Love among the Ruins
Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones (Birmingham 1833 - London 1898)
Art / Oil paintings
23 Apr 1894 (signed and dated)
Oil on canvas
953 x 1600 mm (37 1/2 x 63 in)
Place of origin
EnglandOrder this image
Wightwick Manor, West Midlands (Accredited Museum)
On show at
The title of this painting is taken from Robert Browning’s poem of 1855. However, it is not a direct illustration of the text, but instead a rather more elusive allegory, typical of the artist. The setting was possibly influenced by a fifteenth-century Venetian text called the ‘Hypnerotomachia Poliphili’. The romantic story was illustrated with woodcuts, some of which show lovers seated amongst fallen pillars and stones. The lover is believed to be Gaetano Meo or Alesaandro di Marco who were favourite models for artists in the late Victorian period. The female, although probably the model Antonia Caiva, alludes to Burne-Jones’s great love, Maria Zambaco, with whom he had a tumultuous affair twenty years previously. Burne-Jones had originally painted a watercolour-cum-gouache of this subject between 1870 and 1873. It became one of the artist’s most admired and exhibited works before it was damaged in a photographic studio in Paris in 1893 but came up for auction at Christie's, London on July 11th 2013 and sold for £13.2 million.
Oil painting on canvas, Love among the Ruins by Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones (Birmingham 1833 - London 1898), signed and dated, bottom right: EBJ 1894. The two lovers, in blue robes, are seated together at right on a stone capital; at their feet is part of a broken column overgrown with a briar rose; in the left background a door decorated with a frieze of putti, and behind, a vista of arches. The models of the first version were Maria Kassavetti, Mrs Zambaco (London 1843 - Paris 1914) and Gaetano Meo (Naples 1849 - London 1925), both of whom became artists. However, Alison Smith in 2012 Pre-Raphaelites exhibition catalogue suggests it is Bessie Kee[a]ne (b. 1866/69) who also posed for 'The Golden Stairs' and 'Verpertina Quies' both at Tate of whom there are drawings in the Pérez Simón collection who posed for the second version (even though one work was a copy of the other). But in the Christie's catalogue, July 11, 2013 suggests that the models of the original watercolour were Alessandro di Marco and Antonia Caiva. It is based on a gouache (watercolour with bodycolour) of 1870-3 which was damaged in Paris (whilst being prepared for a photogravure reproduction) when sent to Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts in 1893. Burne-Jones painted this oil painting in 1894 and restored the watercolour in 1898 after he discovered that ox-gall could remove the egg white, weeks before his death.
This painting, one of Burne-Jones's major late works, is a replica in oils of the original gouache (watercolour and bodycolour) version of 1870-73, which was his first work exhibited abroad and among his most admired pictures. The composition was also used in a miniature forming part of William Morris's illuminated manuscript of Edward Fitzgerald's translation of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. In August 1893 the large watercolour (private collection) was sent to Paris for exhibition at the Societé National des Beaux Arts. While at a photographer's studio (Goupil) for reproduction in photogravure it was severely damaged: the highlights were treated with egg white and the paint came away. It was a severe blow to Burne-Jones at a time when he was already unsettled and unhappy. The picture had considerable emotional charge for him: it was completed after his relationship with Maria Zambaco (whom the model represents), ended. He wrote to his wife Georgiana "It is quite irreparable, but it is life, and all in the bargain - I don't know who made the bargain." (Fitzgerald, 1975, p. 250) The original was not in fact destroyed; it was subsequently restored by the artist himself and still exists. The girl in this oil version still resembles Maria Zambaco (although, actually, possibly, Bessie Keene or Antonia Caiva). The model for the man was the Italian Gaetano Meo or Alesaandro di Marco, who were much in demand: the former can also be seen in work by other artists including MadoxBrown, Leighton and Henry Holiday. A friend of Burne-Jones, Stopford Brooke, said of this later version, "It's better painted, but the ineffable spirit of youth which was in the other, is not there." Burne-Jones agreed, "O that is true and it will not come back again". 'Love Among the Ruins' shows how far Burne-Jones had moved away from his Pre-Raphaelite origins. His work was increasingly influenced by the Italian High Renaissance artists the Pre-Raphaelites had despised, particularly Michelangelo, Leonardo Da Vinci, Botticelli, Raphael and Mantegna, especially following his visits to Italy in 1871 and 1873. This is clearly reflected in the classically patterned drapery and the pose of the figures, and the Renaissance classicism of the architectural setting. The distant perspective view through a doorway contrasts with the tightly enclosed shallow space characteristic of many of Burne-Jones' pictures. The classicism, subtle colouring, and dream-like poetic quality are far away from the bright colours, mediaevalism and intense realism of Pre-Raphaelite paintings. Although the title is shared with Browning's poem Love Among the Ruins (1855) the picture is not an illustration of it. The subject reflects the increasing importance in the artist's work, just as in the Renaissance, of classical, pagan themes. It comes from the Hypnerotomachia Polyphilii written by Fra Colonna in the 15th century. The book takes the form of a mediaeval romance full of adventures and allegories but with classical setting, details and language. In a dream Poliphilus sets out on a quest for his lost love, Polia, and at last finds her. The lovers are joined at the altar of Venus (Greek goddess of love, fertility and beauty) and a miraculous briar rose begins to grow. For ultimate happiness they must travel to the Isle of Cythera (where Venus is supposed to have been born from the sea) where they wander through ruins and graves of those who have died for love. But it is all a deception: the Dreamer awakes to disappointment. The picture's theme is thus the ephemerality of love and youth, showing the lovers among the ruins of Cythera with the briar rose around them. Its melancholy beauty epitomises Burne-Jones' work: he said that a picture was "a beautiful dream of something that never was and never could be". It has an obvious similarity with the 'Briar Rose' series of paintings of the Sleeping Beauty legend (1873 and 1890) which are at Buscot Park, Oxfordshire (National Trust). (adapted from author's unpublished property catalogue, Stephen Ponder, Wightwick Manor, circa 1995)
Mrs Robert Henry Benson (by 1898); George McCulloch, his sale, Christie’s, 23, 29-30 May 1913, lot 118, reproduced; bought by Charles Davis for Sir Marcus Samuel, 1st Viscount Bearsted (1853-1927) (cf. the 19th-century British paintings given by him to the Guildhall Art Gallery); Walter Samuel, 2nd Viscount Bearsted (1882-1948), by whom presented to the National Trust with Upton and its contents in 1948; immediately moved to Wightwick Manor
Wightwick Manor, The Bearsted Collection (National Trust)
Marks and inscriptions
Verso: "CAUTION This oil picture was finished in the months of August 1893 to April 1894, it will not be safe to varnish it until FIVE YEARS have passed from this date. It may then be varnished with MASTIC. Edward Burne Jones." Verso: There is a hand-written note by Burne-Jones on the back of the picture: "This oil painting of 'Love Among the Ruins' is the same design as the one of the same name which I painted in watercolours, twenty one years ago, but which was destroyed in August last year. The present picture I began at once, and have made it as like as possible to the other, and have finished it this day. APRIL 23. 1894.Edward Burne Jones".
Makers and roles
Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones (Birmingham 1833 - London 1898) , artist
Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde, Tate Britain, London, 2012 - 2013 The Age of Rossetti, Burne-Jones & Watts Symbolism in Britain 1860-1910, Tate Britain, London, 1997 - 1998, no.41 The Treasure Houses of Britain, National Gallery of Art, Washington, USA, 1985 - 1986, no.551
Bell 1892 & 1898 Malcolm Bell, Edward Burne-Jones: A Record and Review, 1892, 4th ed., 1898, pp.50, 90, 92 Burne-Jones, 1904: Lady Georgiana Burne-Jones, Memorials of Edward Burne-Jones, 2 vols., 1904, II, pp.237-8, 243, 341 de Lisle 1904 Fortunée de Lisle, Burne-Jones, 1904, pp. 95-7, 147, 182, 186 Harrison and Waters, 1973: Martin Harrison and Bill Waters, Burne-Jones, 1973, pp. 173, 180, 185 Fitzgerald 1975 Penelope Fitzgerald, Edward Burne-Jones, 1975, pp 141-2, 151, 249 Garland 1984 Madge Garland, Country Life, 8 March 1984, pp.604-605 Hartnoll 1988 The Reproductive Engravings after Edward Coley Burne-Jones, ed. Julian Hartnoll, 1988, pp. 48-9