'One of the master's most perfect and beautiful creations'
Love among the Ruins is among the very greatest examples of Burne-Jones's art. Painted when he was in his late 30s, it is not only historically important but captures the essence of his vision, evoking with unparalleled intensity a mood of heartbreaking poignancy and bittersweet romance. Its significance has always been recognised, nor could it be better documented in his own work-record and the older literature. Yet because it has not been seen in public for fifty-five years, having last changed hands in 1958, it is now something of a rediscovery. The oil version (fig. 2), though much later and a lesser picture, has, paradoxically, become the more familiar image. On permanent display at Wightwick Manor, Wolverhampton (National Trust), it had its most recent 'outing' when it was lent to the Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde exhibition at Tate Britain in autumn 2012.
Initially shown at the Dudley Gallery in 1873, our picture was consistently sought for major exhibitions during Burne-Jones's lifetime. It was seen at the International Exhibition held in Paris in 1878; at the exhibition which inaugurated the Art Gallery at Birmingham (his birthplace) in 1885; at the Royal Jubilee Exhibition at Manchester in 1887; at an annual loan exhibition at the Guildhall, London, in 1892; and, later that year, at the retrospective exhibition mounted at the New Gallery at the very height of his career. But for unforeseen circumstances (see p.26), it would no doubt have appeared yet again when his memorial exhibition took place at the same venue in 1898-9.
Burne-Jones himself rated the picture highly, seeing it as a uniquely personal statement. 'It was mine - very me of me', he cried in incoherent anguish when he thought it had been destroyed; and 'if only it hadn't been that one' was the comment of his confidante Frances Hormer when she heard the news. Other friends had recognised it as something special on its first exhibition. George du Maurier considered it 'very stunning - almost the best thing he's done'. The young sculptor Alfred Gilbert (of Eros fame) declared himself its 'fervent admirer'. And George Eliot claimed that it 'made life larger and more beautiful' to her and G. H. Lewes. The Rev. Stopford Brooke said he preferred the early version because, unlike the later replica, it expressed 'the ineffable spirit of youth'.
Professional critics were no less enthusiastic. According to Julia Cartwright, the picture was 'one of the master's most perfect and beautiful creations'. Malcolm Bell, Burne-Jones's first biographer, thought it among 'the most impressive of the painter's works, with its vague hint of an untold tragedy that haunts the memory'. Fortunée De Lisle believed that, 'with its beautiful colouring, fine composition and poetic charm' the picture was 'one of Burne-Jones's greatest achievements,in which his personality found its fullest expression'. As for Percy Bate, in his early account of the Pre-Raphaelite movement as a whole, he felt that, if given the 'very difficult' task of choosing a single example of the painter's work, he would have to opt for 'the first and finer version' of Love among the Ruins. In his view, no more exquisite conception 'ever came even from the fecund brain of Burne-Jones.'
Sources and early history
The picture takes its title from a poem of the same name by Robert Browning, published in his Men and Women of 1855. The imagery is only loosely related to the text, but there is no doubt that Burne-Jones was familiar with the poem. Men and Women was enormously admired in his circle in the late 1850s, the younger men taking their cue from their leader, D. G. Rossetti, who idolized Browning at this date. Indeed, the importance of the book was brought home to Burne-Jones in dramatic circumstances. On the very evening that he met Rossetti for the first time, in January 1856, he witnessed the great man 'rending in pieces' someone who spoke of it 'disrespectfully'. 'I saw my hero could be a tyrant,' he recalled, 'and I thought it sat finely upon him'.
Another, more famous, poem was influential too. Unusually for Burne-Jones, an obsessive maker of preparatory drawings, almost none exists for Love among the Ruins. A rare related work, however, is a miniature watercolour version that he painted in a calligraphic manuscript of Edward FitzGerald's translation of the The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám executed by William Morris in 1872 (private collection, fig. 4). Burne-Jones was an ardent admirer of Fitzgerald's masterpiece, which had been drawn to his attention by A. C. Swinburne in 1861, two years after its publication, and its overpowering sense of yearning and regret seems to colour the emotion no less forcefully evoked in Love among the Ruins.
The picture is mentioned three times in Burne-Jones's autograph work record (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge). 'Begun' in 1870, it was 'worked much' on in 1872 and eventually 'finished' in 1873. He is said to have painted it at Little Campden House on Campden Hill, Kensington, where his friend and fellow artist J. R. Spencer Stanhope had a studio at this date. Also painted there was Tristram and Iseult (private collection), an enormous unfinished oil that has only recently been identified, appearing, like the later oil version of Love among the Ruins, at the 2012 Tate Britain exhibition.
Our picture was conceived at a moment when the influence of Italian art on Burne-Jones, fluctuating over time but never far from the surface, was reaching its zenith. It was begun just before his third visit to Italy, which took place in 1871 and had an enormous impact on his work in terms of style, inventiveness and productivity, many of his most important later works being designed in its wake. But it does not escape the general trend of the period; the Renaissance character of the architecture and the brilliant pinks and blues of the colour scheme all betray a vivid awareness of the Italian old masters.
There is an obvious internal reference, too, the setting echoing that of Burne-Jones's own Briar Rose paintings. These had originated in designs for sets of decorative tiles that he had made for the Morris firm in the early 1860s. One of the most ambitious illustrated the tale of Sleeping Beauty, and included a scene showing the prince battling his way through the briar wood to awaken the palace after its hundred years' slumber. In 1871 - that is to say while Love Among the Ruins was on the easel - Burne-Jones re-cast the story in terms of three oil paintings (Museo de Arte, Ponce, Puerto Rico); and then almost immediately embarked on a much bigger version, adding a fourth subject. After many years' work, this so-called 'large' Briar Rose series was finally completed in 1890 and exhibited at his dealers, Agnew's, in Old Bond Street. The paintings were then installed on four sides of the 'saloon' at Buscot Park, Oxfordshire (now National Trust), where they remain to this day (fig. 3). Full of appealing imagery, they were greeted with rapturous acclaim at the time and have remained among his most popular and celebrated works ever since.
It must have seemed an obvious move to appropriate the motif of the encroaching rose for Love among the Ruins. Not only would it again suggest the passing of aeons of time but reinforce the sense of devastation and decay that mirrors the lovers' troubled frame of mind. The idea had formal value too. The delicate, hoop-like briars balance the hard angles and massive forms of the masonry, while the bright pink of the flowers acts as a foil to the grey of the architecture and the rich blues of the dresses.
Like so much of Burne-Jones's work, Love among the Ruins may be claimed for both Symbolist and Aesthetic movements. It is Symbolist in so far as it revels in ambiguity, refusing to explain the mise en scène, the narrative context or the precise nature of the lovers' emotions. This was a consistent approach with Burne-Jones, who, according to his widow, 'wanted everyone to see in [his pictures] what they could for themselves'. At the same time, the lack of specific subject lends an Aesthetic dimension to the picture, even if we are still a long way from the abstraction aimed for by Burne-Jones's younger contemporary Albert Moore.
It is no accident that the picture made its debut at the Dudley Gallery in 1873. Launched eight years earlier, the Dudley held annual spring exhibitions of watercolours in the Egyptian Hall, Piccadilly. The Hall was situated on the south side of the street, almost exactly opposite the Burlington Arcade. It was demolished in 1905, but Egyptian House, the office block which replaced it, still stands.
The Dudley was a forward-looking institution, showcasing the work of a group of young artists who were setting the Aesthetic agenda in the late 1860s. Although many of them looked to Burne-Jones as their leader, he himself did not support the gallery initially, preferring to exhibit with the Old Water-Colour Society, which had elected him to associate membership in 1864. However, in 1870 he resigned from the OWCS when objections were raised to the male nude in Phyllis and Demophoön (fig. 5), and this caused him to turn to the Dudley. He showed there three times in 1872-3, Love among the Ruins appearing on the last occasion together with The Hesperides (Kunsthalle, Hamburg), another major work in watercolour on a comparable scale. These were his only attempts to exhibit between his resignation from the OWCS and the opening of the Grosvenor Gallery in 1877, an event that would catapult him to fame and establish the Grosvenor overnight as the flagship of the Aesthetic movement.
Even at the Grosvenor Burne-Jones was a highly controversial figure, and this was still more the case when he showed earlier at the Dudley and the OWCS. Yet press comment on Love among the Ruins showed that by 1873 the tide was beginning to turn. It is true that Tom Taylor, the reactionary art critic on the Times, could not resist some ritual grumbling about the 'legendary and mystico-medieval school' of which Burne-Jones was the 'coryphaeus' or leader; but even he was prepared to admit that the artist was a 'sincere devotee of the faith which animates him'. Others went further. A reviewer in the Academy found himself 'haunted' by both pictures, while the Art Journal, another conservative voice, felt that a whole 'chapter' might be written on Love among the Ruins, so completely did it 'illustrate the beginning, progress and end of much that is, and has been, done in recent watercolour art.'
But it was F. G. Stephens, the former Pre-Raphaelite Brother now art critic on the Athenaeum, who made the most perceptive comments. It was useless, he argued, for people like Tom Taylor to complain that Burne-Jones's draughtsmanship was deficient by academic standards, or that his figures did not conform to conventional notions of beauty. The artist was establishing his own pictorial values, and it was by these that his work should be judged.
Stephens also had interesting things to say about Burne-Jones's conceptual objectives. He believed, for example, that the Italian painter he had 'chosen for his model' in Love among the Ruins was the Venetian master Giorgione, known for his enigmatic subjects imbued with a sense of poetry and romance. This is highly likely since there are many examples of Giorgione influencing Burne-Jones's early work. It is also worth recalling that Stephens was in the habit of researching his reviews by touring the studios before a major exhibition. In other words, his comment could well echo a conversation with Burne-Jones himself.
Stephens also draws a parallel between the way in which the picture 'affects the fancy of the spectator according to his mood' and the ability of music to 'recall a world of memories to the minds of those who hear it'. There could hardly be a better illustration of the attempt to identify painting with music that lay at the heart of the Aesthetic project, especially as Burne-Jones underscores the analogy by introducing the theme of music iconographically, hinting that the male figure has just been playing on the psaltery. In fact there is every reason to invoke the most famous statement of this principle: Walter Pater's claim that 'all art constantly aspires towards the condition of music', an art-form of pure abstraction in which subject and form are one. The dictum occurs in his essay on Giorgione, the master Burne-Jones 'had chosen for his model' in Love among the Ruins; and the essay, though published in 1877, was written a few years earlier, that is to say about the time that the picture was exhibited.
Celebrating an affair
The models for the picture have been identified as Alessandro di Marco and Antonia Caiva, two of the Italians who were so popular in Victorian artists' studios on account of their fine physique and ability to hold poses. But the head of the young woman is generally associated with Maria Zambaco, the Greek beauty, ten years his junior, with whom Burne-Jones conducted a tempestuous affair in the late 1860s (fig. 6). Ravishingly beautiful and artistically talented, Maria was a cousin of her lover's friends and patrons the Ionides. She met Burne-Jones in 1866 and the affair reached a tragi-comic climax in 1869, although it dragged on for many years thereafter. The emotional turmoil made Burne-Jones ill and his marriage never really recovered, but his art was immeasurably enriched on several levels.
The likeness to Maria in Love among the Ruins may well have been stronger before Burne-Jones repainted the head in 1898 (see below), but the picture certainly belongs to a group of works of the 1870s in which he seems to refer, obliquely but with surprising frankness, to their predicament. Needless to say, the 'fit' of art to life is not always exact. Just because Maria poses for Phyllis in Phyllis and Demophoön (fig. 5), we do not have to believe that she was ever actually obliged to forgive her faithless lover; nor does her modelling for Nimue in The Beguiling of Merlin (1873-77; Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight) necessarily imply that Burne-Jones saw her as a malign temptress. But there is enough of relevance in these stories to support the general thesis, and in Love among the Ruins identification would appear to be almost complete. Although much about the liaison is shrouded in mystery, it seems not unlikely that at some stage the lovers saw themselves as unhappy outcasts, clinging together in a bleak and hostile world.
A tragedy and a 'miracle'
Both Love among the Ruins and The Hesperides were bought by Frederick Craven, one of the collectors who supported Burne-Jones by buying from him privately during the seven-year interval between his resignation from the OWCS and the opening of the Grosvenor Gallery. A Manchester businessman, Craven had what D. G. Rossetti called 'a mystic reverence for the English watercolour school.' This meant that he not only bought classic examples by Turner, Cox, de Wint and others but was a loyal and adventurous patron of the Pre-Raphaelites when they worked in this medium. (There were, however, exceptions; he also owned Burne-Jones's well-known Pygmalion series [Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery], which are in oil.)
Craven was a generous owner, lending Love among the Ruins to all five of the exhibitions in which it appeared between 1878 and 1892. From a historical perspective, the most important was the first, the Exposition Universelle held in Paris in 1878, at which Burne-Jones was represented by three pictures in all. It was the Parisians' first opportunity to see his work, and although the response was muted, this was not to last. King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid (Tate Britain) was a phenomenal success when it was shown at the Exposition Universelle of 1889, and from then until the mid-1890s Burne-Jones enjoyed a vogue in France, particularly in sophisticated literary and Symbolist circles.
One result of this was that in the summer of 1893 Love among the Ruins was sent back to Paris for exhibition at the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts. The picture was taken to the Goupil Gallery to be reproduced in photogravure, and there flooded with egg white, presumably by way of giving it a temporary varnish. No-one seems to have read the label on the back (and indeed still there) stating that 'this picture, being painted in watercolour, would be injured by the slightest moisture'. Due to its size and Burne-Jones's characteristic use of bodycolour, it was assumed that it was an oil, although in any event it would seem hazardous and irresponsible to have treated it in this way.
Burne-Jones was devastated at the apparent destruction of a picture universally regarded as one of his masterpieces and replete with so much meaning for himself. Within a week he had decided to paint a replica in the more durable medium of oil (fig. 2), working on it all that winter and exhibiting it at the New Gallery (the successor to the Grosvenor) in 1894.
The original version remained in his studio, face to the wall, for nearly five years. Meanwhile Craven's family (the collector himself had since died) were urging him 'to try and work upon it', and in 1898 his former assistant Charles Fairfax Murray, a man with an encyclopedic knowledge of painting techniques, suggested that it might be possible to remove the albumen with ox-gall. This, happily, proved to be the case. The only passage that remained damaged was the girl's head, and this Burne-Jones repainted on 10 May, working from a 'tall' but unidentified model.
'It seemed something like a miracle', wrote Lady Burne-Jones, 'when at last the whole picture shone out again', and it is indeed astonishing that victory should have been snatched so triumphantly from defeat. Murray's treatment was evidently completely successful, and Burne-Jones has repainted the girl's head with no loss of mastery, matching it perfectly to its surroundings in every respect. Perhaps most 'miraculous' of all, however, is the fact that he carried out the restoration when he did. Within little more than five weeks he was dead.