The extraordinary love story behind Edward Burne-Jones’s famous ‘Sleeping Beauty’ paintings

In 1890, the Pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones finished a monumental series of paintings inspired by ‘Sleeping Beauty’. Greeted with ecstasy by the public, it sold for a record 15,000 guineas and made the artist a rich and famous man.

Told by the voices of four extraordinary women – the wives and mistresses and muses of the famous artists of the Pre-Raphaelite circle – BEAUTY IN THORNS tells the story of love, desire, obsession and tragedy that lies behind the creation of this famous depiction of Sleeping Beauty.

In chronological order of birth:

Lizzie Siddal (b. 1829)

Discovered working in a milliner’s shop, Lizzie Siddal became one of the most famous faces of the early Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, modelling for paintings by Rossetti and Millais (she is his famous Ophelia). She and Rossetti began a passionate and turbulent affair. Heart-broken by his infidelities, Lizzie took refuge in laudanum. As she lay dying, Rossetti promised to marry her if she would only recover. They were married in 1860, but the birth of a dead child caused Lizzie to sink further into depression and addiction. She died of an overdose in 1862. Rossetti famously buried his poems with her but later had her exhumed to retrieve the manuscript.

Jane Morris (b. 1839)

Jane Burden was discovered by Rossetti and Burne-Jones in Oxford, and became one of their most striking and famous models. She married William Morris, but began an affair with Rossetti after the death of Lizzie Siddal. He painted her obsessively, but his guilt over the death of his wife cracked his mind, and he went mad. Jane had to choose between her love for him, and that of her two young daughters.

Georgie Macdonald (b. 1840)

The daughter of a God-fearing Methodist minister, Georgie met Ned Burne-Jones when she was eleven. He awoke her to a new world of art and poetry and beauty, and she shared with him her favourite fairy tale, ‘Sleeping Beauty’, which inspire him to create some of his most beautiful paintings. Georgie married Burne-Jones at the age of nineteen, after a four-year engagement. The early years of their marriage was idyllic, but in 1864 Georgie contracted scarlet fever, which brought on the premature birth of her second child. Her third child –
a daughter named Margaret – was born in 1866, the same year as Burne-Jones began a
passionate and ultimately calamitous affair with his model, the beautiful and fiery Maria Zambaco.

Margaret Burne-Jones (b. 1866)

The third child born to Edward and Georgie Burne-Jones, after the tragic death of their second son. She was a shy and reserved child remarkable for her beauty. As she grew, she too found herself in demand as a model for the Pre-Raphaelites, but struggled with the unwanted attention. In 1888, she fell in love with the Scottish writer, John William Mackail, but dared not tell her father. He was obsessively working on his painting of her as the Sleeping Princess in his Briar Rose series, and was afraid of losing his muse. Margaret had to find the strength to
defy her father and marry the man she loved.

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