This unusual drawing was made by Edward Burne-Jones in 1874 whilst he was working on his great cycle of paintings entitled The Briar Rose. Showing the top of a man’s head rendered in black chalk, picked out in white chalk, the carefully observed study points to the centrality of drawing to Burne-Jones’s work as a painter and designer. Burne-Jones evidently considered this drawing had a life beyond its function as a preparatory study, stretching the sheet of buff paper on a fine canvas support. Preserved in excellent condition, this striking drawing underscores Burne-Jones’s originality as a designer.
As his contemporaries recognised, drawing was crucial to Burne-Jones’s creative life. The painter and theatre designer Walford Graham Robertson noted:
‘He was pre-eminently a draughtsman, to draw was his natural mode of expression – line flowed from him almost without volition. If he were merely playing with a pencil, the result was never a scribble, but a thing of beauty however slight, a perfect design.’
As a result, every major commission generated a constellation of drawn studies. Burne-Jones was restless and inventive in his choice of media, particularly experimenting with his choice of papers. On visiting Edward Burne-Jones’s house, The Grange, in Fulham in 1869 Charles Eliot Norton observed the profusion of drawings, noting: ‘there are literally hundreds of these and other such drawings, all full of exquisite feeling and grace, all picturesquely and poetically conceived. There are three or four enormous volumes filled with studies of every sort, - many of them worthy to go with the famous studies of the great masters.’
Based on the story of Sleeping Beauty, The Briar Rose consists of four panels on which Burne-Jones worked intermittently between 1874 and 1890. The title derives from the version of the fairy tale published by the brothers Grimm.
All four scenes represent the same moment suspended in time: the prince enters a realm of arrested motion in which figures lie overcome by sleep. As the artist explained: ‘I want it to stop with the princess asleep and to tell no more, to leave all the afterwards to the invention and imagination of people’. The canvases were successfully exhibited at the London art dealers Agnew’s before being shown to a broader audience at Toynbee Hall in the East End, affirming the artist’s belief in art for all. They were subsequently bought by the financier and MP, Alexander Henderson, and installed in the saloon of his country residence, Buscot Park in Oxfordshire. Ten smaller panels were added to link the paintings around the room. Morris provided verses that were lettered beneath the framework of the four paintings.
The present beautifully worked study depicts the head of a figure for the first of the sequence, The Briar Wood. The drawing corresponds to the sleeping figure of a knight in the final version of the subject seen on the right-hand side in the middle ground. Burne-Jones evidently made the present sensitive study from life, capturing the head of a sleeping-model on prepared paper that he subsequently laid down on canvas. This bold, almost abstract drawing communicates the strong sense of design that is present in the canvases. The first of the panels was accompanied by verses composed by William Morris:
‘The fateful slumber floats and flows
About the tangle of the rose;
But lo! the fated hand and heart
To rend the slumberous curse apart!’