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Study for "The Sleeping Knights" c1870, by Edward Burne- Jones (1833-1898)


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About the artwork

Edward Burne-Jones was a highly successful English artist of the late 19th century. The Study for 'The Sleeping Knights' is a preparatory sketch for a larger painting, 'The Briar Rose'. The story is based on the fairy tale of a princess and a kingdom falling under the spell of a 100 years of sleep, to be awakened only by a young prince's kiss.

The bodies of the knights are depicted frozen in time and suffering, while their armour lies entangled in the bushes. Despite the small size of the painting, the study is admirable for its elegant design and its vivid colours.

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.

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.