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The Tree of Forgiveness, by Edward Coley Burne-Jones


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About the artwork

This large oil painting illustrates a classical legend, Phyllis and Demaphoön. After the conquest of Troy, Demaphoön, the son of Theseus, stayed at the court of the King of Thrace. Phyllis, the king’s daughter, fell in love with the visitor. Demaphoön agreed to marry Phyllis but first returned to Attica to sort out his affairs. Demaphoön was away so long that Phyllis lost hope of his return and in a fit of anguish killed herself. The gods took pity on her and turned her into an almond tree. When Demaphoön eventually did return he was filled with remorse and embraced the almond tree. Immediately the tree blossomed and Phyllis emerged to forgive her lover.

Burne-Jones painted a number of classical themes during his career, for example the stunning 'Perseus' series, as well as the medieval and religious subjects most frequently associated with his work. The source of the Phyllis and Demaphoön legend is Ovid’s 'Heroides', part 2, although Burne-Jones would also have been familiar with a medieval version told in Chaucer’s 'Legend of Goode Wimmen'. However, neither version tells us that Phyllis emerged from the almond tree. In these accounts we are simply told that the tree blossomed so it would appear that Burne-Jones added his own particular slant on the subject enabling him to bring together in his image the two figures at a powerful moment of reconciliation.

The Lady Lever Art Gallery oil painting dates from 1882 but Burne-Jones had painted this subject earlier. In 1870 he exhibited a large watercolour version at the Old Water-Colour Society. For the most part the two works are very close. Both combine the High Renaissance ideal of painting the human figure from the nude with a Pre-Raphaelite approach to decorative detail. The arrangement of the figures, and in particular the way in which Phyllis clasps her hands around Dempahoön, is also similar. However, when the watercolour version was exhibited in 1870 it was greeted with some controversy since Demaphoön was completely naked. In the oil version drapery is used to discreetly cover him.

The face of Phyllis was most probably modelled on Maria Zambaco, a member of the Ionides family, with whom Burne-Jones had an affair in the late 1860s. Some art critics have discussed whether or not the subject had psychological implications for the artist given his infatuation with Maria. Certainly, painting this subject in 1870 may have acted as an outward expression of the artist’s guilt towards his wife and mistress but why paint the subject again in 1882? In many respects, this later painting appears to be a fulfilment of the first work, a more complete resolution of the subject.

According to Burne-Jones' own list of works, he worked on 'The Tree of Foregiveness' in 1881 and completed it in 1882. He exhibited it at the Grosvenor Gallery in that year where it received mixed reviews. Some critics found the approach to the figures strange, The Times for example noted that:

‘The picture is a strange one, its effect repellent in the extreme…the anatomy is not only shown, but insisted on – flung violently in the spectator’s face, so that for some time nothing can be seen but muscles of every description, all of them twisting and straining...’.

In contrast all the critics agreed that the details of the painting such as the almond blossom and flowers, were painted with great accuracy and appreciation of colour. Henry James, the American writer, wrote in support of the picture pointing out that the subject was difficult and impossible to make natural. The artist had to content himself with making the work look ‘lovely’.

The art dealers Thomas Agnew & Sons purchased the painting from the Grosvenor Gallery exhibition and sold it to the Liverpool businessman William Imrie for £2,100 in December 1882. Imrie was a partner in the shipping company Ismay, Imrie and Co (the White Star Line) and a keen collector of Victorian painting. The painting was hung in his house Holmstead, at Mossley Hill, Liverpool, as a feature in one of the largest reception rooms. When Imrie died in 1906 most of his art collection was sold. Lever eventually purchased the picture in 1918.