Burne-Jones at Tate Britain

A quick trip to London yesterday to catch the last week of the Edward Burne-Jones exhibition at Tate Britain. (It finishes on 24th – so go now!) Beyond the best-known paintings such as The Golden Stairs and Laus Veneris (above), there was much to take in and admire in the seven rooms of paintings. Here’s a not very serious taster of some of my quirky favourites:


The Wine of Circe (1900, right). I was standing by this painting wondering about what the black panthers symbolised, when a chap behind nudged his companion and said:

“I thought that was the Thames Barrier in the background for a moment!”

Then he guffawed at his own silliness. He was referring to Odysseus’s ships.

Apparently, the black panthers are victims of previous spells. Rather them than the swine Odysseus’s men would be turned into!

The next painting to catch my eye was The Depths of the Sea (1887, left). It is at once alluring and mysterious.

It reminded me of the film The Shape of Water but reversed of course. However, a less romantic view makes the mermaid more like the fierce ones in Harry Potter.

She has a Mona Lisa smile on her face, and a six pack! It’s hard to tell whether her man is a victim or willing participant who will not die, (if Gillyweed was available in Pre-Raphaelite times).

In the room of portraits, I was drawn to this one: Vespertina Quies (1893, right).

This is a portrait of Bessie Keane, one of his favourite later models, and was deliberately posed Mona Lisa style.


One of my favourite rooms was reserved for a series of paintings based on The Sleeping Beauty – The Briar Rose Series. This series of four huge canvases painted between 1885 and 1890, together with ten separate linking panels of greenery, blossom and more thorns, depicts a knight finding everyone asleep – first the soldiers in The Briar Wood, then the King in The Council Chamber, then the weavers at their looms in The Garden Court and finally Sleeping Beauty in The Rose Bower. They’re all pictured at the same moment.

I managed to get pictures of 1 and 3 without people in the way. Of course, there were only postcards in the shop of 1 and 2. The full series lives at Buscot Park near Faringdon in Oxfordshire, where I hope they’ll return soon – as it’s near me, I’d love to go and see them again with fewer people in the way. (Buscot Park also has a handful of other Pre-Raphaelite paintings and many others, open April-Sept (National Trust)).

I loved this series, and the thorns and blossom all around reminded me of Richard Dadd’s The Fairy Tellers Master Stroke from 1755, which hangs in the big room at the Tate, where we popped afterwards. Sadly, one of our favourites, The Lady of Shalott by Waterhouse, and his Ophelia were both out on loan to elsewhere. Still I have seen these two many times before. Unlike the time I went on holiday to Chicago with seeing Grant Wood’s American Gothic joint top of my list (along with Hopper’s Nighthawks which was there) – the Wood was out on loan, but I did get to see it a couple of years ago when it came to London (here).

14 thoughts on “Burne-Jones at Tate Britain

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      It was very crowded (especially at the beginning of the ticketed hour) – the first room was hell, but then it spread out a bit and you could contemplate in more space. The paintings, stained glass, tapestry and marquetry even, came from all over the world, so it was a wonderful chance to see it all together, We have lots of gallery visits planned for Easter too!

  1. The Sleeping Beauty panels reminded me of a similar Burne-Jones piece in the Bristol City. Museum and Art Gallery, so I had to check and find out: https://www.bristolmuseums.org.uk/blog/collections/burne-jones-garden-court/

    Birmingham also has a a fine collection of PRB canvases and other artwork, including BJ’s Holy Grail tapestries, which are wheeled out from storage every so often. When I saw them one of the seldom-seen pieces in the sequence was on loan from Andrew Lloyd-Webber.

    (Interestingly, in view of the imminent Dewithon, is the dual Welsh connection: Burne-Jones’ father was from Wales, while Lord L-W includes a name of Welsh origins. And both names are double-barrelled. As is yours! 🙂)

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      I’d forgotten the Bristol BJ Garden Court painting – I saw it last summer. Lovely. He seemed to do several versions of many of his paintings. I’d love to see the Birmingham tapestries and paintings. My daughter and I both have Art Fund cards which gets us in cheap all over the place – got excellent value from it last year.

  2. Every now and again the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (BMAG) allows the Burne Jones tapestries to come out and I marvel every time I see them at the delicacy and precision of the work. The cathedral also has some of hiw wonderful stained glass. Well worth a visit if you’re ever in the area.

  3. Ooooh, lovely Annabel – thanks for sharing these. Both myself and Middle Child have a fondness for the Pre-Raphaelites. But I can imagine this would have been packed as it’s so close to closing – I had the same experience with some Russian exhibitions. I seem to recall reading that Birmingham uni is very hot on Pre-Raphs and even had some kind of Pre-Raph network – maybe worth checking out! 😀

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      The first room, which was mainly drawings was a nightmare, but after that it was bearable. I must get to Birmingham one day soon.

  4. Jonathan says:

    I visited this back in December and it was busy then as well. I really liked the ‘Depths of the Sea’ painting too; but wasn’t there also an earlier version in the exhibition?

    I liked standing in the middle of the ‘Briar Rose’ room and just slowly circling round looking at them. A few years ago I went to the Tate and they had Burne-Jones’s ‘Death of Arthur’ on loan; it is an amazing, and huge, picture.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      I’ve just looked up ‘The Last Sleep of Arthur in Avalon’ – hope this is the one you mean. Sadly, it lives in Puerto Rico, not somewhere I’m likely to get to. Looks wonderful, lucky you to see that.

  5. Gorgeous! I would love to visit this exhibition but very much doubt I’ll be able to get there before it closes. Nevertheless, a virtual tour via your post is the next best thing. 🙂

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      Thank you. My daughter and I have been wanting to go for ages, but are limited to the school hols. I’d hoped to pair it with Dior at the V&A but couldn’t get tickets. Need to book for Easter for that one!

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