King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid
Recently ExhibitedNorway, KODE Art Museums and Composer Homes, Edward Burne-Jones: The Pre-Raphaelites and the North, 21 February – 31 May 2020
Mitsubishi Ichigokan Museum, Tokyo, Japan, Parabola of Pre-Raphaelitism – Turner, Ruskin, Rossetti, Burne-Jones and Morris, March to June 2019
Kurume City Art Museum, Japan, Parabola of Pre-Raphaelitism – Turner, Ruskin, Rossetti, Burne-Jones and Morris, June to September 2019
Abeno Harukas Art Museum, Osaka, Japan, Parabola of Pre-Raphaelitism – Turner, Ruskin, Rossetti, Burne-Jones and Morris, October to December 2019
King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid is a smaller, experimental version of the oil painting that hangs in Tate Britain (1884) and the bodycolour, watercolour and pastel cartoon of the same subject in Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery (1883). A gouache and gum arabic picture (1883) of the same subject is in The Lord Lloyd-Webber Collection.
According to a sixteenth century folk ballad, King Cophetua was an African King who, previously immune to female beauty, fell in love at first sight with a beggar maid. Despite her poverty, he took her as his wife and they lived and reigned happily together. The direct inspiration for Burne-Jones came from Tennyson’s poem, The Beggar Maid of 1842 and his art contains the same sense of melancholy. Shakespeare refers to the tale in Love’s Labor’s Lost, in which the girl is called Zenelophon and refers again to it in Romeo and Juliet. The tale is included in Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, published in 1765, where the maid is called Penelophon. The painting is set in an enclosed, ‘richly decorated mausoleum-like structure’ which, it is suggested, is an ‘allusion to the tomb’ in which the King and Maid were interred following their deaths in the original ballad in Percy’s Reliques. Romantically, it hints at a moment frozen in time for eternity. (Pre-Raphaelites, Victorian Avant-Garde, Tate Publishing, 2012, p. 222.)
In its celebration of simplicity and the lowly, before which a king abases himself, Burne-Jones was challenging the materialism of modern life and social hierarchy of his own time. The King is the power figure who bows his head and divests himself of the symbol of his glory and magnificence - his crown - which he holds in his hands while sitting slumped in a reverie gazing up at the innocent and beautiful Beggar Maid. Burne-Jones wrote, ‘that is a type of life I should most love – a centre of beauty so surrounded with beauty that you scarcely notice it – take it for granted – a land where the lowest is as worthy as the King and yet the King is there.’ Here light from the window comes in from the left of the painting and highlights the Beggar Maid - a vision of purity. The man sits in the metaphorical darkness, slumped in a reverie, transfixed by the beauty of the woman. Despite its containment, there is a feeling of depth (internal) and external (perspective) and a sense of a relationship with something remote, complex and implicit, bathed in an ineffable, half-light, dream state.
Throughout his career, Burne-Jones developed the technique of light set against dark. Ruskin, who was a huge influence on Burne-Jones, wrote of the purity of light in all its forms, not only in a composition by Giotto but in natural mountains, flowers, or an innocent young girl. Colour symbolism was also an integral part of this: light colours standing for purity and divine beneficence while dark, murky tones were associated with evil. Here, coming into the light, King Cophetua symbolically moves from the dark towards the light and the spiritual innocence of the Beggar Maid. The male figures in Burne-Jones’s work are often dark, wearing the colours of industry (shiny and metallic), vigorous and earthy, compared to the light, sculptural, gently-curved figure of the female as though she is unreachable or carved from stone, (as in Burne-Jones’s Pygmalion series, where the statue Galatea is brought to life). (Pygmalion and the Image – The Hand Refrains, 1878, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery).
Love was the subject and stimulus for many of Burne-Jones’s most successful works of art. MacCarthy declares that Burne-Jones was ‘never not in love.’ (MacCarthy, The Last Pre-Raphaelite, Edward Burne-Jones and the Victorian Imagination, London, 2011). Often, he depicted love showing the incompatibility of men and women, the femme fatale, or destroyer. Alternatively, the woman may be the redeemer or rescuer. Here the ethereal, untouched and unworldly, Beggar Maid rescues the King from his materialism and corruption: The painting becomes an allegory for contemporary life of sex and power and spirituality and innocence/purity of the soul. Like many artists of his generation, and particularly with exponents of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, there was an emphasis on myth and legend in Burne-Jones’s work and a negation of the Victorian urban landscape in which he grew up. Whilst he was studying at Oxford, Burne-Jones (with his contemporary and life-long friend and business partner, William Morris) developed a growing love of the mediaeval, which formed the backdrop to a criticism of the Victorian standards of design and manufacture and the attitude to art. Many of the subjects that Burne-Jones (and Morris) chose were quest based.
MacCarthy suggests that Burne-Jones ‘stood for the enduring life of the imagination and its importance in countering the growing materialism, the advancing industrialisation, the encroaching moral squalor of the age.’ (MacCarthy, The Last Pre-Raphaelite, Edward Burne-Jones and the Victorian Imagination, London, 2011, p. 285). Searching for an alternative world of beauty, Burne-Jones and Morris believed in the power of art to counteract the spiritual poverty of life. MacCarthy considered that, ‘perhaps of all his paintings this is the one that sums up most exactly [Burne-Jones’s] philosophy of art, his conviction that a life lived through beauty was everybody’s birth-right regardless of their income or their social position.’ (MacCarthy, The Last Pre-Raphaelite, Edward Burne Jones and the Victorian Imagination, London, 2011, p. 341). The radical movement of the period, inspired by William Morris’s lectures and writings, formed itself into the Arts and Crafts Movement Exhibition Society. Georgiana Burne-Jones suggested that the subject of King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid sprang from the same socialist impulse that was taking hold of Morris, although Burne-Jones steered clear of radical socialism and politics and his art was not didactic. The moral meaning of the picture intrigued and stimulated the critics and the public. The stark contrasts between capitalists and underclasses, wide gulfs between factory owners and workers, encapsulated many bitter social conflicts of the Victorian age and established Burne-Jones on a new footing as the most important painter of his time. Edward Burne-Jones rose from being an outsider of British art to be considered one of the greatest artists at the fin de siècle. According to MacCarthy, ‘he had become the licensed escapist of his period, perpetrating an art of ancient myths, magical landscapes, insistent sexual yearnings, that expressed deep psychological needs for his contemporaries. His paintings released forces half-hidden in the deep recesses of the Victorian imagination.’ (MacCarthy, The Last Pre-Raphaelite, Edward Burne-Jones and the Victorian Imagination, London, 2011, p. xix).
The form of King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid is redolent of a stained-glass window with similar structured apertures of light like the tracery of a window. In this version we see clearly the design – the architecture - the perfect balance of the painting. What becomes very apparent is the beauty of the structure and the strong use of uprights and horizontals on a grid system juxtaposed with the placement of the figures creating a harmonious whole. As with stained glass windows, the world has been enclosed in a small narrow area giving a spatial illusion of depth. From 1857, Burne-Jones became a voracious designer of stained-glass windows, an output which he maintained until the end of his life. As a draughtsman, Burne-Jones was extraordinarily proficient and his work shows a sure sense of composition, and affinity with the elongated, enclosed structure of stained glass into which scenes had to be fitted. His stained-glass windows are some of the greatest achievements in his long career and coincided with a period of reawakened feeling for religious ritual and splendour and the building and refurbishment of churches which opened up a profitable market for stained glass.
The composition of King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid evokes also that of a Renaissance altarpiece. Ruskin and G. F. Watts, both Italophiles, led Burne-Jones to the art of Italy. Burne-Jones was fascinated by the elegant and subtle art of fifteenth century Florence and was directly influenced by the art of Fra Angelico (c. 1395-1455), Botticelli (c.1445-1510) and Piero della Francesca (c.1415-1492). This is never more apparent than in his depictions of women. He painted weightless, self-contained, dreamy female figures with a wistful, ethereal beauty and pale, luminous skin. Burne-Jones had a perpetual ‘hunt to find in a face what I like, and leave out what mislikes me.’ (Burne-Jones, Memorials, Volume 1, p. 299); he idealised the beauty of his subjects. The influence of the sumptuous and voluptuous style of the great Venetian artists, such as Giorgione (c. 1477/8-1510), Titian (c.1488/9-1576) and Carpaccio (c. 1465-1525/6) is also apparent in Burne-Jones depiction and love of surface texture and rich, glorious colour. Georgiana Burne-Jones wrote of her husband’s visits to Italy: ‘Now he had seen the way in which great painters of a great time had painted what was in them, and had come back knowing that he was their own son.’