Edward Burne-Jones, Psyche and The Earthly Paradise


Then very Love knelt down beside the maid

and on her breast a hand unfelt he laid,

And drew the gown from off her little feet,

and set his fair cheek to her shoulder sweet,

And kissed her lips that knew of no love yet,

and wondered if his heart would e’er forget

The perfect arm that o’er her body lay.1 William Morris, The Earthly Paradise: A Poem, Roberts Brothers, Boston, 1868, p. 361.

In May 1959 Regina Roseville Grover (née Varley), the widow of journalist and editor Montague Grover (1870–1943), presented a pencil drawing by Edward Burne-Jones to the National Gallery of Victoria’s Board of Trustees. Entitled A study of a head (fig. 1), this delicate portrayal of a young woman with her head reclined, was signed by the artist and dated 1870. The precise circumstances of how the work came into the possession of the Australian couple are not fully documented; nevertheless, this benevolent gift reflected their shared appreciation of art. Regina Grover was a descendant of John Varley (1778–1842) and in 1945, two years after her husband’s death, she gifted three drawings by this British artist to the National Gallery of Victoria.

For two years during the late 1880s, Montague Grover studied at the National Gallery School where he pursued his ambition to be an acclaimed artist. Realising that he would never achieve his goal, Grover began articles with the Melbourne architect George Jobbins.2 See Michael Cannon (ed.), Hold Page One: Memoirs of Monty Grover, Editor, Loch Haven, Main Ridge, 1993, p. 12. With an economic downturn affecting the building industry, Grover made a significant decision – to embark on a career in journalism. Initially writing for the Age and Argus in Melbourne, he moved to Sydney in 1907 to become sub-editor for the Sydney Morning Herald and later worked for the Sun.

The Grovers acquired A study of a head from Calouste Gulbenkian, the Turkish-born oil magnate, noted art collector and philanthropist. Educated at King’s College in London, Gulbenkian became a British citizen in 1902, before moving to Paris to live. It is possible that Montague Grover purchased the study while on one of his several overseas trips. His first trip to London in 1902–03 was as a secretary to the theatre entrepreneur J. C. Williamson.3 ibid., p. 17. In 1921 Montague and Regina lived in London for a year and, in the late 1920s, visited Europe with the family while on a world tour.

Burne-Jones and Maria Zambaco

The simplicity of the drawing’s composition offers two clues as to the identity of the model and the possible subject of the finished work. The date 1870 and the model’s closed eyes both suggest the study may have been a preparatory drawing for The briar rose series (1874–90).4 The Pre-Raphaelites and their Circle in the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 1978, cat. no. 14, p. 35. Following the narrative of Sleeping Beauty, Burne-Jones completed seven oils on canvas and several studies in opaque body colour for the series. Of the numerous slumbering courtiers or soldiers in these works, none matched exactly the presentation of the subject in the NGV study. There is some resemblance between the model in the drawing and the resting form of a maid-in-waiting, on the ground to the right of the sleeping princess, in The briar rose: The rose bower, 1871 (Museo de Arte de Ponce, Puerto Rico).5 There are two versions of this work: The briar rose: The rose bower, 1886–90, oil on canvas, Faringdon Collection, Buscot Park; and The briar rose: The rose bower, 1871, oil on canvas, Museo de Arte de Ponce, Puerto Rico, Luis A. Farré Foundation Inc. (59.0114).

Further leads were gleaned when considering other works in the artist’s oeuvre preceding 1870. In 1866 one of Burne-Jones’s patrons, Euphrosyne Cassavetti, known as the Greek Duchess, approached the artist to paint her daughter, the sculptor Maria Cassavetti Zambaco.6 See Elisa Korb, ‘Models, muses and Burne-Jones’s continuous quest for the ideal female face’, in John Christian, Elisa Korb & Tessa Sidey, Hidden Burne-Jones: Works on Paper by Edward Burne-Jones from Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery, D. Giles, London, 2007, pp. 28–33. Although married to Georgiana Macdonald at the time, Burne-Jones became enraptured with his new model. Significantly, Zambaco’s phosphorescent white skin and dark red hair epitomised the ideals of beauty upheld by the Pre-Raphaelites and their extended artistic circle.

The Earthly Paradise project

In 1865 Burne-Jones had begun the preparatory drawings for William Morris’s illustrated epic poem The Earthly Paradise. A section of Morris’s twenty-four episodic tales was the story of Cupid and Psyche, based on Lucius Apuleius’s The Golden Ass from the second century AD. The first edition of The Earthly Paradise greatly compromised Morris’s original concept. Printed using a standard font, it was released without the intended forty-four wood engravings which Burne-Jones had designed to accompany it.7 In 1974 Clover Hill Editions, Cambridge, published an edition of The Earthly Paradise using Morris’s Kelmscott typeface and forty-four of the woodblocks. This overly ambitious project was abandoned in 1868, partly because of the impossibility of finding a modern typeface that could be satisfactorily integrated with the illustrations.

Despite this setback to the main project, the Cupid and Psyche narrative became a favourite of Burne-Jones’s and inspired many of his works for the next thirty years.8 See Stephen Wildman & John Christian, Edward Burne-Jones: Victorian Artist-Dreamer, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1998, p. 119. The youthful daughter of a king, Psyche was considered so beautiful by her people that she was favoured over Venus. Slighted by this disregard, Venus sent Love, or Cupid, to destroy Psyche with a poisoned arrow. During the heat of summer, Psyche fell asleep by a marble fountain set within a hedge of woodbine and red roses. Cupid, finding her there, was overwhelmed by her beauty and succumbed to his desire to kiss her. He arranged an elaborate ruse so that he could visit his lover under the anonymity of darkness. An object of human adoration, Psyche is vulnerable to Cupid’s destructive yet adoring gaze and Venus’s envy. For Burne-Jones, Zambaco may well have embodied Psyche’s transcendent beauty. During 1870 the artist completed Phyllis and Demophoön as well as a painted portrait and a portrait drawing of Zambaco.9 Phyllis and Demophoön, 1870, watercolour and body colour, Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery (1916P37); Maria Zambaco, 1870, body colour, Clemens-Sels-Museum, Neuss (Ma 1968/106); the drawing is known from a photograph and reproduced in Wildman & John, p. 112. All three bear a strong resemblance to the NGV study, in particular the profile of Zambaco’s nose and the pronounced bow in her upper lip.

The artist’s desire for his classical muse, her renowned beauty and the emotional strain that Georgiana suffered throughout the affair bears some comparison with the myth. Burne-Jones was constantly torn between Zambaco and his love for Georgiana and his family, especially his daughter Margaret.10 See Penelope Fitzgerald, Edward Burne-Jones: A Biography, Michael Joseph, London, 1975, p. 121. A highly emotional person, Zambaco responded first by taking an an overdose of laudanum. Then there was her unsuccessful attempt to drown herself in Regent’s Canal, thwarted by Burne-Jones and the police.11 ibid. Georgiana’s discovery of the affair combined with Burne-Jones’s overwhelming guilt precipitated its end. By 1875 the relationship was over and Zambaco had taken another lover and moved to Paris.

Despite its adverse effects on his health, the relationship provided Burne-Jones with immeasurable inspiration. The following is a comparative analysis of a number of the artist’s related works on the Cupid and Psyche theme.

Central to the extensive collection of the artist’s drawings and engravings held in the Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery are the preliminary sketches, created between 1872 and 1881, for the dining-room frieze of 1 Palace Green, Kensington.12 Since the removal of the works from their original site, they have become known as the Palace Green Murals. Commissioned in the late 1860s by the owner, George Howard, the ninth Earl of Carlisle, the first of the twelve Palace Green panels was of Cupid finding Psyche. The same subject also featured as the seventh design for Morris’s The Story of Cupid and Psyche from The Earthly Paradise project.13 William Morris, The Story of Cupid and Psyche, Clover Hill Editions, Cambridge, 1974. At least five versions of Cupid finding Psyche were completed by Burne-Jones including an oil painting once in the collection of F. R. Leyland (untraced).

In the Palace Green panel Cupid and Psyche (fig. 2), Cupid is dressed in blue robes and about his head is a pale red cloth while in his right hand he holds only a bow.14 Cupid finding Psyche asleep by a fountain, oil on canvas, 119.5 x 124.5 cm, Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery, 1922P187–198. The artist has balanced the arc of Cupid’s elongated wings with the slumbering body of Psyche. Her head is tilted back and the diaphanous layers of blue-white fabric, which wrap around her prostrate form, leave one breast revealed. The enclosed garden features on the right a fountain with a grotesque head from which no water flows. Beyond the high two-tiered wall, a single flowering tree can be seen and, to the right, a distant mountain peak. Another example is a more modest watercolour of Cupid finding Psyche, 1865–87, held in the collection of the Manchester City Art Galleries.15 Cupid finding Psyche, watercolour and body colour with gold paint, 64.9 x 49.4 cm, Manchester City Art Galleries, 1917.16. Here Psyche is clothed in a salmon-pink dress with a blue waistband and her head rests upright against a low two-tiered wall. Her auburn-blonde hair gently falls over her ears before being gathered in a braid at the nape of her neck. The intimate atmosphere of the garden is enhanced by the roses and dense foliage just outside the wall.

Similar in composition is the British Museum’s Cupid finding Psyche: winged cupid standing over body of Psyche asleep below a fountain, roses on a trellis behind, 1866 (fig. 3), in which the artist has used a vibrant pallete, generously applying watercolour to the support with selected areas of opaque body colour. Psyche’s red dress has dropped from her left shoulder to expose her breast and torso and her head is dramatically angled to one side. The water flowing from the fountainhead creates an arc – like a shield protecting Psyche from an observing Cupid. The water falling into the pool breaks the mirrored surface and Psyche rests her extended arm on a low wall. Like the Manchester Psyche, the garden is enclosed by dense foliage dotted with roses.

The final and most significant version is Cupid and Psyche c.1870 (fig. 4), a finished painting in body colour held at the Yale Center for British Art. In this work Cupid wears his familiar blue robes and, as he leans over Psyche, his small blue wings are tucked behind his back. Psyche, in a state of undress, reveals both breasts and torso to the waist while her hand awkwardly rests on a low wall. The water pouring from the fountain falls directly into the pool below and behind Psyche’s reclining body is a low trellis of roses, while village buildings can be seen in the distance.

 

More than any other version, the model here appears to be Zambaco, with her slender neck emphasised by the hair drawn away from her face and ear. Above all, it is the exact angle of Psyche’s head, the line of her jaw and the slightly parted lips which so closely follow the NGV’s drawing. Having considered the relationship between the Yale and NGV works, the Yale Cupid and Psyche has been redated from 1865 to c.1870.16 Scott Wilcox (senior curator, Prints and Drawings, Yale Center for British Art), email discussion with the author, 22 September 2009. Therefore, the dating by the artist of the NGV drawing has allowed a more precise placement of Yale version within the chronology of Burne-Jones’s various treatments of the composition. Conversely, the NGV’s study, now retitled Study for Cupid finding Psyche,17 Included in the exhibition Love, Loss & Intimacy (13 February – 25 July 2010), Robert Raynor Gallery, NGV International, Melbourne. can be appreciated within the broader context of the artist’s oeuvre.

Allison Holland, Curator, Prints and Drawings, NGV (in 2010)

Notes

   1     William Morris, The Earthly Paradise: A Poem, Roberts Brothers, Boston, 1868, p. 361.

   2     See Michael Cannon (ed.), Hold Page One: Memoirs of Monty Grover, Editor, Loch Haven, Main Ridge, 1993, p. 12.

   3     ibid., p. 17.

   4     The Pre-Raphaelites and their Circle in the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 1978, cat. no. 14, p. 35.

   5     There are two versions of this work: The briar rose: The rose bower, 1886–90, oil on canvas, Faringdon Collection, Buscot Park; and The briar rose: The rose bower, 1871, oil on canvas, Museo de Arte de Ponce, Puerto Rico, Luis A. Farré Foundation Inc. (59.0114).

   6     See Elisa Korb, ‘Models, muses and Burne-Jones’s continuous quest for the ideal female face’, in John Christian, Elisa Korb & Tessa Sidey, Hidden Burne-Jones: Works on Paper by Edward Burne-Jones from Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery, D. Giles, London, 2007, pp. 28–33.

   7     In 1974 Clover Hill Editions, Cambridge, published an edition of The Earthly Paradise using Morris’s Kelmscott typeface and forty-four of the woodblocks.

   8     See Stephen Wildman & John Christian, Edward Burne-Jones: Victorian Artist-Dreamer, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1998, p. 119.

   9     Phyllis and Demophoön, 1870, watercolour and body colour, Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery (1916P37); Maria Zambaco, 1870, body colour, Clemens-Sels-Museum, Neuss (Ma 1968/106); the drawing is known from a photograph and reproduced in Wildman & John, p. 112.

10     See Penelope Fitzgerald, Edward Burne-Jones: A Biography, Michael Joseph, London, 1975, p. 121.

11     ibid.

12     Since the removal of the works from their original site, they have become known as the Palace Green Murals.

13     William Morris, The Story of Cupid and Psyche, Clover Hill Editions, Cambridge, 1974.

14     Cupid finding Psyche asleep by a fountain, oil on canvas, 119.5 x 124.5 cm, Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery, 1922P187–198.

15     Cupid finding Psyche, watercolour and body colour with gold paint, 64.9 x 49.4 cm, Manchester City Art Galleries, 1917.16.

16     Scott Wilcox (senior curator, Prints and Drawings, Yale Center for British Art), email discussion with the author, 22 September 2009.

17     Included in the exhibition Love, Loss & Intimacy (13 February – 25 July 2010), Robert Raynor Gallery, NGV International, Melbourne.