The Over-Exposed Warrior, the Suicide Pact, and the Almond Tree

Edward Burne-Jones (1833–1898), The Tree of Forgiveness (1881-82), oil on canvas, 190.5 × 106.7 cm, Lady Lever Art Gallery, National Museums Liverpool, Liverpool, England. Wikimedia Commons.

The Pre-Raphaelites were nothing if not intense and passionate. Although at times their paintings may today seem far from radical, their art often courted controversy, and their courting was all too controversial. Their lives and loves seem to have been a succession of tempestuous affairs, sometimes tragically ending in suicide.

Looking at photos of Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones, First Baronet of Rottingdean and of the Grange, it seems hard to believe that in 1870 he was at the centre of a major scandal and was asked to remove one of his paintings from the exhibition of the Old Water-Colour Society.

Edward Burne-Jones (1833–1898), Phyllis and Demophoon (1870), bodycolour and watercolour with gold medium and gum arabic on composite layers of paper on canvas, 47.5 x 93.8 cm, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, Birmingham, England. Wikimedia Commons.

The painting in question was Phyllis and Demophoon (1870), a watercolour showing Phyllis embracing her estranged husband from within the structure of an almond tree. Burne-Jones’ exposure of Demophoon’s genitals in the exact centre of the painting was the more obvious reason for the painting’s removal, but behind it was a problem more compelling: both figures were modelled by Maria Zambaco, who had recently been Burne-Jones’ mistress.

Maria Zambaco was one of three cousins from the leading expatriate (if not refugee) Greek families of London; the other two were Aglaia Coronio and Marie Spartali, who later married to become known as the last Pre-Raphaelite painter, Marie Spartali Stillman (1844–1927).

Edward Burne-Jones (1833–1898), The Mill (1882), oil on canvas, 91 × 197 cm, The Victoria & Albert Museum, London. Wikimedia Commons.

All three appear in Burne-Jones’ The Mill (1882). Shown from left to right are Maria Zambaco, Marie Spartali Stillman, and Aglaia Coronio.

Burne-Jones had married Georgiana MacDonald in 1860, and the couple had a son born the following year, and a daughter born in 1866. Maria Cassavetti was ten years younger than Burne-Jones, had married a Dr Zambaco in 1860, and went to live in France, having her own son and daughter by him. When her marriage collapsed, she moved back to London in 1866, and met Burne-Jones when he was commissioned to paint Maria by her mother.

Burne-Jones and Maria Zambaco soon became lovers, a relationship which intensified during 1868, and reached a crisis the following year. Burne-Jones tried to leave his wife and family to live with Zambaco. Maria tried to convince Burne-Jones to join her in a suicide pact, taking an overdose of laudanum by the canal in London’s Little Venice. The police had to be called, and what was already quite a public scandal become the talk of London.

Although Burne-Jones and Zambaco broke up, he continued to use her as a model in his paintings through the 1870s, and in the group often known as the Three Graces in The Mill.

After the Old Water-Colour Society had ‘invited’ him to remove his Phyllis and Demophoon, Burne-Jones exhibited little for almost a decade. By 1880, though, he was ready to have another go at the same motif, with the same model.

Edward Burne-Jones (1833–1898), The Tree of Forgiveness (1881-82), oil on canvas, 190.5 × 106.7 cm, Lady Lever Art Gallery, National Museums Liverpool, Liverpool, England. Wikimedia Commons.

The Tree of Forgiveness (1881-82) was painted in oils, rather than watercolours, and its ambiguous title may refer either to the subject, or act as an invitation for the public to forgive the artist for his earlier behaviour.

You could also be forgiven for thinking that its story, that of Phyllis and Demophoon (or Demophon), was one of the hundreds of transformations described by Ovid in his epic Metamorphoses. Although Ovid did narrate this old Greek myth, and it does involve the transformation of Phyllis into and from an almond tree, he did not refer to it in that poem, but in his Heroides.

Ovid’s Heroides (meaning Heroines) are now little-known, but were if anything more popular than his Metamorphoses during and after the Renaissance. They are the first known work of literature consisting entirely of a collection of fictional letters, mostly written by abandoned women to their former husbands or lovers. The story of Phyllis and Demophoon is the basis of the second letter in Ovid’s series, and was illustrated by Robinet Testard in a French translation of about 1520.

Demophoon was one of the Greeks who took part in the Trojan War, and was the son of the great hero Theseus. Following the sack of Troy, he left the scene and sailed back towards Greece. Possibly as the result of a problem with his ship, he landed in Thrace, at the northern end of the Aegean Sea and to the north of Troy. There, he met Phyllis, the daughter of the local king, who fell in love with him.

Robinet Testard (fl 1470-1531), Plate of Phyllis Abandoned by Demophoon, Folio 15v in Octavien de Saint-Gelais (trans), Ovide, Héroïdes ou Epîtres (c 1520), Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Phyllis and Demophoon married (or perhaps their marriage was only agreed), but Demophoon had to travel back home before he could rejoin her later. He swore repeatedly that he would return, and Phyllis accompanied him as far as a place called The Nine Roads, where she gave him a casket, with strict instructions not to open it until he had abandoned all hope of returning to her.

Robinet Testard (fl 1470-1531), Plate of Phyllis Writing, Folio 11v in Octavien de Saint-Gelais (trans), Ovide, Héroïdes ou Epîtres (c 1520), Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Demophoon travelled on to Cyprus, where he may have settled, or he may have returned to Athens. When the time came for his return to Phyllis, there was no sign of him. Phyllis wrote to him, in Ovid’s fiction the letter which he included in his Heroides. It records her determination to commit suicide, and the process of despair after abandonment.

Robinet Testard (fl 1470-1531), Plate of The Suicide of Phyllis, Folio 17 in Octavien de Saint-Gelais (trans), Ovide, Héroïdes ou Epîtres (c 1520), Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

She apparently died by hanging herself in a grove of almond trees. This miniature shows her body becoming part of the tree, but those trees then became barren.

There are two recorded endings to the story. In one, Demophoon returned and was distraught to hear of her fate. When he visited the tree, he embraced it and sought her forgiveness. Then, as in Burne-Jones’ paintings, she transformed from the tree back to human form, and embraced Demophoon.

The other version tells that, realising that he would never return to Phyllis, Demophoon opened the casket she had given him. Its contents then either drove him mad, or resulted in him falling from his bolting horse, and dying by his own sword.

The story of Phyllis and Demophoon was retold by Boccaccio in about 1343, by Chaucer in The Legende of Goode Women (1385), and in many operas from 1699 to 1811. As far as I can establish, there have only been three significant paintings made of the story, and the third now appears lost.

John William Waterhouse (1849-1917), Phyllis and Demophoon (1897) (original in colour), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, location not known. Plate in The Studio magazine provided by the University of Toronto and the Internet Archive via The Victorian web at

This monochrome image is all that may remain of John William Waterhouse’s Phyllis and Demophoon, painted in 1897. A copy made about ten years later was sold by Christie’s in London in 1926, but has also disappeared.

We may forgive Edward Burne-Jones, but hopefully we’ll never forget him, his model, or Phyllis and Demophoon.