The National Gallery of Australia has just announced a major exhibition of Pre-Raphaelite art, 'Love & Desire', will open in mid-December. It's bringing out many of the Tate's masterpieces for the very first time. This is a chance for Australians to discover the extraordinary luminous art of this circle of passionate rebellious mid-Victorian artists, which I have loved all my love and which inspired my novel, Beauty in Thorns.
Beauty in Thorns is an historical novel for adults which tells the astonishing true story behind the famous 'Sleeping Beauty' painting by the Pre-Raphaelite artist Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones. Told in the voices of four very different women, Beauty in Thorns is a story of love, desire, art, and awakenings of all kinds.
Burne-Jones painted the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale many times over the forty-odd years of his career:
In May 1856, Burne-Jones drew a pencil sketch of his betrothed, Georgie Macdonald, as the Sleeping Beauty to amuse her little sister Louie on her birthday. He was 23 years old and Georgie was sixteen. I believe this is the sketch, though it has not been officially confirmed.
In 1862, Burne-Jones designed a series of 'Sleeping Beauty' tiles for a client of the Morris & Co decorating firm, of which he was a partner. The princess looks very much like Lizzie Siddal, who had died a few months earlier of a laudanum overdose, and the prince kneeling to kiss her awake looks very much like her grieving widower Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The peacock (featured on the wall of the boudoir) is a symbol of immortality and rebirth. This tile is one of nine in a sequence that begins with the baby in her cradle and ends with the marriage of the prince and princess. The tiles can be seen at the V&A Museum in Kensington.
In the 1870s, Burne-Jones had a tempestuous affair with one of his models, the sculptor Maria Zambaco, and he painted a very sensual version of Sleeping Beauty with his mistress modelling as the princess. The affair ended badly, with Maria attempting to drown herself in Regent's Canal. At one point, Ned planned to run away with Maria but he ended returning to his wife and family so they would not be besmirched by the scandal.
This painting - now in Puerto Rico - was the final in a sequence of three paintings that showed the prince in the briar wood, the king and his councillors asleep in the council chamber, and the princess asleep with her maids.
This beautiful drawing is a chalk study of his daughter Margaret that Burne-Jones made in 1881, when he was planning another sequence of painting inspired by the fairytale. Margaret was then fifteen, the age of the princess in the story.
And this exquisite painting of his daughter Margaret as Sleeping Beauty was created by Burne-Jones in 1884-1887, as the final in a sequence of four enormous painting which now hang in Buscot Park, in Oxfordshire. Margaret was aged in her late teens and early twenties, and had fallen in love with a young poet and scholar named John William Mackail, much to her father's distress.
The four paintings - called 'The Legend of Briar Rose' - caused an absolute sensation when they were first exhibited in 1890, with queues of carriages along Bond Street and crowds of people returning again and again to view them. Burne-Jones sold the quartet of painting for fifteen thousand guineas, the most money a British artist had ever been paid, and he was subsequently knighted by the Queen.
His final painting is a small circle, entitled 'Wake Dearest' which he painted for his ever-loving and faithful wife Georgie in the final year of his life (1898). I believe she was the model for the princess. This tiny masterpiece - along with 37 other tiny glowing circles - were left to Georgie in his will, and later published as 'The Flower Book'.
My novel Beauty in Thorns tells the story behind the creation of these exquisite drawings and paintings - a story of love, betrayal, heartbreak, death, and awakening of all kinds.