The models for The Three Marys
are a fascinating triumvirate of Pre-Raphaelite wives and muses. The central figure of Maria of Nazareth was modelled upon the pale beauty of the most famous of all the ‘Stunners’ (Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s word for beautiful women), Elizabeth Siddal. Siddal was a milliner’s assistant, who famously caught a cold while lying in a tepid bath of water as Millais painted her for his Ophelia
of 1851. She had flame-red hair and fragile delicate facial features, which made her the epitome of the Pre-Raphaelite woman and all of the PRB clamoured to paint her. In 1860, following a protracted engagement, she married Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the present picture was painted by their friend Burne-Jones c.1862 as a celebration of motherhood; she is holding a white lily, the symbol of the Annunciation and it is likely that when she posed for the picture she was pregnant with Rossetti’s child. Sadly she died shortly after the painting was completed, almost certainly taking her own life in one of the most painful episodes of the Pre-Raphaelite story. The woman standing to the left in Burne-Jones’ picture, with thick luxurious waves of dark hair and holding the pot of ointment with which Mary Magdalene anointed Christ’s feet, was based upon Jane Morris. She was William Morris’ statuesque and silent wife who was also beloved by Rossetti who later developed an infatuation for her and painted her repeatedly throughout the next decade. The last of the women depicted in The Three Marys
is almost certainly Burne-Jones’ own wife Georgiana, a remarkably patient, intelligent and talented woman whose sisters were the wives or mothers of a Prime Minister, best-selling author and President of the Royal Academy. She is cast in the role as Maria Cleophas, sister to the Virgin and holds up her deep blue robes in a gesture of tender sisterly affection. As the daughter of a Methodist minister ‘Georgie’ would have identified with the Biblical Marys and whenever she appears in Burne-Jones’ work she was cast as beneficent and beloved.
The Three Marys was probably originally painted in sepia washes as a cartoon for one of the stained glass panels for St Michael’s and All Angels in Lyndhurst. Burne-Jones would often rework cartoons with the addition of watercolour or oils to create independent works of art. An example of this is St Dorothy (private collection) which had originally been a design for a window at All Saints Church in Cambridge.
The decoration of the church of St Michael’s and All Angels in the village of Lyndhurst in Hampshire is one of the most significant decorative schemes of the mid-nineteenth century. With the combined geniuses of Philip Webb, William Morris, Edward Burne-Jones and later Frederic Leighton, the project is a tour de force of Pre-Raphaelite design and craftsmanship. The church itself had been designed by William White in 1858, in the heart of the New Forest. At the eastern end of the chancel is a magnificent stained glass window divided into a myriad of separate panels, with three long vertical panels illustrated with scenes of the New Jerusalem, including the Apostles, pairs of musician angels and the three Marys. These, along with six half-length angel musicians for the upper tracery, were designed by Burne-Jones between August 1862 and February 1863.
This watercolour belonged to Dr Charles Bland Radcliffe (1822-1889) who lived at Henrietta Street, close to the Burne-Joneses who he befriended. He saved Edward Burne-Jones’ life on one occasion when he almost choked after being taken unwell on Christmas Eve. Following Radcliffe's death in 1889 the watercolour passed to his wife who exhibited it at Burne-Jones’ memorial exhibition at the New Gallery in 1898. It is a rarely seen picture by Burne-Jones, offered here at auction for the first time in living memory.