How King Arthur Landed Up in the Caribbean : Notes on Edward Burne-Jones
Aug. 28 is the birthday of a once unfashionable Victorian artist whose work is well suited to the 21rst century’s embrace of fantasy.
That is the word that springs to mind on learning about the fate of this painting, titled, “The Last Sleep of Arthur in Avalon.”
In this painting, the decidedly English artist Edward Burne-Jones (1833–1898) explores a quintessential British theme. Burne-Jones gives us his take on the idea that the mythical King Arthur never died, but instead has slept for centuries on the island of Avalon. As legend has it, Arthur will return to his nation someday when it faces a moment of crisis.
In its entirety, this painting of Arthurian drama stretches to about 21 feet, with a height of 9 feet, according to dimensions listed on the website of the Museo de Arte de Ponce, Puerto Rico.
Yes, el Museo de Arte de Ponce. That’s the home of this painting, frequently cited as the masterwork of Burne-Jones, who was a native of Birmingham, England.
Birmingham might be considered a more likely home for “The Last Sleep of Arthur in Avalon.” The city’s museums are noted for their collection of paintings by British artists known as the Pre Raphaelites. This group includes Burne-Jones. And his “The Last Sleep of Arthur in Avalon” showcases many of the hallmark traits of Pre-Raphaelite art.
Responding to the rapid industrialization of 19th century Britain, the Pre-Raphaelites sought inspiration in spiritual retreat toward the medieval world. They embraced bright colors that recalled egg-based tempera paint. They rebelled against what they saw an excessively stylized forms in art, for which they cast blame on the Italian master Rafael (1483–1520).
The Pre Raphaelites portrayed subjects from myth and literature, while at the same time paying close attention to capturing true-to-life details from nature.
Burne-Jones, for example, brought columbines, irises and forget-me-nots into his studio for close study of the flowers he used in “The Last Sleep of Arthur in Avalon,” Fiona MacCarthy wrote in a 2008 article in The Guardian. (There’s a link at the essay of this essay to a bibliography with details on materials used in my research on this painting.)
And the Pre Raphaelites loved flowing robes and long hair, often reddish gold in color.
Burne-Jones obsessed over “The Last Sleep of Arthur in Avalon.” This work started as a commission around 1881 for George Howard, a patron of Burne-Jones who wanted a painting of a scene with King Arthur for his library.
Over time, it became clear Burne-Jones was to keep this painting for himself. Near the end of his life, he wrote, “I need nothing but my hands and my brain to fashion myself a world to live in that nothing can disturb. In my own land I am king of it.”
Burne-Jones sacrificed much of his prime years to this work, keeping at it while his own health declined.
“He complained of throbbing heart and failing eyesight,” MacCarthy wrote. “When he went to sleep, exhausted, he took up the exact pose of the slumbering King Arthur.”
Burne-Jones died of a heart attack in 1898 while still refining this painting. A close look at the painting shows some of the instruments in the painting have no strings and figures have socks but no shoes, notes a Tate article on the painting.
Another defining trait of Pre-Raphaelite art is the frequent depiction of stately women with strong features and, of course, thick flowing hair.
Below is a portrait of one of the most frequently painted models for the Pre-Raphaelists, Jane Morris. Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882), a founder of the original Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, painted Jane as Zeus’ daughter Persephone/Proserpine.
Rossetti was a strong influence on Burne-Jones, who had arrived at Oxford with a plan to become a clergyman, as well as on Burne-Jones’ close friend, William Morris, who would wed the woman portrayed above. Morris also went onto found a textile business that changed tastes in decor. Burne-Jones abandoned his plans for a church life to become an artist.
The English art critic John Ruskin, a champion of the Pre-Raphaelites, defended these artists’ dedication to interweaving realism into the paintings of myth.
“Every Pre-Raphaelite figure, however studied in expression, is a true portrait of some living person,” Ruskin said.
In “The Last Sleep of Arthur,” I see the features of another famous Pre-Raphaelite model repeated. Many of the queens that surround Arthur in Burne-Jones’ epic painting look, at least to me, like a woman he’d loved and lost by the time he started this work — Maria Zambaco (1843–1914).
In her youth, Zambaco inherited enough money to live independently. She and Burne-Jones, who was married, had an affair in the late 1860s. An often repeated story has Zambaco in 1869 brandishing a vial of a kind of opium, called laudanum, trying to draw Burne-Jones into a double suicide pact. When he refused, she threatened to leap into a canal in London’s Little Venice. The poetic power couple of Robert and Elizabeth Browning, who lived nearby, are said to have called the police.
After the affair, Zambaco would continue to study art, producing the medals that now are in the British Museum. She clearly stuck in Burne-Jones’ memory. Starting around 1872, Burne-Jones set to work on a painting of Zambaco as a Medusa-like version of Nimue, also known as the Lady of the Lake.
In some tellings of this myth, Nimue rebuffs advances from the magician Merlin until he agrees to teach her his secrets. She then uses her newly acquired powers to seal him away in a hawthorn tree. Merlin knows what will happen, but finds himself unable to stop this.
It’s easy to read into this painting the feelings Burne-Jones had for Zambaco.
This painting also lives up to the standard Burne-Jones set in a letter to his close friend and frequent correspondent May Gaskell:
“I mean, by a picture, a beautiful romantic dream of something that never was, never will be — in a light better than any light that ever shone, in a land no one can define or remember, only desire.”
By 1918, “The Beguiling of Merlin” had entered the collection of an industrialist, Lord Leverhulme, who put the painting in his Lady Lever Art Gallery, where it has since remained.
It would take longer for “The Sleep of Arthur in Avalon” to reach its island home.
The giant masterwork of Burne-Jones was passed onto a neighbor, whose descendants put the painting up for sale at Christie’s in 1963. Victorian art was out of style at that time when cartoonish Pop Art was more of the rage.
That let Puerto Rican industrialist Luis Antonio Ferré purchase “The Last Sleep of Arthur in Avalon” for just 1,600 guineas. (A guinea is about 1 pound and 5 shilling. I’ve read that 100 pounds in 1963 is worth 1,767.65 pounds in 2020. So the painting sold for about 29,696.52 pounds, or $39,261.62 USD, less than the cost of many a luxury car.)
Ferré was a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who served as governor of Puerto Rico from 1969 to 1973. He founded the Museo de Arte de Ponce, bringing gems to Puerto Rico’s second-largest city after the capital, San Juan. In addition to “The Last Sleep of Arthur at Avalon,” Ferré picked up other Pre-Raphaelite paintings that had fallen out of vogue, including works from the Briar Rose series of Burne-Jones.
“The scholars and critics all called it kitsch,’’ Ferré once said in an interview with Forbes. ‘’Everyone thought I was crazy to buy them.’’
But tastes shifted again back toward in recent decades toward the Pre-Raphaelites.
In 1998, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art joined with other institutions for a major retrospective on the work of Burne-Jones. Unfortunately Ferré and the staff of the Museo de Arte de Ponce were unable to contribute as they would have like to this show, noted Philippe de Montebello, then director of the Metropolitan Museum, and fellow organizers of this show in its catalogue, “Edward Burne-Jones: Victorian Artist -Dreamer.”
“Burne-Janes’s last, and possibly his greatest work, The Sleep of Arthur in Avalon, simply proved too large to move from Puerto Rico,” they wrote.
Doesn’t that seem like the kind of trick a modern fantasy writer might ascribe to a 21rst century Nimue? To have banish a painter’s masterwork to a remote museum in the second city of a Caribbean island, from which it is too large to travel easily in art exhibitions?
But in 2008, “The Last Sleep of Arthur in Avalon” did return to the U.K. for a temporary stay at the Tate while the Museo de Arte de Ponce underwent renovations. By that time, three films had been made of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series. In 2011, HBO kicked off its popular Game of Thrones series, further building an audience for fantastical themes.
In 2013, another painting depicting a fantasy version of the affair of Burne-Jones and Zambaco went up for sale.
“Love among the Ruins” shows a couple embracing outside the walls of a fallen city. The value of the painting was estimated at 3 million to 5 million pounds before the sale. It instead fetched almost $14.9 million pounds (about $19.8 million USD, based on the Aug. 28, 2020, conversion price.)
That sale set three records: the highest ever price for a Burne-Jones , for a Pre-Raphaelite work in any medium, and for a British work on paper, according to Christie’s, which arranged this auction.
The U.K.’s Tate in 2018 kicked off another major Burne-Jones retrospective. In speaking about this show, curator Alison Smith linked the revived interest in the painter to the success of fantasy dramas such as The Lord of the Rings series and HBO’s “Game of Thrones.”
“They are pure Burne-Jones,” she says in a Christie’s article.