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'The Annunciation' 1876-79, by Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898)


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About the artwork

Edward Burne-Jones was born in Birmingham. His father had a small frame making business while his mother's family, the Coley's owned a jewellery-making firm. Burne-Jones's mother died soon after his birth and as a result he grew up as a lonely child. He was studious and his father decided to send him to Oxford instead of training him for a career as either a businessman or an engineer.

At Exeter College in Oxford Burne-Jones met William Morris. They shared an enthusiasm for the writings of John Ruskin, who praised the work of the Pre-Raphaelite artists and advocated the idea of art using allegory and symbolism to offer insights into the nature of God. It was soon after this that Burne-Jones and Morris decided to become artists. However, Burne-Jones never really received proper academic training apart from his apprenticeship at the studio of Dante Gabriel Rossetti in London. In 1861 William Morris launched his firm of 'Fine Art Workmen' for which Burne-Jones provided designs for tiles, furniture and most importantly stained glass.

'The Annunciation' was a theme that Burne-Jones had worked on before, specifically in the 1860's triptych oil painting 'The Adoration of the Kings and Shepherds', intended for Saint Paul's Church in Brighton and now at Tate Britain. In the wings of the triptych Burne-Jones depicted the Virgin Mary, and the angel Gabriel on the other side. Burne-Jones also produced a watercolour from 1863 with the Virgin kneeling in what appears to be her bedroom, accepting the lily from the messenger of God.

The works were inspired by Renaissance Italian masters, whom Burne-Jones studied and made copies of during his travels in Italy: Simone Martini's 'Annunciation' in the Galleria degli Uffizi in Florence for the triptych painting, Carpaccio's 'Dream of Saint Ursula' (1495, Accademia, Venice) for the watercolour, and Botticelli's 'Madonna of the Magnificat' (1483, Galleria degli Uffizi) for the Lady Lever Art Gallery painting.

In 'The Annunciation' Burne-Jones chose a vertical and narrow composition, as if the painting was another of his stained glass designs. The young Virgin looks startled by the angel's appearance, the hunching of her shoulders and the way in which she tightly clasps her dress suggest her awe for the determining event in her life. It is not only the honour of giving birth to God's Son but there is the sadness and sorrow she will experience as a mother losing her son. A visual link with the role of the Virgin in saving humanity is made through the relief on the arch, depicting the angle expelling Adam and Eve from Eden.

There is a tremendous amount of drapery detail, especially for the angel who despite the expressiveness of his face and gesture is almost suspended in space. Burne-Jones emphasised the lines in his works but never really demonstrated a great command of spatial arrangement. This is obvious in the way Burne-Jones rendered the arch of the building. The texture of the stone is most thoroughly painted and so is the supporting structure of the arch; however the perspective is ineffective and one is not naturally drawn into the depth of the painting.

Neither is there anywhere in the painting a play between light and shadow; the whole surface is equally illuminated by the inherent qualities of the rather sombre colours. Burne-Jones was obviously not concerned to convince spectators about the reality of the scene or to make them feel present by means of illusion. Instead his aim is much more poetic and spiritual in that we are expected to contemplate the news of the arrival of the saviour and feel the mystery of the divine union with human beings. The lack of movement in the painting evokes a contemplative response and a thorough examination of the surface of the painting. We are meant to experience our distance from the divine and at the same time share the Virgin's awe.

Edward Coley 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.

Other readings of the study point to the sensuality of the suffering knights and relate this to Burne-Jones's friendship with the poet Algernon Swinburne. Burne-Jones met the poet at Oxford and produced paintings for his sado-masochistic verse.

Study for 'The Sleeping Knights' was a preparatory piece for the large painting entitled Briar Rose. Burne-Jones's association of the rose with beauty may have derived from Swinburne's 'The Ballad of Life' in which roses serve as images of sadistic sensuality.

The bodies in The Study are depicted almost naked, and those to the left-hand side appear to be more feminine than masculine. 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.

The Briar Rose series, begun in 1871 and only finished in 1890, includes four paintings: The Briar Wood, The Council Chamber, The Garden Court and The Rose Bower. Greatly praised when exhibited in London, they were bought by the financier Alexander Henderson for his 18th century mansion at Buscot Park in Faringdon, 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.

Burne-Jones travelled in both Italy and France and was fascinated by 14th and 15th century Italian art. In 1897 Study for 'The Sleeping Knights' was exhibited in Paris. Burne-Jones gained international success and was admired by the French symbolist artists. Despite this, he suffered an acute sense of isolation in later life and felt that his work was going out of fashion.

Study for 'The Sleeping Knights' was presented to the Walker Art Gallery in 1914.