The work is a drapery study for the seated figures at the centre of Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones monumental The Sleep of Arthur in Avalon (Museo de Arte de Ponce, Puerto Rico). The artist spent seventeen years working on the complex narrative, even moving his studio to a larger space to accommodate the canvas. Born as a commission from his patron George Howard, 9th Earl of Carlisle, to decorate a wall in his library at Naworth Castle, The Sleep of Arthur in Avalon was left unfinished in Burne-Jones’ studio upon his death. The work was bequeathed to a studio neighbour whose descendants sold it at auction in 1963, where it was purchased by Luis A. Ferré, politician and founder of the Museo de Arte de Ponce.
To his friends and family, Burne-Jones was known for his ‘unpainted masterpieces’. Indeed, from his youth he made swift sketches, such as this study, that appeared effortless in contrast to his carefully crafted paintings and allowed him to work out ideas and refine details. He also drew outside of the studio, and his contemporaries remarked at his uncanny ability to do so while fully engaged in other activities. The painter W. Graham Robertson recalled; ‘Once, while talking to me, he took up a little pocketbook and sketched absently as he carried on the conversation’.
The importance and role of these sketches to Burne-Jones were practical; to test out ideas and compositions directly from the mind and to use them for reference when he came to execute a final piece. Today, sketches such as this provide a useful insight to the artist’s thought process as a primary source of evidence to expose gradual progression to final works.
As Burne-Jones’ work became increasing elaborate within his later compositions, so did the preparatory sketches, these exquisite and sensitive drawings 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.
Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones, 1st Baronet, (; 28 August 1833 – 17 June 1898) was a British artist and designer associated with the Pre-Raphaelite movement, who worked with William Morris on decorative arts as a founding partner in Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co.
Burne-Jones was involved in the rejuvenation of the tradition of stained glass art in Britain; his works include windows in St. Philip’s Cathedral, Birmingham, St Martin in the Bull Ring, Birmingham, Holy Trinity Church, Sloane Square, Chelsea, St Peter and St Paul parish church in Cromer, St Martin’s Church in Brampton, Cumbria (the church designed by Philip Webb), St Michael’s Church, Brighton, Trinity Church in Frome, All Saints, Jesus Lane, Cambridge, St Edmund Hall, and Christ Church, two colleges of the University of Oxford.
His stained glass works also feature in St Anne’s Church, Brown Edge, Staffordshire Moorlands, and St Edward the Confessor church at Cheddleton Staffordshire. Burne-Jones’s early paintings show the inspiration of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, but by the 1860s Burne-Jones was discovering his own artistic “voice”.
In 1877, he was persuaded to show eight oil paintings at the Grosvenor Gallery (a new rival to the Royal Academy). These included The Beguiling of Merlin. The timing was right and he was taken up as a herald and star of the new Aesthetic Movement. Burne-Jones worked in crafts; including designing ceramic tiles, jewellery, tapestries, and mosaics.