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The Annunciation, by Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones


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About the artwork

'The Annunciation' depicts the events described in the Gospel according to St. Luke, chapter 1 verses 26-35. The angel Gabriel appears to the Virgin Mary, saying ‘…you have found favour with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call him Jesus…’. This subject was painted several times by Burne-Jones but this painting is the most important. The angel Gabriel, suspended in space, appears to emerge from a tall bay or olive tree. The architectural background is clearly derived from the artist’s visits to Italy in 1871 and 1873.

The long, narrow composition of the picture gives it the appearances of one of his designs for a stained glass window and despite the dramatic single point perspective the emphasis on shape and pattern flattens the picture space. Burne-Jones did not want to recreate an image of a real event, rather he wished to portray a more poetic and dream-like spiritual reality. Above the arch there are carved reliefs showing the expulsion from Eden. Mary stands by a well to which she has come for water. The model for the Virgin was said to have been Mrs. Leslie Stephen - she became the mother of the author Virginia Wolf and the artist Vanessa Bell.

The picture was well received when it was first exhibited, critics referring to its ‘mediaeval spirit’, ‘pure grace’ and ‘exquisitely ordered design’ The critic of the art magazine the Athenaeum concluded; ‘this is by far the most complete picture our artist has produced; the execution is more searching, the finish more thorough, the design has been more effectually carried out than in any former work of his.’ Throughout the 1880s he was held in higher regard than Millais or Leighton and was regarded by some as Britain’s greatest living artist. In 1889 he won a gold medal at the Paris International Exhibition and his work influenced continental artists in the Symbolist movement. On the recommendation of W E Gladstone he was made a baronet in 1894.

He and his wife Georgiana, or Georgie as she was known, had two children who survived childhood, a daughter Margaret and a son Phillip. Phillip Burne-Jones became a portrait painter. Burne-Jones, although not without a sense of humour, was a nervous, highly-strung person and often suffered a nervous collapse after the completion of a major work. In the 1890s he suffered ill health and never recovered from the death of William Morris in 1896. He died in 1898.

'The Annunciation' was bought by Lord Leverhulme in 1923, he had already in his collection 'The Tree of Forgiveness' and 'The Beguiling of Merlin'. These two paintings he purchased in 1918 for £1614 (7s. 6d.) and £2798 (5s. 0d.) respectively. At £850.00 'The Annunciation' indicates the decline or collapse of the market for Victorian art that occurred in the 1920s.

Edward Burne-Jones is one of the most famous British artists of the 19th century. Born in Birmingham, the son of a frame maker and print seller, he was successful at school but had little formal art training apart from, at the age of fifteen some evening classes in the Birmingham school of Design. He went to Exeter College at Oxford University and there he met his lifelong friend William Morris who would become the pioneer of the Arts and Crafts movement in Britain. Together they made a tour of French cathedrals in 1855.

Edward Jones as he was then known was a devout Christian. He intended to become an Anglican priest. However his faith in God was replaced by a complete dedication to a life as an artist. He was greatly influenced by the writings of John Ruskin and firmly believed in the spirituality and moral value of art.

Burne-Jones was attracted to the symbolism of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and particularly to the work of Rossetti. He abandoned his studies and in 1856, together with Morris, Rossetti and others he decorated the Oxford Union building with murals on the legends of King Arthur. When William Morris founded the decorative arts company, Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co in 1861, Burne-Jones worked for them as a designer of tapestries, tiles, furniture and stained glass, virtually up to the end of his life.

In the early 1860s he went to Italy with John Ruskin, for whom he copied works by Tintoretto. By the mid 1860s despite his reluctance to exhibit, he was building a reputation as a painter and beginning to sell pictures. In the 1870s although he was largely unknown to the general public, he had a small circle of wealthy patrons, including the aristocratic artist George Howard, Earl of Carlisle, who was the original owner of this painting.

In 1877 he exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery and enjoyed immediate success. His paintings with their strong patterns and twisting, linear designs proved popular with a wider public. He regularly exhibited work in the Liverpool Autumn Exhibition at the Walker Art Gallery between 1878 and 1898.