The Last Sleep of Arthur in Avalon

Edward Coley Burne-Jones • Painting, 1898, 279.4×650.2 cm
Digital copy: 1.2 MB
3120 × 1312 px • JPEG
50 × 21.5 cm • 155 dpi
52.8 × 22.2 cm • 150 dpi
26.4 × 11.1 cm • 300 dpi
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About the artwork
Art form: Painting
Subject and objects: Literary scene
Style of art: The Pre-Raphaelites
Technique: Oil
Materials: Canvas
Date of creation: 1898
Size: 279.4×650.2 cm
Artwork in selections: 7 selections
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Description of the artwork «The Last Sleep of Arthur in Avalon»

The Last Sleep of Arthur in Avalon painting is called the magnum opus (main work) of Edward Coley Burne-Jones. The artist had been working on it for 17 years, until his death in 1898. According to the words of his wife Georgiana, “this is a story that has become an explanation of life for him, which he considered unbearable”.

The painting depicts a moment of rest and inaction. Mortally wounded, King Arthur lies on a bench, surrounded by three queens and many courtiers, who are anxiously waiting for a voice from above, urging the ruler to do more deeds in the name of faith. A light-flooded marble dome with the carved scenes from the legend of the Holy Grail hangs over the King’s body. The centre of the composition is framed by colonnades with black columns and oriental-style capitals on the left and right. They are surrounded by the medieval castle walls, and then goes a garden with flowers and trees. Women appear before the viewer with long braids, an eternal symbol of sexuality, and in Byzantine crowns adorned with precious stones.

In the final version of the picture, Arthur’s head rests on the lap of his sister, the fairy queen Morgana, who took her brother to Avalon after his defeat in battle. The early sketches included a battle in the background and the fairies listening to the mourning music. As a result, Burne-Jones ditched these “fairies, looking frenzied, stupid and completely out of place” in favour of a linear composition focused on the elongated figure of the king.

At the centre of the Arthurian tales is the idea that he did not actually die, but sleeps in Avalon, waiting for the moment when the nation will most need his return. And for the Pre-Raphaelites and their followers, the legend had a special meaning. In part, they found picturesque splendour in it — sparkling armour and swords, flying banners and beautiful maidens in flowing robes. On the other hand, Arthur became a symbol of their crusade against the mundane and squalid materialistic era.

While still students at Oxford, Burne-Jones and his friend William Morris read The Death of Arthur by Sir Thomas Mallory, which had been written in the 15th century. It penetrated into their souls and influenced their entire worldview. “Nothing was like The Death of Arthur,” Burne-Jones admitted. “I mean: not a single book, not a single poem that could have been written and would have sunk into the heart forever.” The artist reflected the theme of the Holy Grail throughout his career — in his paintings, drawings, stained glass design and tapestries.

Burne-Jones was commissioned to create The Last Sleep... in 1881 by his friend and patron George Howard (later — the 9th Earl of Carlisle), the same enthusiastic “arthuromaniac” as himself. The artist had already designed a large frieze “Cupid and Psyche” for the London house dining room of an aristocrat before. This process was long and problematic, whereas the work on “Arthur in Avalon” surpassed it. Year after year, the picture became more large-scale and ambitious. According to Georgiana, Burne-Jones regarded the work as “a lesson of love, for which he grudged neither time nor labour”. His attention to detail was almost manic. At some point, when the painter decided to fill the foreground with summer flowers, he brought armfuls of aquilegias, irises and forget-me-nots to his studio, and drew their sketches.

Howard steadfastly waited for the painting, but ultimately refused it at the artist’s request, without demanding any compensation. Instead, he took the less interesting battle scene “The Battle of Flodden”.

The 1880s were the tough years for Burne-Jones. The artist suffered from tachycardia and loss of vision, felt the growing isolation and his own mortality. Immersed in his work, he increasingly associated himself with Arthur and he even, according to art critic Stephen Wildman, took the pose of his subject when he went to bed. “Avalon is my obsession now, and I hope that I can put everything that worries me [on the picture],” the painter said.

It is widely believed that William Morris, Burne-Jones’s last surviving ally, posed for the figure of Arthur. And that the alleged physical weakness of his friend became the main source of inspiration for the artist. However, his biographer Debra Mankoff points out that no records of Morris’s involvement in the work have been found. Moreover, by the time the king image was completed, he was full of energy.

William Morris died in October 1896. Two years later, according to the documents, Burne-Jones began to feel a lack of time. He was annoyed by the forced interruptions from work, including the invitation to the Queen Victoria’s anniversary celebrations, where he went reluctantly and did not stay long. He refused to be distracted by news of the start of a war between America and Spain or disturbing political rumours: “I missed it. I will miss a lot. I have to [do it] if I want to get to Avalon.”

In mid-June 1898, Burne-Jones believed that the painting would be completed in two months. But on the night of the 17th of June, he summoned Georgiana to his bedroom and died of a heart attack. The unfinished Last Sleep of King Arthur in Avalon was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1916. It became one of the centres of the rapid revival of the chivalrous spirit, which was supposed to rally the troops and glorify the fallen in the First World War. Such a simplified interpretation of the masterpiece would certainly make the artist angry.

In April 1963, the grandiose canvas was auctioned at Christie’s. It was acquired by Luis Ferré, the founder of the Ponce Museum of Art and the future governor of Puerto Rico. By then, the art by the Pre-Raphaelites had fallen out of fashion, and therefore the British government gave permission for export, despite some objections. Now The Last Sleep... is a jewel in the collection of the Puerto Rican Museum, along with the Flaming June, the masterpiece by Sir Frederic Leighton, a contemporary of Burne-Jones.

Author: Vlad Maslov