This study of ‘sleeping knights’, by highly successful, English, artist Edward Coley Burne-Jones, is a preparatory sketch for a larger painting, 'The Briar Rose'. It is based on the fairy tale of a princess and the kingdom she calls her home, falling under the spell of 100 years of sleep, to be awakened only by a young prince's kiss. Burne-Jones started four large paintings on the story in 1870 and completed them in the 1890s. They were bought by the financier Alexander Henderson for his house Buscot Manor in Oxfordshire, where they remain. Burne-Jones joined the paintings together with small connecting panels, designing a gilded framework and including a verse written by Morris.
The near-naked and contorted bodies of the knights are depicted frozen in time and suffering, while their armour lies entangled in the bushes. Some readings of the study point to the sensuality and eroticism of the suffering knights and relate this to Burne-Jones's friendship with the controversial poet Algernon Swinburne. Swinburne was famously obsessed with homoeroticism and with exploring his own sexuality through flagellation and other forms of pain. Burne-Jones met the poet at Oxford and produced paintings for his sado-masochistic verse. Indeed, Burne-Jones's association of the rose with beauty in this study, may have derived from Swinburne's 'The Ballad of Life' in which roses serve as images of sadistic sensuality.
Edward Burne-Jones was one of the most famous British artists of the 19th century. Born in Birmingham in 1833, he received very little formal art education apart from some evening classes in the Birmingham School of Design in 1848 and his apprenticeship under D.G. Rossetti in the mid 1850s. While studying in Oxford he met William Morris, the pioneer of the Arts and Crafts movement in Britain, and the two became life-long friends. They made a tour of French cathedrals in 1855, and on their return decided to devote themselves to art.
Burne-Jones was also strongly influenced by the writings of John Ruskin and believed in the spirituality and moral value of art. The tale of Sleeping Beauty seems to have been particularly important to him, and it may be that he saw an analogy between the prince's role in transforming the kingdom with a kiss and the need for change in 19th century Britain.
Burne Jones was also, however, associated with the aesthetic movement. His depictions of graceful, androgynous males were particularly influential. The bodies in this are typically androgynous and some appear to be more feminine than masculine. Indeed, for Briar Rose, Burne-Jones modelled the knights from women: Jane Morris, Georgiana (his wife), and Maria Zambaco, a famous Greek beauty who became his lover.