On 11 July 1902, Lord Salisbury resigned as Prime Minister of the UK, and Arthur Balfour (1848-1930) immediately became his uncle’s successor, assuming office the following day. Although hardly a radical in politics or aesthetics, among his collection of paintings was Edward Burne-Jones’ The Wheel of Fortune (1875-83), now in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, and he had come close to having one of the most spectacularly decorated music rooms in the country, had it not been for Burne-Jones’ death four years earlier.
The 1870s hadn’t started well for Edward Jones, as he was still known at the time. He’d fallen hopelessly in love with one of his models, Maria Zambaco, and had a torrid affair with her. This came to a head when she proposed a suicide pact and the police became involved. One of his watercolours had been rejected on grounds of its indecency, and his wife Georgiana was forced into a close relationship with Jones’ business partner William Morris, whose wife had fallen in love with Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
Then in 1875 everything changed. Balfour had just been elected as a Member of Parliament, and he and Jones were introduced to one another. It has been claimed that this was arranged by the Countess of Airlie, but as she was only nine at the time that’s hardly credible. Balfour was looking for an artist to do something with the Music Room in his central London house at 4 Carlton Gardens, near St James’s Park, and this Pre-Raphaelite painter Jones seemed right for the job. Preliminary discussions brought agreement that Jones’s paintings would tell the classical myth of Perseus and Andromeda.
On 27 March 1875, Jones visited Balfour’s house to look at the Music Room which he had been commissioned to decorate. Jones told Balfour that the light from the windows was too harsh, and the walls needed to be panelled using light English oakwood, with an oak ceiling and the softness of candlelight. In the following months, Jones drew up plans of how the oak panelling should be carved ornately by his friend and partner in business William Morris, and how his series of oil paintings would integrate with that panelling.
Jones worked on many sketches and preliminary designs, among which were gouache and gold layouts to show how his series of paintings would fit into their carved surrounds. Balfour visited him in his studio to approve the plans, then arranged for his Music Room to be modified according to Jones’s specifications.
While he worked on further studies on paper, Jones painted two related works which rehearsed his approach to this monumental cycle.
Perseus and Andromeda (1876) was an initial exploration of two of the paintings for the series, The Rock of Doom and The Doom Fulfilled. The left half shows Perseus, just arrived at the rock to which Andromeda is chained; the right shows him doing battle with Cetus.
This is a fascinating image as far as narrative is concerned, as the two figures appear twice in it, as if Jones was reverting to the much older technique of compositing multiple images of a story into a single painting. He also used this technique in the first of the Pegasus series proper, The Call of Perseus.
Completed over a longer period, Jones’s Wheel of Fortune (1875-1883) rehearsed the look and style of the series, and was exhibited in 1883 at the Grosvenor Gallery in London. Balfour liked it so much that he bought it, and kept it in his collection until his death. It was exhibited again in 1887, 1897, and the Burne-Jones memorial exhibition in London in 1898.
Although he painted several smaller series of four paintings, this was by far the largest and most ambitious project of Jones’s career. He tested the concept of using low-relief panels when he exhibited the first, Perseus and the Graiae, at the Grosvenor Gallery, London, in 1878, but it wasn’t well-received. He then appears to have changed the overall design and intended to complete the remaining nine scenes as conventional oil paintings.
His general working method was to make various studies for parts of each scene using watercolour, then to assemble those into a full-size study painted using bodycolour (gouache) on paper. That series was eventually completed, and is now exhibited in the Baring Room of the Southampton City Art Gallery, where it gives the best impression as to how the finished series might have looked.
The Perseus series contains a text summary, drawn from the Latin of Sir Richard Claverhouse Jebb (1841-1905), a contemporary classical scholar and promoter. However, Jones was unable to accommodate that in the first of the series, and had to transfer it to the second, which I show here in its full-size gouache study, then in its finished version as the first of the low-relief panels.
These words translate as:
Pallas Athena spurred Perseus to action with her urging, and equipped him with arms. The Graiae revealed to him the remote home of the nymphs. From here he went with wings on his feet and with his head shrouded in darkness, and with his sword he struck the one mortal Gorgon, the others being immortal. Her two sisters arose and pursued him. Next he turned Atlas to stone. The sea serpent was slain and Andromeda rescued, and the comrades of Phineas became lumps of rock. Then Andromeda looked in a mirror with wonder at the dreadful Medusa.
(Modified from Anderson & Cassin.)
The eighth painting, The Rock of Doom (1884-5), takes Perseus on to his discovery of Andromeda, chained to the rock awaiting her fate in the maw of Cetus. His face looks hesitant and uncertain here, and he has removed Hades’ helmet to make himself visible to Andromeda. Medusa’s head is safely stowed in the kibisis on his left arm, and Jones is faithful to the original Greek myth in having Perseus arrive on his winged sandals, not Pegasus.
For her part, Andromeda is naked, and looking coy and afraid, her face downcast. She is still chained to the rock, awaiting rescue. In the background, Jones shows what is presumably the capital of Aethiopia, or he may have accepted Strabo’s attribution to Jaffa. A finished version of this bodycolour study is included in the Stuttgart series, below.
The tenth and final painting, The Baleful Head (1885), shows Perseus and Andromeda, their right hands clenching one another’s wrists, looking at the image of Medusa’s face reflected in the surface of a well. This is set in a peaceful garden, with a fruit-laden apple tree behind, and flowers springing up from the grass beneath them, also shown in the finished version from the Stuttgart series, below.
In about 1885, Edward Jones adopted the name of Edward Coley Burne-Jones, by which he is still known. He continued to work on the Perseus series for Balfour, but progress slowed as the artist’s deteriorating health, other commitments and pressures took their toll.
Balfour’s career in politics progressed. His uncle, Lord Salisbury, the Prime Minister, appointed him President of the Local Government Board. By 1891, he had become Leader of the House of Commons and First Lord of the Treasury, finally succeeding as Prime Minister in 1902. In 1885, he co-founded a group of politicians and intellectuals known as The Souls who were significant patrons of the arts.
In 1894, Burne-Jones (who had formally changed his name the previous year) was elevated to the peerage as the First Baronet of Rottingdean and the Grange. With the Perseus series still unfinished and his health continuing to deteriorate, Balfour must already have made alternative arrangements for his Music Room. The artist died on 17 June 1898, and on the personal intervention of the Prince of Wales became the first British painter to be honoured by a memorial service at Westminster Abbey, although his body was buried at Rottingdean.
Anderson A & Cassin M (1998) The Perseus Series, Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones, Southampton City Art Gallery. ISBN 978 0 9017 2318 5.