is shown trapped in the tangles of a hawthorn bush, helpless to act. Nimue, now in the position of power, reads from his book of spells.

The subject is based on a medieval Romance story. Romance stories and Arthurian legends with their ideas of religious faith, heroism, true love, protection, and honour fascinated middle and upper-class Victorians. Such stories fitted in well with their polite values. The Pre-Raphaelite artists and their followers often used medieval Romances as subjects for their works, particularly since they combined the higher ideals of love and beauty with a rejection of materialism. Burne-Jones was no exception to this. Evidence of his interest in medieval subjects is well illustrated by his desire, as a young man, to own a copy of the famous Arthurian text, Thomas Malory's 'Morte d'Arthur', 1485. He had spotted a modern reprint (1817) of the work in a bookshop in Birmingham when he was twenty-three years of age. He couldn't afford to buy it so resorted to reading it in the shop every day. Eventually William Morris stepped in and purchased the book for him. In 1904, Georgina Burne-Jones, the artist's wife, described the influence of the text on the two men,

'I think the book can never have been loved as it was by these two men. With Edward it became literally a part of himself. Its strength and beauty, its mystical religion and noble chivalry of action, the world of lost history and romance in the names of people and places - it was his own birthright upon which he entered.'

Burne-Jones had used Malory's text for early versions of the subject such as the 1861 watercolour of Merlin and Nimue in the Victoria and Albert Museum. In this version Nimue escaped the attentions of an infatuated Merlin by luring him to his doom under an enchanted stone from which he could not escape. However, for this later work at the Lady Lever Art Gallery, Burne-Jones used a passage of text from the late medieval French 'Romance of Merlin' as his inspiration. In this story Nimue is very much more of a femme fatale figure. She beguiles and lures a powerless Merlin to his fate as they walk together in the forest of Broceliande. She is described as having snakes entwined in her hair just like the monstrous figure of classical mythology, Medusa, who turned those who looked at her to stone.

Work on 'The Beguiling of Merlin' was far from straightforward and was done over a period of at least five years. Frederick Leyland commissioned this painting from Burne-Jones in the late 1860s. Leyland was an enthusiast for aesthetic works. He intended that the picture should hang in his famous interior at 49, Princes Gate London. We are not sure of the exact date that Burne-Jones started work on the picture but we do know that it was underway by 1872. In 1873, Burne-Jones wrote to Leyland expressing his frustration with the slow progress on the picture due to poor materials. He described how the paint would not adhere to the canvas. Burne-Jones offered to start the work again if Leyland found this acceptable, which he did. The painting was started again in 1873. The work is actually signed and dated by the artist 1874. However, we know that the artist carried out some fine-tuning after 1874 before the picture was first exhibited publicly in 1877.

As usual for his paintings, Burne-Jones did a large number of preparatory drawings for 'The Beguiling of Merlin'. Amongst these is an early compositional design where the figures are drawn from the nude, now in the Fogg Art Museum in the USA. The picture 'The Sleeping Knights' in the Walker, Liverpool is another good example of the artist working out a painting's layout and figure details by studying from the nude. There are also preparatory studies in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge and the Tate, London. The drawings reveal Burne-Jones's careful study of the drapery of the figures. He saw this as a very important aspect of getting the figure right, allowing the drapery to reveal the figure and its shape. John Ruskin, the great Victorian art critic, found this aspect of the artist's work difficult to appreciate, much to Burne-Jones's distress.

Burne-Jones used Maria Zambaco, a member of the Ionides family and probably his mistress from 1866 to 1872, for the model for the head of Nimue. A study for this dating from 1872/3 is in the Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington, USA. Writing to his friend, Helen Gaskell in 1893 about the head of Nimue, Burne-Jones revealed that in using Maria as inspiration for the subject, he was perhaps to some extent echoing his own personal feelings. His love and infatuation for Maria paralleled Merlin's infatuation with Nimue.

The painting was first exhibited publicly at the Grosvenor Gallery, Bond Street, London at its opening show in 1877. The gallery was founded by the rich supporter of the arts, Sir Coutts Lindsay. It was intended as an alternative exhibiting venue to the Royal Academy for more progressive artists of the day. The pictures were hung in a more modern fashion. There was greater space around each piece and works by a single artist were grouped together. Burne-Jones exhibited eight works at the show, displayed against a rich red fabric. The critics and public were amazed by the paintings. Burne-Jones became an overnight success. Henry James, the great American writer, reviewing the show noted that Burne-Jones's pictures were 'by far the most interesting things in the Grosvenor Gallery'. He also said that 'in the palace of art there are many chambers, and that of which Mr Burne-Jones holds the key is a wondrous museum. His imagination, his fertility of invention, his exquisiteness of work, his remarkable gifts as a colourist…. all these things constitute a brilliant distinction.'

Find out more about Burne-Jones’s ‘Study for the Sleeping Knights’ on display at Picture of the month July 2000 at the Walker.