Victorian artists often drew on myths, legends, and fairy tales to fuel their work. They made great subject matter for commissions, a fact exploited to great effect by John William Waterhouse. Yet these stories also allowed artists to comment on their age in pictorial terms. The rewriting of a myth, or the choice of a singular moment from a legend, gave the artist a visual voice. Evelyn De Morgan was a true genius at lending established stories a new perspective through her composition and treatment of the narrative. Yet this could also work in more derisive ways, as we shall see with Edward Burne-Jones.
It’s true, the Victorians have a lot to answer for more widely. Yet there is a reason for my choice of the period for this month-long theme. It was a period in which mythology and folklore appeared a lot in art. True, they used these myths to explore dangerous female sexuality or to reinforce other patriarchal and colonial ideals. But these paintings also brought these legends to a wider audience. That’s ultimately the goal of this blog and podcast!
On a practical level, many of the paintings are in the public domain, so I can share them here. So let’s explore the link between Arthurian legends, myths and art within Burne-Jones’s work!
So who was Edward Burne-Jones?
Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones, 1st Baronet, was born on 28 August 1833 and died on 17 June 1898. He was often associated with the Pre-Raphaelite art movement. Burne-Jones also worked with William Morris, whom he met at Oxford. He wasn’t upper class by birth, being born in Birmingham. His mother died when he was six days old so he was raised by his father, a Welsh frame-maker. His knighthood came along in 1894, something that did not sit well with his socialist friends. A memorial service was held for him at Westminster Abbey at the request of the Prince of Wales.
Burne-Jones was famous for being a multidisciplinary artist. Some of his most beautiful work is actually in stained glass. He also designed ceramic tiles, mosaics, tapestries, and jewellery. This put him at the forefront of the Aesthetic Movement. The whole point of Aestheticism was that art held value for its beauty, and for its ability to stir an emotional response. The story or moral behind the work shouldn’t play a part in its value.
Despite this, Burne-Jones explored mythology through his work. Greek myth, in particular, appears within the paintings, but he also drew from the Arthurian legends and traditional fairy tales. I’ve tried to choose a folklore-worthy selection for this article.
Pan and Psyche – 1872-74
I chose this painting because it depicts a very different element of the Psyche myth. This is the story in which Eros, god of love, falls in love with Psyche. He spirits her away to a fabulous palace, but he doesn’t want her to know he’s a god. She’s never allowed to look at him and he only visits her after dark. Her sisters, jealous of the wealth in the palace, tell Psyche to disobey her lover. He might be a monster, for all she knows! So one night, she sneaks a peak by lamplight while he’s asleep. A drop of hot oil lands on Eros, waking him. Enraged that she disobeyed him, he leaves and returns to his mother, Aphrodite.
Psyche is left alone, wandering in the forest. Scared and depressed, she considers ending it all. She throws herself into a river, but the river god puts her gently back on the bank. At this point, she encounters Pan, the great god of the wilderness, who was also sitting by the river. He recognises that she “labour[s] under an excess of love” (Apuleius 1822: 114). He tells her not to attempt to end her life again, advising her to “cease to grieve” and to instead worship Eros (Apuleius 1822: 115). It’s quite clear from his words that Pan thinks Eros, “the greatest of the Gods”, will change his mind (Apuleius 1822: 115).
Meanwhile, a furious Aphrodite catches up with Psyche and sets her four trials to prove she is worthy of Eros. She had to sort a mountain of seeds, but an ant colony helped her to complete the task. Next, she had to gather wool from a dangerous sheep. A river god helped her collect tufts of wool from the bushes. Zeus’ eagle helped her collect water from the underworld for her third trial. Finally, she had to collect some of Persephone’s beauty cream for Aphrodite. Persephone gladly helped, but Psyche opened the box too soon, hoping to use some of the cream herself. The box merely contained the sleep of death, and Psyche fell into a death-like slumber. Eros came across her and took her to Olympus where Zeus made her the goddess of the soul.
So why choose Pan?
So this is a pretty rich myth in terms of visuals. Many paintings focus on the first meeting of Psyche and Eros, or the point when Psyche looks upon her husband for the first time. Why did Burne-Jones choose this fleeting moment from the tale? Pan is a fascinating figure, often linked with the zodiac sign Capricorn, and he doesn’t neatly fit into the Titan/Olympian binary of Greek mythology. He’s a wild, untamed, nature god, associated with sexuality.
The Romantic movement adopted him as their primary deity during the 18th and 19th centuries since he stood in opposition to everything the era represented. Incidentally, people did not build temples to Pan, choosing instead to worship him in caves or grottoes. He’s the ideal god for the Pre-Raphaelites, with their focus on nature and the pre-industrial landscape.
Pan and Psyche
Here, Burne-Jones depicts Pan comforting Psyche. To really stretch the metaphor, this becomes a moment where the wildness of untamed nature comforts the soul. Pan is also right in his reading of Eros, so the painting also becomes a testament to the wisdom offered by the natural world. Now, it is possible that Burne-Jones chose the scene to make this point. It’s also possible he did so because Pan was a popular topic. Miles A. Kimball points out that Pan was “seen as a figure representative of Aestheticism” (2002: 51).
He’d already been popular in the mid-19th century as the avatar of the natural world. Writers and artists often focused on his sexuality and the wild abandon that apparently followed Pan around. Yet as Kimball points out, the Aesthetics questioned why something needed to be useful to have value. They also sought “moments of ecstatic experience” (2002: 51). Pan is an ideal figure to represent both ideals. The cult of usefulness falls apart in the face of Pan’s merry capering. And the ‘ecstatic experience’ is sort of obvious. I’d love to think Burne-Jones included all of this as an Aesthetic manifesto…but that might be reading too much into it.
The Beguiling of Merlin – 1872-77
In this image, we see Merlin, trapped in a hawthorn bush by the spells of Nimue, Lady of the Lake. This refers to an episode in the relationship between Nimue and Merlin. In some legends, she is a fairy, in others, she is a magician. The stories have become tangled over time. Yet at their heart, the Merlin/Nimue story follows the ‘fairy lover’ trope. A mortal falls in love with a fairy and then goes to live in her realm. Of course, Merlin is no mortal, so the story does incorporate some changes.
There’s an indication that the goddess Diana is her godmother. She promises to give him her love in exchange for the magic he knows. For a time, Merlin pays regular visits. The last time he goes to visit, Nimue casts an enchantment upon him. Following his sleep, he ends up staying with her and the world never sees him again.
This is the story point we see in the painting.
Nimue has just put him to sleep. Anne Berthelot points out that in the Lancelot, Merlin arrived at the Lady’s manor with the intention of deflowering her (2000: 67). He’s already seduced other women with promises of teaching them magic. In this version, Nimue’s use of magic to neutralise Merlin is justified. But here, we see elements of Burne-Jones’ own ambivalence to women. Joseph Kestner notes that Burne-Jones had a tendency towards seeing women as either “the saving soul [or] the bewitching enchantress” (1984: 99). Nimue is cast as the latter, portrayed as a deceitful woman. Burne-Jones’ own wife, Georgiana, even admitted that her own brother had described Burne-Jones as a misogynist (quoted in Kestner 1984: 104).
Such an attitude didn’t prevent him from having an affair with one of his models in 1868. At one point, Maria Zambaco threatened to drink laudanum and drown herself over the affair. We see her, again and again, playing various characters from mythology and fairy tales. In ‘The Beguiling of Merlin’, his mistress plays the temptress while casting Merlin as the innocent victim. Only those familiar with the legends in their entirety would know this wasn’t entirely the case.
The Wheel of Fortune – 1875-83
This fabulous painting doesn’t depict a specific moment within a myth, but rather a popular concept. Fortuna and her Wheel, who we discussed in the article about the goddess, stand in for the vagaries of fate. In many ways, the concept warns against hubris. What goes up, must come down, as it were. Of course, the same works in reverse.
Here, the painting shows people raised up or cast down depending on the turning of the wheel. Fortuna herself oversees the turning of the wheel. The central male figure wears a crown and holds a sceptre, marking him as a king. Another man stands on his shoulder, while the king stands on the shoulder of a poet wearing a laurel wreath. It’s difficult to tell if they’re being raised up or put down, though the desperate gaze of the poet at Fortuna’s feet would imply he wants to be raised up.
The central point was that it didn’t matter if you were a king or a commoner. Fortuna still held your fate in her hands. But notice Fortuna’s expression. She takes no delight in what she’s doing, nor does she express any malice. If anything, she is the epitome of an indifferent and distant goddess. Nothing she does is personal, intended as a slight against or a favour for a specific individual. It’s literally just chance. Burne-Jones himself even commented that “My wheel of Fortune is a true-to-life image; it comes to fetch each of us in turn, then it crushes us” (quoted in Google Arts & Culture).
Burne-Jones actually took his inspiration for the male figures from the Sistine Chapel. Meanwhile, Fortuna’s drapery is inspired by Botticelli.
The Rose Bower – 1890
Burne-Jones took a commission to illustrate ‘The Legend of Briar Rose’ in four panels for Buscot Park, Oxfordshire. Instead of depicting different scenes to tell the story, the paintings all capture the same moment in time, albeit from different locations. This is the point at which the court has fallen asleep and the rapid growth of the Briar rose has overtaken the castle. The first panel shows the sleeping soldiers amid the thorns. A second panel features the council chamber while the third shows the weavers asleep at their task in the garden court. The final panel depicts Sleeping Beauty on her bed.
The title of the series comes from the Brothers Grimm tale, published in 1812. Each painting features a four-line verse on the frame, composed by William Morris. Charles Perrault first told the tale in the 17th century, calling it ‘La Belle au bois dormant’ (Tale of the Sleeping Beauty). I’m assuming this isn’t the version in which the prince rapes the princess in her sleep, leaving her pregnant. It’s the suckling motion of her baby that dislodges the splinter in her finger, waking her up. Can’t think why Disney didn’t adapt that one.
Burne-Jones had visited the Sleeping Beauty story before, both for some tile designs in 1864 and a painting in 1869. ‘The Prince Entering the Briar Wood’ captures the moment the prince finds the earlier knights asleep among the thorns. It does rely on prior knowledge of the story for the painting to make sense.
Fairy Tales as Inspiration
Yet in the four-part panel series, we take our cues from the title of the series. He chose the scene of the sleeping princess as the final panel for a reason. He wanted people to invent their own version of what came next (Christie’s 2021). Did the knight reach the princess? Could he wake her up? The ending of the story is entirely up to the viewer.
It’s ideal fodder for a Pre-Raphaelite artist. It involves chivalrous knights, a damsel in distress, and a certain dream-like quality. Remember, the Pre-Raphaelites sought to recapture what they saw as a lost spiritual quality to the medieval age. Fairy tales offered the ideal source material, even though many artists chose instead to depict figures from mythology or poetry. Burne-Jones captures his ‘perfect’ woman in the Sleeping Beauty, as a beautiful damsel awaiting rescue, rather than the ‘wicked’ temptresses we see elsewhere.
The Last Sleep of Arthur in Avalon – 1881-95
While Burne-Jones began this painting before The Rose Bower, I felt this was the right place to end. He was working on this painting when he died. We’ve come back to King Arthur for one of his most famous paintings. This is the work that most consumed his life. It’s a huge painting, over six metres wide, and it was commissioned for the library of Naworth Castle. His patron, George Howard, also liked the Arthurian legends but left the topic to Burne-Jones.
The story behind this painting comes from ‘Le Morte d’Arthur’ (1470) by Thomas Malory. In it, King Arthur mounts a battle against Mordred. He suffers a fatal wound, and he’s taken to Avalon. Here, he lies in a deep slumber until he’s called back to the world. His head rests in the lap of Morgan le Fay.
Edward Burne-Jones and Arthur
In many ways, the painting is more about death than sleep or resurrection. The fin de siècle raged around Burne-Jones as he worked on it, and the reverence the mid-Victorians had for Arthur had long since faded. While Burne-Jones did reconcile with Morris while working on it, the painting does capture a sense of broken bonds. The world Burne-Jones knew when he started out as an artist had changed—and Burne-Jones seemed impervious to changing with it.
When he began the painting, the Victorians loved the Arthurian stories of chivalry. The notion of a sleeping Arthur, waiting until he’s called back to the world, really captured their imagination. This is the ‘King in the Mountain’ trope that I’ve covered before. Burne-Jones and Morris bonded over their mutual love of Le Morte d’Arthur. They saw the medieval age as superior to the materialism of the Victorian period. (Remember, Burne-Jones went on to accept a knighthood).
But Burne-Jones overly identified with Arthur, to the point that in 1885, he asked Howard to revise the commission. Burne-Jones created a smaller painting of Arthur for Howard, then continued with ‘The Last Sleep of Arthur in Avalon’ on his own. He was still working on the painting when he died. Many describe him as being obsessive about the work, and he withdrew from public life. As Constable puts it, “More than any of the major figures among the Pre-Raphaelites and their successors, he found in his art a means of escape, a way to withdraw into a hortus inclusus where the artist alone could dwell, remote from the horrors bred by the industrial revolution” (1941: 12). The painting became Burne-Jones’ attempt to find Avalon in a very real sense.
What do we make of Edward Burne-Jones?
It’s clear that Edward Burne-Jones had a genuine fascination with the Arthurian legends. True, he does put his own spin on them, but in doing so, he’s merely entering into a long tradition of writers creating new versions. Arthur and his court appeared in Welsh stories before the 11th century. Next, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia regum Britanniae (1135–38) expanded the tales to turn Arthur into a world conqueror. By the late 12th century, Chrétien de Troyes had turned the legends into romances, adding the Grail, and the love affair between Lancelot and Guinevere. Later cycles added the sword in the stone, before ‘Le Morte d’Arthur’ appeared. Burne-Jones’ different takes on the legend is, ultimately, nothing new.
He turned to fairy tales, legends, and myths since it’s what people commissioned him to do. Yet he seems to infuse these paintings with his own views on gender, particularly his dim view of women. Where Waterhouse and De Morgan use them as central characters, Burne-Jones casts them in relation to those around them. Whether you’re a goddess, a fairy, or a sleeping beauty, you only really have two options. On one hand, you can be disinterested, seductive, or deceitful. On the other hand, you can be virtuous, obedient, or madonna-like. True, many of the myths and legends are also so rigid in terms of gender depictions. But Burne-Jones never seemed to grasp that people are never so simple, and binary thinking will always leave you ultimately dissatisfied. It’s a wonder he managed to capture such gorgeous colours with such a black-and-white view of the world…
What do you think of Edward Burne-Jones? Let me know below!
Apuleius (1822), The Metamorphosis or Golden Ass, and Philosophical Works of Apuleius, trans. Thomas Taylor, London: Robert Triphook.
Berthelot, Anne (2000), ‘Merlin and the Ladies of the Lake’, Arthuriana, 10:1, pp. 55-81.
Christies (2021), ‘Edward Burne-Jones and The Legend of Briar Rose’, Christies, https://www.christies.com/features/Edward-Burne-Jones-Briars-Wood-11732-3.aspx.
Constable, W. G. (1941), ‘”Hope” by Edward Burne-Jones’, Bulletin of the Museum of Fine Arts, 39: 231, pp. 12-14.
Google Arts & Culture (no date), ‘The Wheel of Fortune’, Google Arts & Culture, https://artsandculture.google.com/asset/the-wheel-of-fortune/xgFTGwg3Eu3-wg?hl=en.
Kestner, Joseph (1984), ‘Edward Burne-Jones and Nineteenth-Century Fear of Women’, Biography, 7:2, pp. 95-122.
Kimball, Miles A. (2002), ‘Aestheticism, Pan, and Edwardian Children’s Literature’, CEA Critic, 65:1, pp. 50-62.
Rager, Andrea Wolk (2009), ‘“Smite this Sleeping World Awake”: Edward Burne-Jones and The Legend of the Briar Rose‘, Victorian Studies, 51:3, pp. 438-450.
Nutty about folklore and want more?
Add your email below and get these posts in your inbox every week.
You'll also get my 5-step guide to protecting your home using folklore!