It was quite the wedding gift but the stained glass window designs were not given to the bride and groom but to the church in which they were married
It was quite the wedding gift but the stained glass window designs were not given to the bride and groom but to the church in which they were married.
You can still see Edward Burne-Jones’ completed windows – in St Margaret’s Church in Rottingdean, Sussex, where his daughter took her vows – but their templates are here in Merseyside.
Bought by Lord Leverhulme, after the artist’s death, as part of an auction lot of the Pre-Raphaelite’s work, they are on display at the Lady Lever Art Gallery in a exhibition of his drawings and watercolours.
Due to their fragility, many of the 30 pieces shown have rarely been exhibited before. All are works from National Museums Liverpool’s collection – not just from the Lady Lever but also the Walker and Sudley House – demonstrating how popular the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was in the region even when they were at first shunned by London galleries.
It has been almost two decades since visitors have been able to admire the striking 3m-tall Sponsa de Libano (translated as The Bride of Lebanon). Based on extracts from the Bible’s Song of Solomon, it shows the bride walking in the garden, two women symbolising winds blowing towards her in a whirl of blues and greens.
“When people see the work for the first time they assume it is an oil painting but then they are surprised to realise it’s painted in watercolours,” says Sandra Penketh, NML’s director of art galleries.
“I see it as something almost audacious that he had the confidence to paint in this scale with that medium.”
The Walker acquired the painting directly from the artist when it was exhibited in the Liverpool gallery’s Autumn Exhibition of 1896.
Hung next to Sponse de Libano is a study of a female head that Burne-Jones drew in preparation for painting the work.
The model was a Jewish girl from Houndsditch who the artist described as “self-possessed, mature and worldly, and only about 12-years-old”.
“People often imagine artists just stand there and start slapping paint on the canvas but it can take a lot of practise beforehand,” says Penketh, indicating the drawing Study of a Draped Medusa for the finished painting The Finding of Medusa.
“This is particularly true of Victorian painters who based their works on mythological subjects.
“Burne-Jones was really thinking through which elements of the story he was going to represent and how he would position the figures.”
As well as preparatory sketches, the Lady Lever’s exhibition includes drawings that were created as art works in their own right.
They trace his changing style and influences, which include the Italian Renaissance masters.
The section concludes with a set of unusual “negative” pictures, executed in bronze metallic paint against a black background, reminiscent of the Medieval silverpoint drawing technique.
To coincide with the exhibition, National Museums Liverpool has published a new book on its collection of works by Burne-Jones and his Brotherhood colleagues.
Written by Dr Laura MacCulloch, who was until recently the organisation’s curator of British art, it looks at how Liverpool patrons encouraged the Pre-Raphaelites at a time when London critics were hostile.
The city even became home to its own Pre-Raphaelite school, with artists including William Windus, John Lee, James Campbell and William Davis incorporating the Brotherhood’s principals into their own techniques.
“The exhibition shows how important Liverpool was to the Pre-Raphaelites,” says Penketh of the Burne-Jones show.
“It’s fantastic we can put a show like this on because our collections are so wonderful. It says a lot about the strength of local collectors and galleries.”
The Drawings of Edward Burne-Jones is at the Lady Lever Art Gallery until January 12, 2013. Dr Laura MacCulloch’s book Pre-Raphaelite Treasures is published by Liverpool University Press. The book is for sale in National Museums Liverpool venues, priced £9.99.