01 January 2014

Art for Christmas (8): ‘Love Among
the Ruins,’ by Edward Burne-Jones

‘Love Among the Ruins,’ by Sir Edward Burne-Jones ... the original sold for a record £13.2 million at Christie’s last summer

Patrick Comerford

As we look back on the past year and look forward to the New Year that has arrived, my choice of Art for Christmas this morning, New Year’s Day [1 January 2014], is Love Among the Ruins, by the Pre-Raphaelite painter, Sir Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898).

This painting was inspired by a poem of the same title by Robert Browning, published in 1855. Both are appropriate for contemplating on New Year’s Day for the painting and the poem set a striking contrast between the monumental achievements of the powerful, now crumbling, and the inexorable strength of love and the “plenty and perfection” of natural life.

In the seven-year period 1870-1877, Edward Burne-Jones exhibited only two works, two watercolours that were shown at the Dudley Gallery in 1873. One of these watercolours was Love among the Ruins.

Love Among the Ruins, which was painted ca 1873, is a watercolour-cum-gouache, measuring 96.5 cm x 152.4 cm. An earlier variant of this painting provided an illustration for an illuminated manuscript of Edward Fitzgerald’s translation of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam produced by William Morris in the 1870s.

Although the title of this painting is taken from Browning’s poem, it is not a direct illustration of the text, but is a more elusive allegory that is typical of the artist.

The setting was possibly influenced by a 15th century Venetian text, Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, written by Fra Colonna. This romantic story was illustrated with woodcuts, some of which show lovers seated amongst fallen pillars and stones. The book takes the form of a mediaeval romance full of adventures and allegories but with classical setting, details and language.

In a dream, Poliphilus sets out on a quest for his lost love, Polia, and at last finds her. The lovers are joined at the altar of Venus, and a miraculous briar rose begins to grow. For ultimate happiness they must travel to the Isle of Cythera, where they wander through ruins and graves of those who have died for love. But it is all a deception: the Dreamer awakes to disappointment.

The picture therefore illustrates the ephemeral nature of love and youth, showing the lovers among the ruins of Cythera with the briar rose around them. Its melancholy beauty epitomises Burne-Jones’s work. He said that a picture was “a beautiful dream of something that never was and never could be.”

It has an obvious similarity with the Briar Rose series of paintings of the Sleeping Beauty legend (1873 and 1890) at Buscot Park, Oxfordshire.

The male lover portrayed by Burne-Jones is believed to be either Gaetano Meo (1849-1925), although the Christie’s catalogue last year suggests he was Alessandro di Marco. Both men were favourite models for artists in the late Victorian period.

The female lover was probably the Antonia Caiva. But she also recalls Maria (Kassavetti) Zambaco (1843-1914), who had a tumultuous affair with Burne-Jones 20 years earlier. However, Alison Smith in the catalogue for the Pre-Raphaelites exhibition in 2012, suggests the female model is Bessie Kee[a]ne (born ca 1866/1869) who also posed for The Golden Stairs and Verpertina Quies, both at the Tate. The Christie’s catalogue last year [11 July 2013] suggests she was Antonia Caiva.

The two lovers, in blue robes, are seated together at right on a stone capital. At their feet is part of a broken column overgrown with a briar rose. In the left background is a door decorated with a frieze of putti, and behind is a vista of arches.

Love Among the Ruins shows how far Burne-Jones had moved away from his Pre-Raphaelite origins. His work was increasingly influenced by the Italian High Renaissance artists the Pre-Raphaelites had despised, particularly Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Botticelli, Raphael and Mantegna, especially following his visits to Italy in 1871 and 1873.

This is clearly reflected in the classically patterned drapery and the pose of the figures, and the Renaissance classicism of the architectural setting. The distant perspective view through a doorway contrasts with the tightly enclosed shallow space characteristic of many of Burne-Jones’s pictures. The classicism, subtle colouring, and dream-like poetic quality are far away from the bright colours, mediaevalism and intense realism of Pre-Raphaelite paintings.

The story of a painting

This large painting became one of the most admired and exhibited works by Burne-Jones.

However, it was damaged in a photographic studio in Paris in August 1893. It was in a private collection and was being prepared exhibition at the Societé National des Beaux Arts. While it was in the studio of the photographer Goupil for reproduction in photogravure, it was severely damaged by a cleaner. The highlights were treated with egg white and the paint came away.

The calamity was a severe blow to Burne-Jones at a time when he was already unsettled and unhappy. He wrote to his wife Georgiana: “It is quite irreparable, but it is life, and all in the bargain – I don’t know who made the bargain.”

However, his former studio assistant, Charles Fairfax Murray, and the owners of the original watercolour, persuaded Burne-Jones there was a way to repair the damage, and used ox gall to lift off the egg white. Burne-Jones then redrew the face of Maria Zambaco so it looked like new. “It seemed like a miracle,” wrote Lady Burne-Jones wrote.

But it was to be his last work of art. Five weeks later, he was dead.

Meanwhile, however, Burne-Jones had reproduced the painting in oils. This well-known reproduction, signed and dated 23 April 1894, is in oil on canvas, measures 953 mm x 1600 mm, and is signed and dated on the bottom right: ‘EBJ 1894.’

There is a hand-written note by Burne-Jones on the back of the picture: “This oil painting of ‘Love Among the Ruins’ is the same design as the one of the same name which I painted in watercolours, twenty one years ago, but which was destroyed in August last year. The present picture I began at once, and have made it as like as possible to the other, and have finished it this day. APRIL 23. 1894.Edward Burne Jones.”

A friend of Burne-Jones, Stopford Brooke, said of the second 1894 version: “It’s better painted, but the ineffable spirit of youth which was in the other, is not there.” Burne-Jones agreed: “O that is true, and it will not come back again.”

A friend of Burne-Jones, Stopford Brooke, said of the second 1894 version: “It’s better painted, but the ineffable spirit of youth which was in the other, is not there.” Burne-Jones agreed: “O that is true, and it will not come back again.”

The original came up for auction at Christie’s, London, last year, and was sold on 11 July 2013 for £13.2 million, a record auction price for a Pre-Raphaelite work of art. Christie’s had put the estimated value at between £3 million and £5 million, while art critics were expecting a record £5 million.

The story of a house and a second painting

‘Love Among the Ruins’ ... the second painting hangs on Wightwick Manor, Wolverhampton

By 1898, the second painting, dated 1894, was owned by Mrs Robert Henry Benson. It was bought in 1913 at Christie’s by Sir Marcus Samuel 1853-1927), 1st Viscount Bearsted, and passed to Walter Samuel (1882-1948), 2nd Viscount Bearsted, who presented it to the National Trust in 1948. It was moved immediately to Wightwick Manor, in Wolverhampton.

It remains in the ownership of the National Trust and can be seen at Wightwick Manor, and was exhibited last year at the Tate exhibition, Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde.
In 1937, Geoffrey Mander MP persuaded the National Trust to accept Wightwick Manor, a house that was just 50 years old. Mander was a local paint manufacturer and Liberal MP had been left the timber-framed, Tudor-style house by his father, Theodore Mander.

Inspired by a lecture by Oscar Wilde on “the House Beautiful, Theodore and his wife Flora decorated the interiors with designs by William Morris and his Arts and Crafts and Pre-Raphaelite friends.

After giving Wightwick Manor to the Trust, Geoffrey and Rosalie Mander became the live-in curators. They opened the house to the public and added to its contents with a remarkable collection of Pre-Raphaelite paintings by Rossetti, Burne-Jones and their followers. The house still has a collection of treasures that includes William Morris wallpaper, Pre-Raphaelite art and De Morgan pottery, a portrait of Jane Morris by Dante Rossetti and works by Ford Madox Brown.

Love among the Ruins, by Robert Browning

Where the quiet-coloured end of evening smiles,
Miles and miles
On the solitary pastures where our sheep
Tinkle homeward thro’ the twilight, stray or stop
As they crop—
Was the site once of a city great and gay,
(So they say)
Of our country’s very capital, its prince
Ages since
Held his court in, gathered councils, wielding far
Peace or war.

Now the country does not even boast a tree,
As you see,
To distinguish slopes of verdure, certain rills
From the hills
Intersect and give a name to, (else they run Into one)
Where the domed and daring palace shot its spires
Up like fires
O’er the hundred-gated circuit of a wall
Bounding all
Made of marble, men might march on nor be prest
Twelve abreast.

And such plenty and perfection, see, of grass
Never was!
Such a carpet as, this summer-time, o’er-spreads
And embeds
Every vestige of the city, guessed alone,
Stock or stone—
Where a multitude of men breathed joy and woe
Long ago;
Lust of glory pricked their hearts up, dread of shame
Struck them tame;
And that glory and that shame alike, the gold
Bought and sold.

Now—the single little turret that remains
On the plains,
By the caper overrooted, by the gourd
While the patching houseleek’s head of blossom winks
Through the chinks—
Marks the basement whence a tower in ancient time
Sprang sublime,
And a burning ring, all round, the chariots traced
As they raced,
And the monarch and his minions and his dames
Viewed the games.
And I know, while thus the quiet-coloured eve
Smiles to leave
To their folding, all our many-tinkling fleece
In such peace,
And the slopes and rills in undistinguished grey
Melt away—
That a girl with eager eyes and yellow hair
Waits me there
In the turret whence the charioteers caught soul
For the goal,
When the king looked, where she looks now, breathless, dumb
Till I come.

But he looked upon the city, every side,
Far and wide,
All the mountains topped with temples, all the glades’
All the causeys, bridges, aqueducts,—and then
All the men!
When I do come, she will speak not, she will stand,
Either hand
On my shoulder, give her eyes the first embrace
Of my face,
Ere we rush, ere we extinguish sight and speech
Each on each.

In one year they sent a million fighters forth
South and North,
And they built their gods a brazen pillar high
As the sky
Yet reserved a thousand chariots in full force—
Gold, of course.
O heart! oh blood that freezes, blood that burns!
Earth’s returns
For whole centuries of folly, noise and sin!
Shut them in,
With their triumphs and their glories and the rest!
Love is best.

Tomorrow:New Year’s Festival,’ by Kunisada Utagawa.

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