THE PROPERTY OF A GENTLEMAN
This previously unrecorded drawing is a sketch for the monumental, unfinished oil painting The Chariot of Love or Love’s Wayfaring (Victoria and Albert Museum, London). The present drawing is a study for the lower half of the picture; the crowd of men and women pulling the chariot that bears Cupid, the God of Love, through the narrow streets of Medieval Siena.
The Chariot of Love was conceived in 1872 as a life-size composition, one of several which, as Burne-Jones wrote in his work-record, 'above all other I desire to paint and count my chief designs for some years to come'. 1872 was a year of unparalleled fecundity; his autograph work record for that year contains thirty-four entries, including some of his most important paintings and decorative schemes including The Beguiling of Merlin (Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight), The Days of Creation (Fogg Art Museum), Chant D’Amour (Metropolitan Museum of Art), The Golden Stairs (Tate Gallery) and The Garden of Pan (National Gallery of Art, Victoria), amongst others. Yet Burne-Jones did not begin work on the large painting until the early 1890s and it was still unfinished when he died in June 1898. It filled an entire end wall of the studio he built at the bottom of the garden at The Grange, his house in Fulham.
The triumphal procession of Love was a common theme in Medieval and Renaissance literature and art. The basis of Burne-Jones’s composition is an allegorical poem by the fourteenth-century poet Petrarch, the Trionfi or Triumphs. The poet describes several triumphant pageants or processions, in which historical, Biblical or mythological figures take part. The first triumph is that of Love over the human heart, followed by Chastity, which triumphs over Love, followed then in turn by Death, Fame, Time and finally Eternity, which triumphs over all.
Georgiana Burne-Jones relates the debate Burne-Jones endured and the considerations he faced in deciding whether to execute his earlier design: 'Carefully and deliberately as Edward chose his subjects, he would occasionally seek advice about carrying out a particular one, listening thoughtfully to anything for or against it. Love's Wayfaring was an instance of this, which seems curious when one remembers it was a design that came to him suddenly, as a whole, and was never greatly altered. Still, there was some hesitation in his mind as to the subject, and the large scale on which it was planned made it important that he should not be likely for any reason to tire of it - "for the time is shortening and I must do my best now, and waste no days that can be helped." So in 1890 he wrote to Mrs George Lewis, a friend whose sincerity he trusted: "I've been wanting to ask you a thing - a piece of advice. I have been wondering whether a certain design I made many years ago and liked then, is really good enough to begin now and carry through. The design of it used to be in my studio, a black rough charcoal thing done in a heat in one evening, very rough and coarse to look at. I have long since put it out of sight - I daresay you never saw it, so I send a little photograph of it."
"It's the old story with me - Love and his overdriven steeds. If you think that there is a little degradation in the driven creatures I won't do it, but if you think it shews one side of the truth that it right to give I will presently begin it. I know you have my work at heart a little and will tell me the truth to my face just as you would say it to anyone else. That's the sea at the back and there will be a rocky gorge of cliffs to make the road narrow for them - alternate men and women, some laughing and some very much not - and in the picture they would be harnessed together with carefully designed thongs. Sometimes I have thought it would do, and sometimes it has terrified me and seemed a little degraded. I want to use my time very carefully and do only my very best. Will you think it over from many sides and tell me by and bye, and you will find great novelty in a friend who will really follow your advice."
"The picture was gone on with and a world of work spent upon it, but it remains unfinished. The background alone was changed, for a steep, narrow street in an ancient city has been substituted for the sea and cliffs. The figure of Love is exactly as he saw it first, expressing might only, and no pity."' (Memorials of Edward Burne-Jones, London and New York, 1904, 2, pp. 191-2).
As with many of Burne-Jones’s works the subject matter has an autobiographical element to it, one which Burne-Jones himself acknowledged in his letter to Mrs George Lewis. Burne-Jones had been conducting a passionate affair with Maria Zambaco, the wife of a Greek doctor and a cousin of the influential Ionides family, since 1866. Their affair was devastating to both parties and their relationship was often reflected in a symbolic way in Burne-Jones' work, for example Merlin Beguiling Nimue (1874, Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight) and Love among the Ruins (sold in these Rooms, 11 July 2013, lot 3), which were painted during the same period, and Phyllis and Demophoön (1870, Birmingham), the recurring theme being the power of love and its enchantment upon two people.
One large cartoon in pastel and charcoal for The Chariot of Love is in Auckland City Art Gallery, New Zealand, and an earlier design, probably the sketch referred to in Memorials (loc.cit.) as 'a black rough charcoal thing done in a heat one evening', is in Falmouth Art Gallery. Both show the full compositional design.
The present drawing is almost sculptural in its simplicity and economy of line. Burne-Jones has created a feeling of coordinated movement amongst the shackled hoards, whether they are depicted as rejoicing or lamenting. It is clear to see from works such as the present drawing how Burne-Jones’s late style came to influence the French Symbolists.
THE PROPERTY OF A GENTLEMAN
Study for the 'Chariot of Love', or 'Love's Wayfaring'
Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones, Bt., A.R.A., R.W.S. (1833-1898)
Sir Philip Burne-Jones.
Lady Lever Collection, no. 3954; Christie's, London, 6 June 1958, lot 13.