Burne-Jones: The Legend of the Briar Rose inspired by the romantic story of Sleeping Beauty
Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898)
Burne-Jones in front of his Star of Bethlehem 1890
Photograph, 1890, Private collection
If I had to choose my favorite Burne-Jones painting it would be his Briar Rose series. I fell in love with them instantaneously -- love at first sight. After reading Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur alteast ten years ago now. I began to get curious, as I always do, wanting to know more about the history, the story etc. So, I went to my college library computer and did a search for Arthurian themed paintings and Burne-Jones' world appeared before me. Deliriously, my eyes scanned glorious beauty after beauty but the paintings that made me gasp out loud and sigh with wonderment were The Briar Rose series.
In the back of my mind I always wanted to find out what was his inspiration behind painting this series; besides, being requested to do so by the patron at the time Alexander Henderson, who later became the 1st Lord Faringdon. Henderson displayed them in the music room at his Oxfordshire stately home - Buscot Park. More on that later!
Burne-Jones drew his inspiration for the Briar Rose Series from the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale, which had been retold during the eighteenth century by Charles Perrault in his Contes du Temps Passé (Stories, or, Tales of Past Times), published in 1697. Charles Perrault (1628-1703) was a French civil servant and writer.
"La Belle au Bois Dormant" Charles Perrault. The Histories of Past Times, or, The Tales of Mother Goose: With Morals. London: B. le Francq, 1785.La Belle au Bois Dormant, or Sleeping Beauty, was based on a Greek Myth, according to Andrew Lang, a noted 19th century mythology and fairy tale scholar.This illustration, as well as the image of Cendrillion on the previous page, are from an early translation of Perrault's Histoires, ou, Contes du Temps Passé, Avec des Moralitez, originally published in 1679.
The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood
"Take comfort, your Majesties," she cried in a loud voice. "Your daughter shall not die. My power, it is true, is not enough to undo all that my aged kinswoman has decreed. The princess will indeed prick her hand with a spindle. But instead of dying she shall merely fall into a profound slumber that will last a hundred years. At the end of that time a king's son shall come to awaken her."
The king, in an attempt to avert the unhappy doom pronounced by the old fairy, at once published an edict forbidding all persons, under pain of death, to use a spinning wheel or keep a spindle in the house.At the end of fifteen or sixteen years the king and queen happened one day to be away, on pleasure bent. The princess was running about the castle, and going upstairs from room to room she came at length to a garret at the top of a tower, where an old serving woman sat alone with her distaff, spinning. This good woman had never heard speak of the king's proclamation forbidding the use of spinning wheels.
"What are you doing, my good woman?" asked the princess.
"I am spinning, my pretty child," replied the dame, not knowing who she was.
"Oh, what fun!" rejoined the princess. "How do you do it? Let me try and see if I can do it equally well."
Partly because she was too hasty, partly because she was a little heedless, but also because the fairy decree had ordained it, no sooner had she seized the spindle than she pricked her hand and fell down in a swoon.
In great alarm the good dame cried out for help. People came running from every quarter to the princess. They threw water on her face, chafed her with their hands, and rubbed her temples with the royal essence of Hungary. But nothing would restore her.
Then the king, who had been brought upstairs by the commotion, remembered the fairy prophecy. Feeling certain that what had happened was inevitable, since the fairies had decreed it, he gave orders that the princess should be placed in the finest apartment in the palace, upon a bed embroidered in gold and silver.
You would have thought her an angel, so fair was she to behold. The trance had not taken away the lovely color of her complexion. Her cheeks were delicately flushed, her lips like coral. Her eyes, indeed, were closed, but her gentle breathing could be heard, and it was therefore plain that she was not dead. The king commanded that she should be left to sleep in peace until the hour of her awakening should come.
The king handed her down from her chariot, and she approved of all that he had done. But being gifted with great powers of foresight, she bethought herself that when the princess came to be awakened, she would be much distressed to find herself all alone in the old castle. And this is what she did.
She touched with her wand everybody (except the king and queen) who was in the castle -- governesses, maids of honor, ladies-in-waiting, gentlemen, officers, stewards, cooks, scullions, errand boys, guards, porters, pages, footmen. She touched likewise all the horses in the stables, with their grooms, the big mastiffs in the courtyard, and little Puff, the pet dog of the princess, who was lying on the bed beside his mistress. The moment she had touched them they all fell asleep, to awaken only at the same moment as their mistress. Thus they would always be ready with their service whenever she should require it. The very spits before the fire, loaded with partridges and pheasants, subsided into slumber, and the fire as well. All was done in a moment, for the fairies do not take long over their work.
Then the king and queen kissed their dear child, without waking her, and left the castle. Proclamations were issued, forbidding any approach to it, but these warnings were not needed, for within a quarter of an hour there grew up all round the park so vast a quantity of trees big and small, with interlacing brambles and thorns, that neither man nor beast could penetrate them. The tops alone of the castle towers could be seen, and these only from a distance. Thus did the fairy's magic contrive that the princess, during all the time of her slumber, should have naught whatever to fear from prying eyes.
At the end of a hundred years the throne had passed to another family from that of the sleeping princess. One day the king's son chanced to go a-hunting that way, and seeing in the distance some towers in the midst of a large and dense forest, he asked what they were. His attendants told him in reply the various stories which they had heard. Some said there was an old castle haunted by ghosts, others that all the witches of the neighborhood held their revels there. The favorite tale was that in the castle lived an ogre, who carried thither all the children whom he could catch. There he devoured them at his leisure, and since he was the only person who could force a passage through the wood nobody had been able to pursue him.While the prince was wondering what to believe, an old peasant took up the tale.
"Your Highness," said he, "more than fifty years ago I heard my father say that in this castle lies a princess, the most beautiful that has ever been seen. It is her doom to sleep there for a hundred years, and then to be awakened by a king's son, for whose coming she waits."
This story fired the young prince. He jumped immediately to the conclusion that it was for him to see so gay an adventure through, and impelled alike by the wish for love and glory, he resolved to set about it on the spot.
Hardly had he taken a step towards the wood when the tall trees, the brambles and the thorns, separated of themselves and made a path for him. He turned in the direction of the castle, and espied it at the end of a long avenue. This avenue he entered, and was surprised to notice that the trees closed up again as soon as he had passed, so that none of his retinue were able to follow him. A young and gallant prince is always brave, however; so he continued on his way, and presently reached a large forecourt.
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. (William Morris)
To rend the slumberous curse apart. (William Morris)
The sight that now met his gaze was enough to fill him with an icy fear. The silence of the place was dreadful, and death seemed all about him. The recumbent figures of men and animals had all the appearance of being lifeless, until he perceived by the pimply noses and ruddy faces of the porters, that they merely slept. It was plain, too, from their glasses, in which were still some dregs of wine, that they had fallen asleep while drinking.
The maiden pleasance of the land, Knoweth no stir of voice or hand, No cup the sleeping waters fill,
The restless shuttle lieth still. (William Morris)
The restless shuttle lieth still. (William Morris)
The prince made his way into a great courtyard, paved with marble, and mounting the staircase entered the guardroom. Here the guards were lined up on either side in two ranks, their muskets on their shoulders, snoring their hardest. Through several apartments crowded with ladies and gentlemen in waiting, some seated, some standing, but all asleep, he pushed on, and so came at last to a chamber which was decked all over with gold. There he encountered the most beautiful sight he had ever seen. Reclining upon a bed, the curtains of which on every side were drawn back, was a princess of seemingly some fifteen or sixteen summers, whose radiant beauty had an almost unearthly luster.
Here lies the hoarded love the key, To all the treasure that shall be. Come, fated hand, the gift to take
And smite the sleeping world awake. (William Morris)
And smite the sleeping world awake. (William Morris)
Trembling in his admiration he drew near and went on his knees beside her. At the same moment, the hour of disenchantment having come, the princess awoke, and bestowed upon him a look more tender than a first glance might seem to warrant.
"Is it you, dear prince?" she said. "You have been long in coming!"
Charmed by these words, and especially by the manner in which they were said, the prince scarcely knew how to express his delight and gratification. He declared that he loved her better than he loved himself. His words were faltering, but they pleased the more for that. The less there is of eloquence, the more there is of love.
Her embarrassment was less than his, and that is not to be wondered at, since she had had time to think of what she would say to him. It seems (although the story says nothing about it) that the good fairy had beguiled her long slumber with pleasant dreams. To be brief, after four hours of talking they had not succeeded in uttering one half of the things they had to say to each other.
Now the whole palace had awakened with the princess. Everyone went about his business, and since they were not all in love they presently began to feel mortally hungry. The lady-in-waiting, who was suffering like the rest, at length lost patience, and in a loud voice called out to the princess that supper was served.
The princess was already fully dressed, and in most magnificent style. As he helped her to rise, the prince refrained from telling her that her clothes, with the straight collar which she wore, were like those to which his grandmother had been accustomed. And in truth, they in no way detracted from her beauty.
They passed into an apartment hung with mirrors, and were there served with supper by the stewards of the household, while the fiddles and oboes played some old music and played it remarkably well, considering they had not played at all for just upon a hundred years. A little later, when supper was over, the chaplain married them in the castle chapel, and in due course, attended by the courtiers in waiting, they retired to rest.
They slept but little, however. The princess, indeed, had not much need of sleep, and as soon as morning came the prince took his leave of her. He returned to the city, and told his father, who was awaiting him with some anxiety, that he had lost himself while hunting in the forest, but had obtained some black bread and cheese from a charcoal burner, in whose hovel he had passed the night.
His royal father, being of an easygoing nature, believed the tale, but his mother was not so easily hoodwinked. She noticed that he now went hunting every day, and that he always had an excuse handy when he had slept two or three nights from home. She felt certain, therefore, that he had some love affair.
Two whole years passed since the marriage of the prince and princess, and during that time they had two children. The first, a daughter, was called "Dawn," while the second, a boy, was named "Day," because he seemed even more beautiful than his sister.
Many a time the queen told her son that he ought to settle down in life. She tried in this way to make him confide in her, but he did not dare to trust her with his secret. Despite the affection which he bore her, he was afraid of his mother, for she came of a race of ogres, and the king had only married her for her wealth.
It was whispered at the court that she had ogrish instincts, and that when little children were near her she had the greatest difficulty in the world to keep herself from pouncing on them.No wonder the prince was reluctant to say a word.
The threat of war, the hope of peace, The Kingdom's peril and increase. Sleep on, and bide the latter day When fate shall take her chains away. (William Morris)
But at the end of two years the king died, and the prince found himself on the throne. He then made public announcement of his marriage, and went in state to fetch his royal consort from her castle. With her two children beside her she made a triumphal entry into the capital of her husband's realm.
Some time afterwards the king declared war on his neighbor, the Emperor Cantalabutte. He appointed the queen mother as regent in his absence, and entrusted his wife and children to her care.
He expected to be away at the war for the whole of the summer, and as soon as he was gone the queen mother sent her daughter-in-law and the two children to a country mansion in the forest. This she did that she might be able the more easily to gratify her horrible longings. A few days later she went there and in the evening summoned the chief steward.
"For my dinner tomorrow," she told him, "I will eat little Dawn."
"Oh, Madam!" exclaimed the steward.
"That is my will," said the queen; and she spoke in the tones of an ogre who longs for raw meat.
"You will serve her with piquant sauce," she added.
The poor man, seeing plainly that it was useless to trifle with an ogress, took his big knife and went up to little Dawn's chamber. She was at that time four years old, and when she came running with a smile to greet him, flinging her arms round his neck and coaxing him to give her some sweets, he burst into tears, and let the knife fall from his hand.
Presently he went down to the yard behind the house, and slaughtered a young lamb. For this he made so delicious a sauce that his mistress declared she had never eaten anything so good.
At the same time the steward carried little Dawn to his wife, and bade the latter hide her in the quarters which they had below the yard.
Eight days later the wicked queen summoned her steward again.
"For my supper," she announced, "I will eat little Day."
The steward made no answer, being determined to trick her as he had done previously. He went in search of little Day, whom he found with a tiny foil in his hand, making brave passes -- though he was but three years old -- at a big monkey. He carried him off to his wife, who stowed him away in hiding with little Dawn. To the ogress the steward served up, in place of Day, a young kid so tender that she found it surpassingly delicious.
So far, so good. But there came an evening when this evil queen again addressed the steward.
"I have a mind," she said, "to eat the queen with the same sauce as you served with her children."
This time the poor steward despaired of being able to practice another deception. The young queen was twenty years old, without counting the hundred years she had been asleep. Her skin, though white and beautiful, had become a little tough, and what animal could he possibly find that would correspond to her? He made up his mind that if he would save his own life he must kill the queen, and went upstairs to her apartment determined to do the deed once and for all. Goading himself into a rage he drew his knife and entered the young queen's chamber, but a reluctance to give her no moment of grace made him repeat respectfully the command which he had received from the queen mother.
"Do it! do it!" she cried, baring her neck to him; "carry out the order you have been given! Then once more I shall see my children, my poor children that I loved so much!"
Nothing had been said to her when the children were stolen away, and she believed them to be dead.
The poor steward was overcome by compassion. "No, no, Madam," he declared. "You shall not die, but you shall certainly see your children again. That will be in my quarters, where I have hidden them. I shall make the queen eat a young hind in place of you, and thus trick her once more."
Without more ado he led her to his quarters, and leaving her there to embrace and weep over her children, proceeded to cook a hind with such art that the queen mother ate it for her supper with as much appetite as if it had indeed been the young queen.
The queen mother felt well satisfied with her cruel deeds, and planned to tell the king, on his return, that savage wolves had devoured his consort and his children. It was her habit, however, to prowl often about the courts and alleys of the mansion, in the hope of scenting raw meat, and one evening she heard the little boy Day crying in a basement cellar. The child was weeping because his mother had threatened to whip him for some naughtiness, and she heard at the same time the voice of Dawn begging forgiveness for her brother.
The ogress recognized the voices of the queen and her children, and was enraged to find she had been tricked. The next morning, in tones so affrighting that all trembled, she ordered a huge vat to be brought into the middle of the courtyard. This she filled with vipers and toads, with snakes and serpents of every kind, intending to cast into it the queen and her children, and the steward with his wife and serving girl. By her command these were brought forward, with their hands tied behind their backs.
There they were, and her minions were making ready to cast them into the vat, when into the courtyard rode the king! Nobody had expected him so soon, but he had traveled posthaste. Filled with amazement, he demanded to know what this horrible spectacle meant.
None dared tell him, and at that moment the ogress, enraged at what confronted her, threw herself head foremost into the vat, and was devoured on the instant by the hideous creatures she had placed in it.
The king could not but be sorry, for after all she was his mother; but it was not long before he found ample consolation in his beautiful wife and children.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY
In 1890 Sir Edward Burne-Jones completed his Briar Rose series, four large pictures illustrating the story of Sleeping Beauty. The series had occupied him for almost 30 years. The paintings were bought by Agnew & Sons for £15,000 and exhibited in their gallery. A critic from an accompanying article in The Times said, 'We are accustomed to this evidence of loving care in Mr. Burne-Jones's pictures, but has never been shown before on so large a scale and with such exuberance of fancy as in these four pictures. The world of dreams and fairies has surely never been so prodigally illustrated.'
The Briar Rose series had always been intended for use as decoration. It was bought by Alexander Henderson, who later became the 1st Lord Faringdon. Henderson displayed them in the music room at Buscot Park, his stately home in Oxfordshire, England. When Burne-Jones visited the house soon afterwards whilst staying with Dante Gabriel Rossetti at nearby Kelmscott Manor, he designed a framework of carved and gilt wood for the paintings. Burne-Jones later added 10 smaller connecting scenes so that the pictures form a continuous frieze around the walls. The artist intended visitors to the music room to feel that they had actually stepped into the Briar Wood, finding themselves surrounded by the spellbound sleepers of his imagination
Interior of Burne-Jones room at Buscot Park
Today, the Briar Rose Series can still be found at Buscot Park which is now owned by the National Trust. The Pre-Raphaelite Room at Buscot Park displays paintings by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (Venus Verticordia, Pandora), Lord Leighton (Daedalus and Icarus), G. F. Watts (The Judgement of Paris, The Wife of Pygmalion, The Return of the Dove) and Ford Madox Brown (The Entombment) as well.
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