The Property of the Descendants of the Artist
SIR EDWARD COLEY BURNE-JONES, BT., A.R.A., R.W.S.
oil on canvas
178 by 76cm., 70 by 30in.
The canvas is unlined and the original canvas is providing a stable structural support. The painting is in excellent original condition with no craquelure and is ready to be hung.
UNDER ULTRAVIOLET LIGHT
There are no obvious signs of retouching.
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The artist’s widow Georgiana, Lady Burne-Jones until her death in 1920 when bequeathed to her daughter Mrs. Margaret Mackail with whom it remained until her death in 1953, when bequeathed to her son Denis George Mackail who gifted it to his sister Clare, and thence by family descent
Georgiana Burne-Jones, Memorials of Edward Burne-Jones, London, 1904, 2 volumes, vol.I., p.304, vol. II., p.258, 277, 282-283;
Martin Harrison and Bill Waters, Burne-Jones, London, 1973, p.160;
Penelope Fitzgerald, Edward Burne-Jones – A Biography, London, 1975, p.233, 260, 275;
Mary Lago (ed.), Burne-Jones Talking – His Conversations 1895-1898 Preserved by his Studio Assistant Thomas Rooke, Columbia, 1981, pp.43, 90, 93, 96, 98, 159, 164
‘I am Day, I bring again Life and glory, love and pain, Awake, arise from death to death, From me the worlds tale quickeneth.’ William Morris
‘I mean by a picture a beautiful romantic dream of something that never was, never will be - in a light better than any light that ever shone - in a land no one can define, or remember, only desire – and the forms divinely beautiful.’ Sir Edward Burne-Jones
The scarcity of large oil paintings by Burne-Jones in private ownership, probably less than twenty, makes the re-emergence of Aurora an exciting moment, especially as it is in such wonderful condition and with an unbroken family provenance. Of the important pictures from his mature period most are in public collections around the world, including The Beguiling of Merlin of 1874 (Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight), Laus Veneris of 1878 (Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle-upon-Tyne), The Golden Stairs of 1880 and King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid of 1884 (both Tate), The Wheel of Fortune of 1883 (Musee d’Orsay, Paris), The Marriage of Psyche of 1895 in Belgium (Musees royeaux des beaux-arts, Brussels) and his swan-song The Last Sleep of Arthur in Avalon (Museo de Arte de Ponce, Puerto Rico). In the last twenty years the only oil paintings by Burne-Jones sold at auction are The Prince Entering the Briar Wood (Christie's, London, 13 June 2001, lot 11), The Sea Nymph (Christie's, London, 15 June 2005, lot 34), Hill-fairies (sold in these rooms, 12 July 2007, lot 19) Hero (Christie's, London, 31 May 2012, lot 15) and a handful of portraits.
An ethereal figure of the Roman Goddess of the Dawn treads lightly over a wooden bridge amid towering buildings and a motionless river. The first light of the day is rising above the horizon to break the chill of night and reveal the recesses and apertures of the clustered houses along the quayside. In a radiant gown of saffron orange she strides forth resembling a dancing flame of the sun itself stepped momentarily into the mortal world from her celestial course across the sky. She raises two silver cymbals and heralds the coming day, breaking the silence of slumber as she wakes the townsfolk with her music and her illumination. The doors remain unopened, the window-shutters closed to ward off the perils of the night. There is a sense of suspended time as though Aurora were about to clash her cymbals for the first time and break the reign of silence. The painting is one of Burne-Jones most powerful allegories, a personification of light and rebirth, power and grace. Free from the restrictions of conveying a narrative, Aurora is an example of Burne-Jones’ Symbolist tendencies in his later work.
Aurora is the counterpoint to Vespertina Quies (Evening Repose) of 1893 (Tate). Whilst Vespertina Quies captures the silent somnolence of the last light of the day, with the reflective introspection of da Vinci, Aurora reflects Botticelli’s graceful movement and the liveliness of waking hours. Both paintings depict the same young woman, a beautiful professional model named Bessie Keene (b.1878 or 1879) whose mother Annie had also posed for Burne-Jones many years earlier for The Golden Stairs (Tate). ‘Bessie was an excellent sitter, though unfortunately in love with a heartless Mr Inwick, said to ‘look like the heroes I paint, and I am rather kind, and take an interest.’ (Burne-Jones quoted in Penelope Fitzgerald,Edward Burne-Jones – A Biography, London, 1975, p.233) She is thought to have also been the model for the later version of Love Among the Ruins of 1894 (Bearstead Collection, on long-term loan to Wightwick Manor, National Trust). As the artist Graham Robertson noted; ‘she succeeded her mother as chief ‘angel and ‘nymph’. (Graham Robertson, Time was – The Reminiscences of W. Graham Robertson, London, 1931, p.282)
The present picture is a version of an identically sized painting, first exhibited at the New Gallery in 1896 and bought by Earl Cowper (now in the Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane). Burne-Jones often painted alternative versions of pictures, sometimes in different media. Examples of this include King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid, The Annunciation, The Depths of the Sea, Wheel of Fortune and panels from both of his great cycle of pictures illustrating the stories of Perseus and Sleeping Beauty. In the 1890s Burne-Jones had many ongoing, unfinished projects awaiting his attention in the studio, so many that he felt overwhelmed at times. He drew a poignant caricature of himself entitled Unpainted Masterpieces c.1890 (British Museum, London), looking forlorn and surrounded by vast empty canvases threatening to engulf him. Of his last great works, many remained incomplete, including The Wizard (Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery), The Sirens (The John and Mabel Ringling Museum of Arts, Sarasota), The Last Sleep of Arthur in Avalon (Museo de Arte de Ponce, Puerto Rico), The Car of Love (Victoria & Albert Museum, London), The Troy Triptych (Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery) and his great cycle of paintings The Perseus Series (Southampton City Art Gallery). Burne-Jones would begin versions of pictures before one was finished, sometimes working on two simultaneously with multiple patrons in mind or intending to retain one version for himself. On 6 April 1896 Burne-Jones’ studio assistant Thomas Rooke recorded that he had been ‘laying in a replica of Aurora on a new canvas’ (Mary Lago (ed.), Burne-Jones Talking – His Conversations 1895-1898 Preserved by his Studio Assistant Thomas Rooke, 1981, p.90), indicating that Rooke traced the composition of Aurora from the finished painting to the present canvas, which was subsequently painted by Burne-Jones himself. Another young artist visiting the studio in 1893 described Burne-Jones’ painting technique at this time; ‘He began by drawing the figure in raw umber. I think that was done before I came. Then he modelled the face in white and raw umber, lightly putting a little red on the lips, nostrils and eyes… all the strong colours were painted in sweeping strokes of full colour. He used a mixture of spike [lavender] oil and turpentine as a medium.’ (Maud Beddington, quoted in Martin Harrison and Bill Waters, Burne-Jones, 1973, p.158) The ‘sweeping strokes’ of orange in Aurora’s dress have a wonderful luminosity and expression of confidence but the painting was put aside, like so many others. There is a photograph of Burne-Jones studio at The Grange in Kensington which shows one of the versions of Aurora in a preliminary state on an easel beside The Marriage of Psyche and The Arming of Perseus. On 20 April 1896 Burne-Jones returned to the two paintings of Aurora and made changes to the width of the bridge in the version exhibited at the New Gallery, following several comments from friends that the bridge was too narrow. At the same time he described making the same changes to the present picture ‘I did it on the other one first – that’s the good of having two pictures, one to wash the other, as Mr Morris says of having two shirts.’ (op.cit. Lago, p.98) The present version of Aurora remained unfinished at the time of the artist’s death which meant that it escaped the changes made to the other version suggested by Burne-Jones’ son Philip. Several of the artist’s friends thought these changes were detrimental. Although Philip Burne-Jones was a professional artist of modest success and lived in the shadow of his father’s reputation, he occasionally influenced his father’s work in later years. Graham Robertson felt that when the exhibited Aurora (Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane) was ‘all but finished’ it suffered from Philip’s poor taste in colours; ‘When Phil had finished with her, her robes were colourless, her face pale, and her hair almost grey.’ (Kerrison Preston (ed.), Letters from Graham Robertson, London, 1953, p.442) The present version however retains the effect of ‘a radiant figure clad in the rose and gold of dawn, with flushed cheeks and golden hair.’ (ibid p.442) In her biography of her husband, Georgiana Burne-Jones recalled that he had made a sketch in Oxford in 1867 of a ‘canal-bridge in a poor quarter of the city, which nearly thirty years afterwards he developed into the background of his “Aurora.” The main outlines of building and canal are preserved in the picture, and Aurora with her cymbals comes lightly stepping along a waterside path from which in the original sketch a woman stoops to bathe her baby, but the canal has changed into the arm of a river and the houses have welded into the long, low storage-places of a wharf, crowned by a great church lifted up against the sky.’ (Georgiana Burne-Jones, Memorials of Edward Burne-Jones, London, 1904, 2 volumes, vol.I., p.304) Georgiana also recalled that; ‘… one day as he was working at “Aurora” he did a very unusual thing, for the humour seized him to think aloud, and he spun out a whole story of the place. “You see the city gets poorer as it gets towards the church,” he said, “which makes it more interesting – the rich people have gone to live further off. It has had many epochs: first the Roman – you may see remnants of that in the foundations: then was an oligarchic government, following on a time of anarchy and disaster, that put up many fine buildings, and some of them still remain. Then came an epoch of trade, capricious and varying in locality, that produced the strangest results on its architecture, one part of the town cutting out another by setting up nearer the sea further down the river, then being driven back again for reasons that can’t be found out now – traces of prosperity and decay succeeding each other.”’ (ibid p.305)
It is interesting that around the time that Burne-Jones designed Aurora, he used the same dancing musician for Miriam a design for a window in the north transept of the Albion Congregational Church at Ashton-under-Lyme in 1895 (the chalk cartoon is Northampton Central Museum and Art Gallery).
Aurora was the ultimate example of a series of allegories of times of the day made throughout his later career from the 1870s onwards. The series includes Day and Night painted in 1870 (both in The Fogg Art Gallery, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts), Vesper of 1872 (also known as Hesperus, The Evening Star, private collection, a version from 1870 sold Christie’s, London, 12 December 2013, lot 53 for £506,500), Luna of 1872 (sold Christie’s, Paris, 23 February 2009, lot 91, from the collection of Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé for €1,095,500) and The Hours of 1882 (Sheffield City Art Gallery). Aurora can also be viewed in a wider context of allegories by exponents of the Aesthetic Movement such as Albert Moore, J.A.M. Whistler, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Lord Leighton, who painted women as representations of music, flora, seasons and times of the day. A pertinent example for comparison is George Frederic Watts’ Aurora of 1887 (also known as Dawn, private collection), which depicts the same subject but is treated in a more statuesque and classical way (Watts made a marble of the same figure) with a rather solid looking goddess in comparison to Burne-Jones’ light-footed maiden. Perhaps we can also draw an analogy between Burne-Jones’ depiction of dawning light and Leighton’s famous hymn to sunlight Flaming June (Museo de Arte de Ponce, Puerto Rico) painted only a year before and striking for the bright golden hue of the woman’s dress. Burne-Jones and Leighton were responding to a modern vogue for painting pictures symbolic of time, perhaps reflecting the fact that the dawn of the twentieth century was approaching. In the 1890s Burne-Jones repeatedly drew and painted women dancing or flying, taking the elongated figures of his stained-glass designs and allowing them to float just above the ground, as Aurora does. These glimmering apparitions of other worldliness found their most experimental and modern form in the remarkable series of drawings in gold gouache on dark-blue tinted papers from the mid-1890s (example sold in these rooms, 19 November 2013, lot 4 Dancing Girls).
There was a dramatic, melancholic force to Burne-Jones’ later work in which the experience of a lifetime of painting was distilled into his series of pictures of fragile princesses and valiant knights, heroes and angels – romantic visions of youthful, beautiful men and women whose tall lithe bodies are perfected as though seen through the veil of a dream. Beauty continued to be his main concern and in these last paintings there was also a silent tension of suppressed emotion. In his last years Burne-Jones sought to bring into focus the visions that had haunted him for almost half a century and were now threatened by an advancing modern, mechanical age. The image of a beautiful girl’s face gazing out with an expression of regret, defiance and inward thought would be his greatest legacy. Whether she be Andromeda, Sleeping Beauty, Danae or Aurora she represented the sylph-like vision of pale, statuesque femininity that he made his own.
Aurora has remained in the possession of the artist’s family and has never been seen by the public as it has not been offered for sale or exhibited before. It is a rare re-appearance of a lost work by one of the most remarkable artists of his generation.