Illustration: Edward Burne-Jones. The Rose Bower, 1890.
There are always many avenues for which an individual can gain inspiration and no more so than in the world of dream and fantasy. Whatever medium you work in story-telling throws up so many possibilities as to style, so many narratives, and so many questions. Personally, I think the great strength of interpretation of myth, legend, and story is the fact that as far as visuals are concerned, any number of elements can be woven into a story line. Personal or general details are open to the individual perspective, which in many respects is everyone's most valuable asset, the idea that we all see the world entirely from our own perspective. The same, of course, is also true for the worlds of the fantasy and the dream.
Edward Burne-Jones is one of those Victorian painters that used dream and fantasy to great effect. His paintings, whether singular or in a series, tend to seduce us with their languid nature and their intoxicating narrative, but they also have copious amounts of textile-based props, as well as decorative details and plenty of deep, rich colour, enough for most afficionados of the sensual.
Illustration: Edward Burne-Jones. The Garden Court, 1890.
I have chosen, out of all of Burne-Jones painting work the small series of paintings entitled Legend of the Briar Rose. The series was based on a Brothers Grimm retelling of a traditional fairy tale; to us it would be our modern day Sleeping Beauty. The four paintings that make up the series are entitled, The Briar Wood, The Council Chamber, The Garden Court, and The Rose Bower. Although they were started much earlier in concept, they were all completed by 1890. Although it always seems as if Burne-Jones took years to complete compositions, we have to remember that he spent much of his career producing multiple design work for markets as diverse as stained glass, tapestry and ceramics, much of which were commissioned by Morris and Co, as well as his own fine art painting work.
Interestingly, the four paintings shown in this article are not part of a sequential series, but are in fact glimpses of the story taken at the same time, but from different perspectives and locations within the narrative of the story. Therefore, each picture shows a different set of people slumbering at the same time, whether in the Briar Wood, Council Chamber, Garden Court, or Rose Bower.
To fill in a little detail about each section of the series, the briar rose of the title can be seen in every painting and each composition came with a verse courtesy of William Morris. The verse ran along the bottom of each of the paintings.
Illustration: Edward Burne-Jones. The Council Chamber, 1890.
The first painting shown The Rose Bower, shows Sleeping Beauty asleep amongst her attendants with the briar rose showing itself in the background. The Morris verse of poetry that went with this title was as follows,
Here lies the hoarded love the key
To all the treasure that shall be
Come fated heart the gift to take
And smite the sleeping world awake.
The second painting shown in this article is The Garden Court, showing weavers as they fell asleep amongst their loom, the briar rose is of course fully visible as it begins to entangle itself around the sleepers. The Morris verse of poetry for this title was as follows,
The maiden plaisance of the land
Knoweth no stir of voice or hand
No cup the sleeping waters fill
The restless shuttle lieth still.
The third painting shown is entitled The Council Chamber, which shows the King asleep on his thrown as well as members of his Council. The briar rose entangles itself amongst the soldiers that can just be seen in the distant background. The Morris verse of poetry for this title was as follows,
The threat of war the hope of peace
The Kingdoms peril and increase
Sleep on and bide the latter day
When fate shall take her chain away.
Illustration: Edward Burne-Jones. The Briar Wood, 1890.
The last painting that can be seen in this article is that of The Briar Wood. This shows the discovery of the sleeping soldiers amongst the briar rose, giving the clue that the four paintings are set long after the original curse. The waking knight could well be Prince Charming, or perhaps he is just one of many suitors that is about to fail. I like the idea that even though Burne-Jones might well have stated who the standing man was, you can still weave your own interpretation as to who he might really be. The Morris verse of poetry for this last title makes it quite clear who the standing knight is, but interpretation can still be a personal one, there are no real barriers.
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.
I suppose what I am trying to say is that no one can really take your unique perspective away from you. Everyone on the planet could have the same observation at exactly the same moment in time and there would still be seven billion different variations of that event, all valid and all true to the individual. The truth lies in the eye of the beholder and every beholder sees their own truth.
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