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Victorian, Pre-Raphaelite & British Impressionist Art

Preparatory Sketches by Pre-Raphaelite Artist Edward Burne-Jones Offer Fascinating Insight

From 24 October 2018 to 24 February 2019, a unique exhibition of over 150 works by Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones will be on display at the Tate Britain, the first major showing of his art in London for 40 years. Edward Burne-Jones: Pre-Raphaelite Visionary will showcase a diverse range of art work completed over his 40 year career, exploring the various mediums Burne-Jones practiced in and the wide-ranging subjects and themes depicting scenes from literature, the bible and mythology.

Sotheby’s will be offering eight works by this pioneering artist at the sale of Victorian, Pre-Raphaelite & British Impressionist Art on 12 July. Included in this sale are a collection of significant sketches made by the artist for his larger, final compositions, a number of which will be on show later this year at the Tate Britain. The importance and role of these sketches stands today as an essential consideration, however through a different function in which they were originally conceived.

For the artist the purpose was practical; to test out their ideas and compositions directly from their mind and to use them for reference when they came to execute their final piece. Today, these sketches provide a useful insight to the artist’s thought process; a primary source of evidence to gage their emotions at the time and to expose their gradual progression towards the final product created in the belief that they would not be exposed to the public eye.

Study for the Wheel of Fortune demonstrates Burne-Jones’ careful depiction of the male nude, focusing particularly on the subtle torsion of the torso. The model for this sketch is believed to be that of Antonio Corsi, a professional Italian model famed for his muscular physique and ability to hold a difficult pose for long periods of time. The muscular torso of the figure in the sketch draws parallels with Michelangelo’s famous marble sculptures of slaves, particularly The Rebellious Slave and The Dying Slave (Louvre, Paris). The study is just one of the examples that displays Burne-Jones’ gradual evolution of style; earlier works showcase a ‘medieval’ inspiration, developing into an Italian Renaissance influence, following works of artists such as Raphael and Botticelli, which he would have seen first-hand on his trips to Italy in 1871 and 1873.

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Head of a Girl (1888) is a preliminary sketch for Burne-Jones’ painting The Garden Court (1870/1890), the third painting in the Briar Rose panels. This series is considered to be one of his most famous narrative cycles and all four major panels will be exhibited at the Tate Britain exhibition. The delicate pencil and black chalk sketch beautifully depicts a sleeping female closely resembling the central seated woman in The Garden Court. Burne-Jones completed a number of comparable portraits of female figures over this period.

Study for one of the Queens in Arthur in Avalon (Sotheby’s, Dec. 2015) drawn a few years previous to the sketch and study of the Artist’s Daughter Margaret, for King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid (Sotheby’s, Dec. 2017), displays a similar delicate treatment towards the features of these melancholic women. As Burne-Jones’ work became increasing elaborate within his later compositions, so did the preparatory sketches, these exquisite and sensitive drawings aided the artist to create highly realistic and emotional depictions of the human form, they were not just a compliment to the final piece, but works of art in themselves.

From the 1870s onwards, Burne-Jones had an established method in the development towards a final painting.  Beginning with rough exploratory sketches, he would gradually define his compositions through multiple individual sketches, isolating every detail within the scene and experimenting with various designs until he was completely satisfied with the final result.

Even in these preliminary drawings he was in complete control of the pencil or crayon. Whereas many artists treated the study as a form of discovering the accident of the hand’s mark-making, Burne-Jones made sure that the marks were precisely as his creative sensibilities wanted.
MARTIN HARRISON AND BILL WATERS, BURNE-JONES, 1989, P. 145.

Burne-Jones’ sketches provide a fascinating insight to the process towards completing his remarkable compositions. Influenced by the Italian masters of the Renaissance combined with his ability to portray intense emotion and expression in his figures, Burne-Jones stands as one of the leading artists of his generation, a principal contributor to the Aesthetic movement and consequently a key figure in 19th-century British art.

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