This drawing was used as a study for the queen standing on the left behind Arthur’s recumbent figure in Burne-Jones’ unfinished swan song The Last Sleep of Arthur in Avalon
(Ponce Museum of Art, Puerto Rico). In the painting the female guardians are the queens who stand watch over King Arthur in Avalon until a time when a call to arms will summon them to wake him. They are identifiable as his wife Guinevere, sister Morgan le Fay and Nimue the Lady of the Lake.The Sleep of Arthur in Avalon
was Burne-Jones’ largest oil painting and the artist hired a studio on Campden Hill in Kensington specifically to paint the picture. It was commissioned in 1881 by his friend and patron George Howard, Earl of Carlisle for the library at Naworth. However as Burne-Jones worked on the picture he came to regard it as a potent personal statement about his desire to immortalise himself as the sleeping king who will reawaken in a post-industrialised world surrounded by the women he loved in his life. Howard was persuaded to resign his claim upon the picture and Burne-Jones continued to work on it for his own satisfaction. The picture caused the artist great difficulties and he was often made miserable when he felt that he was not achieving what he wanted from the picture. However it was also a picture into which Burne-Jones poured the experience of his entire career and he became almost obsessed with working upon it - he even began to sleep in the same pose as his painted king. He laboured on it for many years but it was unfinished at his death in June 1898. It is one of the most remarkably beautiful pictures of the nineteenth century and achingly romantic, an artist's labour of love.
A similar drawing, for the head of Morgan le Fay in the The Last Sleep of Arthur in Avalon
is also dated 1885 (Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart) and depicts the artist's daughter Margaret. Another study for the head of one of the queens, dated 1885 (Christie’s, 12 December 2012, lot 6) appears to depict the same model portrayed in the present drawing, whose expressive eyes and melancholic expression are so typical of the type of woman that Burne-Jones liked to draw. His elaborate later paintings gave Burne-Jones the excuse for making exquisite drawings like this in which he clearly delighted in his mastery of pencil and created a drawing which is a work of art in itself, not merely part of the preparatory work for an oil painting.
This drawing belonged to Katherine Kuh, the first female curator of European Painting and sculpture at the Art Institute of Chicago.