Property from a distinguished Private Collection


Auction Closed

December 10, 03:19 PM GMT


700,000 - 1,000,000 GBP

Lot Details


Property from a distinguished Private Collection


1833 - 1898


oil on canvas in its original frame

83.5 by 83.5cm., 33 by 33in.

Purchased from the artist by William Graham in 1869 (listed as no.15 in his 1882 inventory);

Sold by the beneficiaries of William Graham, Christie’s, London, 3 April 1886, lot 156 to Sir John Gray Hill of Mere Hall, Birkenhead with whom it remained until 1911;

His sale, Christie’s, London, 11 February 1911, lot 119 to Gooden & Fox, London;

Sotheby's, London, 18 March 1964, lot 138;

Maas Gallery, London;

Agnew’s, London; Lord Lambton by 1971;

Private collection, London;

Christie’s, London, 22 November 2006, lot 230, where purchased by the present owner

Fortunee de Lisle, Burne-Jones, 1904, p.182;

Arsene Alexandre, Sir Edward Burne-Jones, 1907, illustrated plate 8 from a photograph by Frederick Hollyer;

Oliver Garnett, ‘The Letters and Collection of William Graham – Pre-Raphaelite Patron and Pre-Raphael Collector’, Walpole Society, Vol.62, 2000, pp.249, 290

London, New Gallery, Exhibition of the Works of Sir Edward Burne-Jones, Bart., 1898-9, no.107;

Sheffield, Mappin Art Gallery, Burne-Jones, 1971, no.24

In 1866 Burne-Jones began a love-affair with his model Maria Zambaco and it is ironic that in the same year he designed the virginal figures of St Barbara, St Dorothy and St Agnes as part of a series for the east window in All Saints Church, Cambridge. Rather than resembling the artist’s depictions of the angular, Mediterranean features of Maria, these saintly women are closer to the softer, paler Saxon beauty of his beloved wife Georgiana who he married in 1860. Amid the turmoil of his physical, emotional and artistic infatuation with Maria, he continually battled with his devotion to his wife who he continued to adore and who stoically endured her husband’s fixation with another woman. He had a complicated relationship with women, perhaps partly due to having no mother or sisters (his mother died as she gave birth to him, her only child) and became obsessed with younger female muses. His intense emotional passions were rarely more than inflamed platonic ‘crushes’ but with Maria there was something different, something dangerous. She personified the tempests and temptations of Venus (the Pagan and profane) whilst Georgiana continued to hold the place as the enshrined and eternal Madonna (calm, pure and sacred). In the pictures of the 1860s, he presented both archetypes. In paintings such as Chant d’Amour (Song of Love) of 1865 (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the better-known oil version of 1868-73 is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) and Laus Veneris (The Sick Venus) of 1861 (private collection, the better-known oil version of 1873 is at the Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle-Upon-Tyne), the principle female figure is symbolic of physical, sensual Love – dangerous and unrequited or fulfilled and regretted. When he depicted The Annunciation – The Flower of God of 1863 (Collection of Sir Andrew Lloyd-Webber), the subject is very different – here the female figure is purity personified, glorious in her virtuous radiance. Saints Barbara, Dorothy and Agnes are the epitome of virginal abstinence – their narratives all linked by their refusal to marry. Even without knowledge of the symbolic purity of the martyrs, they resemble a triumvirate of renaissance Madonnas in their blue robes and white veils. 

Gazing reflectively from the left-side of the picture is Saint Barbara, whose story was described in The Golden Legend but whose historical pedigree is uncertain. She stands beside the tower in which her father incarcerated her as protection from importunate suitors. In her solitude she found faith in Christianity and had three windows inserted into the walls of the tower to symbolise the Holy Trinity, an act which led to her being seized, tortured and executed. She holds a book in one hand, presumably to signify religious learning and in her other hand is a peacock plume, the significance of which is not clear, but it may be intended as a symbol of resurrection.

In the centre of the painting is Saint Dorothy, a 2nd Century maiden of Caesarea in Cappodocia who was put to death by the Emperor Diocletian for refusing to marry on the grounds that she was mystically espoused to Christ. On the cold winter’s morning of her execution, the Roman notary Theophilus mocked the fated young girl as she was led to her death by asking her to send back a basket of roses from Heaven’s garden. Burne-Jones depicted the Heavenly winged courier with the basket of roses that were delivered to Theophilus, proving the existence of Heaven and leading to his conversion and martyrdom. The angel takes the bowl of flowers from Dorothy and stays the sword with which she was martyred.

The third saint is Agnes, identified by the lamb of God – another victim of Diocletian's suppression, who died in Rome in 304AD. She too had refused matrimony when betrothed to the son of a Roman prefect and would not even consent to becoming a Vestal Virgin as it meant she would have to minister to a Pagan Goddess. She is shown with a cascade of long hair, alluding to the myth that when she was stripped to be executed her hair miraculously grew to cover her. Her name in Latin means ‘lamb’ and she was usually depicted with a lamb in her arms.

The present picture appears to depict a mystic vision of the three martyred saints and the pure-white balustrade may be intended to signify the boundary of Heaven, beyond which the verdant garden of Paradise opens out towards the horizon. It has the powerful otherworldly intensity which Burne-Jones excelled in depicting.

Opposite Jesus Lane in Cambridge, All Saints Church was built in the early 1860s by G.F. Bodley to accommodate an expanding parish which could no longer be contained in the small medieval church in St John’s Street. William Morris was tasked with designing the windows for the new church in 1866, consisting of four tiers of five lights with tracery above. He turned to his friend and artistic collaborator Burne-Jones to design the fifteen cartoons of twenty standing figures for the principal windows (Ford Madox Brown designed another three and Morris one). The lowest tier depicted five female martyrs (from left to right) Barbara, Agnes, Radegunda (designed by Brown), Dorothy and Catherine (the last designed by Morris). Three of the cartoons, made in August 1866, according to the artist’s account book, probably formed the under-drawing for three easel paintings, Saint Barbara (National Gallery of Art, Washington), Saint Agnes (Sotheby’s, Belgravia, 24 October 1978, lot 6) and Saint Dorothy (Sotheby’s, London, 12 June 2003, lot 32) the latter given to his friend George Howard, 9th Earl of Carlisle.

In 1869 Burne-Jones painted the present picture, based upon the cartoons for the Cambridge window. He inserted a wooded landscape background to unify the figures, reminiscent of the work of Giorgione and Titian, beyond a balustrade and polished marble floor. The brilliant colouring is among Burne-Jones’ most beautiful harmonies and pays heed to Ruskin’s plea not to paint ‘nasty black and brown things to make me look at when I come to ask you what you’ve been about.’  

1869 was the year that Burne-Jones’ love-affair with Maria reached a crisis when she attempted to take an overdose of laudanum, the trauma of which resolved him to break-off the affair. It is poignant therefore that the present picture appears to depict three portraits of Georgiana, who wrote little about the years 1868-1871 in her otherwise enlightening biography of her husband, other than so say 'Heart, thou and I here, sad and alone.' (Georgiana Burne-Jones, The Memorials of Edward Burne-Jones, 1904, Vol II) She had endured the indignity and melancholy of her husband’s affair but he was ultimately forgiven by his remarkable wife. As Penelope Fitzgerald wrote of the Burne-Joneses' marriage, 'Georgie, as Ned well knew, bore the burden of everything'. (Edward Burne-Jones, 1985, p.181) Burne-Jones painted Georgiana several times through the 1860s, as the beneficent Clara von Bork in 1860 (Tate) and as one of The Three Marys in a watercolour of c.1862 (sold in these rooms, 13 December 2018, lot 5). He invariably painted her as a saintly figure, befitting the great respect he had for her and for her religious beliefs. Georgiana's father, the Reverend George Browne Macdonald, was a Methodist minister and her childhood was marked by material austerity and a high-minded dismissal of anything that might be considered worldly or frivolous. Even the reading of Shakespeare was prohibited and the idea of attending a theatre unthinkable. 

Georgiana had an enormously strong character and was imbued with a moral quality that made her a demanding companion. She was absolutely stalwart in her loyalty to friends and family, standing by and supporting her husband despite his more wayward disposition, and enduring his craving for female attention. She was an adoring mother and gave emotional support to a wide circle of young people who gravitated towards her and looked to her as a mentor. Without side or selfishness, she had a vast gift for friendship, allowing complete honesty of exchange combined with total discretion. Her shrewd intelligence allowed her to spot men and women who entered, or sought to enter, the circle of friends that formed around Burne-Jones who were self-serving or otherwise not to be trusted. A project designed to improve life for the London working classes was the establishment of the South London Art Gallery, and to which she devoted time and energy, and which was the practical fulfilment of John Ruskin's precept that works of art should be available for all to look at and study. It is surely Georgie’s kindness and intelligence that gazes out from the faces of Saints Barbara, Dorothy and Agnes but also a formidable stoicism. As Walford Graham Robertson wrote, 'the quiet in those wonderful eyes of clearest grey was the centre of the strange stillness' that friends felt when they visited the Burne-Joneses at their home The Grange in Fulham. (Time Was: The Reminiscences of W. Graham Robertson, 1931, p.75) Burne-Jones himself well knew the power of his wife's formidable personality. As he wrote to May Gaskell: 'It makes me happy that Georgie welcomes you – some day come to see her for her own sake – she is the wittiest company, and very pious – I say pious because all things are serious to her – only she is bitter upon folly – she is not a Christian anymore and yet she hates to be approached except on bended knees.' (quoted Josceline Dimbleby, A Profound Secret, London, 2004, p. 94) 

In 1883 Burne-Jones painted Georgie’s portrait, one of the most remarkable likenesses of the nineteenth century (sold in these rooms 16 December 2010, lot 8). The solemnity of her expression and the unflinching gaze with which she returns the artist's inspection of her, may be regarded as indicating – as the Burne-Joneses' great grand-son Lance Thirkell said of it – 'something of the unhappiness of being the artist's long-suffering wife, which he perhaps did not see when he was painting it.' (Jan Marsh, Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood, 1985, p. 334) In this portrait, and the faces of St Barbara, St Dorothy and St Agnes, there is the same perceptive and intensely tranquil expression which seems to derive from the Early Italian painters that Burne-Jones admired and studied in his youth.

Burne-Jones made his first trip to Italy in 1859. His travel sketchbooks survive in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. These, and the letters he wrote home, provide valuable insight into the works that moved him and capture his excitement at seeing the art of the Masters in situ. Years later he compiled a list of the artists whose work he particular admired and was inspired by; ‘Michael Angelo, Luca Signorelli, Mantegna, Giotto, Botticelli, Andre del Sarto, Paolo Uccello and Piero della Francesca.’ (Georgiana Burne-Jones, Memorials of Edward Burne-Jones, 1904, Vol.II, p.26) The works Burne-Jones saw in Italy in the 1860s were very much guided by the recommendations of John Ruskin, and it is evident that he developed a particularly strong and lifelong admiration for Botticelli, who, at this time, was an overlooked artist. Botticelli also provided an important precedent for exploring the contrasts between the archetypes of the pagan, sensual Venus and the virtuous Virgin Mary. Ruskin had written extensively in commendation of Giotto’s Scrovegni Chapel fresco cycle in Padua, and Burne-Jones too was particularly in awe of their colour when he saw them, and they became another key source of inspiration after his visit. The present painting seems to fuse these various Italian influences. The naturalistic scenery behind the figures recalls Venetian altarpieces, such as those by Giovanni Bellini, while the modelling and drapery is Giottoesque, and something of Botticelli’s elongated, refined elegance is captured in the poses of the saints. 

Testament to the importance of St Barbara, St Dorothy and St Agnes is the fact that it was one of the first pictures purchased by William Graham (1817-1885), Burne-Jones’ greatest patron who owned more pictures by the artist than any other collector. Among the important pictures by Burne-Jones in Graham’s collection were the original three pictures from the Briar Rose series (Museo de Arte de Ponce, Puerto Rico), the watercolour and oil versions of both Laus Veneris and Chant d’Amour, Danae in the Brazen Tower (Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts), Cupid Finding Psyche (Yale Centre for British Art, New Haven), The Days of Creation (Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts), Green Summer (private collection) and King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid (Birmingham City Art Gallery). Born and educated in Glasgow, Graham succeeded his father as a senior partner in the family business, W. & J. Graham & Co., specialising in cotton spinning and importing dry goods from India and Continental Europe – Graham’s port is still a famous name. In 1865 Graham became the Liberal M.P. for Glasgow, a position he held for nine years, out of a sense of duty rather than because he was greatly interested in politics – his great passion was collecting paintings by Old Masters and Pre-Raphaelites. He was a devout Presbyterian and his religious convictions no doubt had an effect on his purchases of pictures like the present one. He did not simply amass pictures as trophies or as decoration for his home; he had a strong emotional reaction to them and even shocked Burne-Jones - himself partial to an emotional outburst – when he kissed one of the artist’s pictures. He was already in his forties when he bought his first pictures in the 1860s and it is thought that his desire had been ignited in 1857 by the Art Treasures Exhibition of 1857 held in Manchester. He first encountered Burne-Jones’ work at the Old Watercolour Society in 1864 and a year later he made his first purchase from the artist. He continued collecting throughout the 1870s and in 1886, following his death in 1885, it took two days to auction his collection including thirty-three pictures by Burne-Jones. St Barbara, St Dorothy and St Agnes was sold in the Graham sale for 300 guineas and purchased by John Edward Gray (1839-1914), a distinguished Liverpool solicitor and nephew of the postal reformer Sir Rowland Hill.

Despite being illustrated in Fortunee de Lisle and Asene Alexandre’s early surveys of the artist’s work, St Barbara, St Dorothy and St Agnes has been somewhat overlooked in the Burne-Jones literature. This can partly be explained by the artist’s omission of the picture from his own work-list upon which Malcolm Bell largely based his Edward Burne-Jones: A Record and Review of 1892. The picture was included in the artist’s memorial show at the New Gallery in 1898-9 but then disappeared from view, only emerging in 1971 when Lord Lambton lent it to the Burne-Jones exhibition at the Mappin Art Gallery in Sheffield which did so much to reinstate the artist’s repute.