"Originally designed for the large work 'Arthur in Avalon' to form part of its atmosphere. Five figures stand nude on the steps of the rocks as it were the embodied spirits of the hills. A natural arch roofs them over and a spring gushes forth into a pool below." — Robert Benson
"This and its companion picture, under the same number, represent a part of the design for the 'Arthur in Avalon', which was not adopted in the final form given to it by the painter." — New Gallery Catalogue 1898
"In the original scheme was a central picture of the sleeping king, and on each side another narrow one containing what he called Hill Fairies — the magical side of the story being thus insisted on." — Lady Burne-Jones 1904
Hill Fairies (a pair) by Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones, Bt ARA (1833-1898). 1893. Oil on canvas, 73 x 24 inches, 85.5 x 61 centimetres
These two large upright paintings were originally designed to hang either side of The Sleep of King Arthur in Avalon, Burne-Jones' masterpiece. They were separated at the time of the Burne-Jones studio sale, briefly reunited for the memorial exhibition at the New Gallery in 1898 and have now been reunited after almost a hundred years.
Burne-Jones was originally commissioned to paint Arthur in Avalon by his patron George Howard, Earl of Carlisle, in 188 1. The painting, which at over twenty feet long, is the largest of all Burne-Jones's surviving pictures, was originally designed to hang in the library at Naworth Castle, Cumberland, "but", wrote Lady Burne-Jones, "the idea of it lay deep in Edward's mind and the scope of it grew until it ceased to suit its original purpose, and Mr George Howard resigned his claim upon it", satisfying himself instead with a relief by Sir Joseph Boehm of Flodden Field based on Burne-Jones's design. "There it remained for nearly ten years; advancing slowly, but the thought of it constantly upon him."
Originally, according to Lady Burne-Jones, the Hill Fairies were to have surrounded the central picture of the sleeping king and at some stage too he "purposed that Arthur's quiet resting place should have a background of battle raging on the outer world" (Idem). The composition would therefore have been in the form of an enormous triptych. However, both these schemes were rejected in favour of a quieter scheme of the central bower flanked by three girls. A photograph by Frederick Hollyer of the painting in progress shows Burne-Jones experimenting with the triptych idea — these are very similar rock formations to those found in the background to the Hill Fairies but these were later painted out apparently at the request of Helen Mary Gaskell and flowers were substituted. Harrison and Waters suggest that the reason for these changes were that the "fleshy, Michelangelesque figures" were "out of sympathy with the later concepts". Burne-Jones therefore removed them "reducing the reference to this part of the story to the three girls standing at the outer limits of the composition". In the end only the central panel was retained from the original scheme though the Hill Fairies remained in the studio.
Arthur in Avalon, or The Sleep of Arthur in Avalon as it later became, was to occupy Burne-Jones for the rest of his life. It was still not finished to his satisfaction at the time of his death. He strongly identified with the figure of Arthur and saw in the Sleep of Arthur a metaphor for his own approaching death to the point of adopting the position of his hero when he slept and frequently referring to the painting as a place -- "I am at Avalon, not yet in Avalon" and putting the name Avalon as an address on one of his letters.
After Burne-Jones's death the Hill Fairies were sold in the artist's studio sale at Christies (Saturday 16 July 1898 lots 86 and 87). Lot 86, the male group, was bought by Agnews for E325. 10s and acquired through them by SirJohn Holford; lot 87, the female group, was bought by Grosvenor Gallery for E 105 in the same sale. For thirty years, the male group hung in the Holford collection at Dorchester House, one of the most important nineteenth century collections of old master paintings in England. It was one of only a handful of modern pictures in the collection. It passed from the collection to David Grieg an important collector of Victorian pictures. The Sleep of Arthur in Avalon hung for a time in the dining room of Walpole House, the Mall, Chiswick and is now in the Museo de Arte, Ponce, Puerto Rico.
In the New Gallery exhibition it was exhibited separately from the Hill Fairies which were instead hung either side of a large tapestry from his Grail series. One of Burne-jones's last projects was to provide a series of designs for costumes and scenery for Comyns Carr's King Arthur performed at the Lyceum under Henry Irving's direction in 1904, and it was Comyns Carr who was invited to write the introduction to the memorial exhibition. He wrote of the "unfinished Avalon, wherein it would seem he had designed to give us all that was most winning in the brightly coloured dreams of youth, combined with all that was richest in the gathered resource of maturity". The Hill Fairies panels reunited after almost a century, convey this combination of youthfulness and maturity and as the original flanking panels of his greatest work, "his cherished design... a task of love to which he put no limit of time or labour" (Memorials II page 116) give us a unique insight into the art of his closing years.
Males: The Executors of the Artist, 1898; (Males) The artist's 1st studio sale, Christies, July 1898; Col. Sir John Holford, KCVO CIE CBE, the Holford Collection, Dorchester House; David Grieg, from 1928; by descent of the family.
Females: The Executors of the Artist, 1898; The artist's first studio sale, Christies, July 1898, lot 87, 100 gns to Grosvenor; The Hon. Norman Grosvenor to his daughter Susan Mrs John Buchan (later Lady Tweedsmuir); by descent in the family.
Peter Nahum Ltd, London has most generously given its permission to use in the Victorian Web information, images, and text from its catalogues, and this generosity has led to the creation of hundreds of the site's most valuable documents on painting, drawing, and sculpture. The copyright on text and images from their catalogues remains, of course, with Peter Nahum Ltd.
Burne-Jones, Lady. Memorials of Edward Burne-Jones. 2 vols. London: 1904.
Newall, Christopher. A Celebration of British and European Painting of the 19th and 20th Centuries. London: Peter Nahum, nd [1999?].
Waters, Bill, and Martin Harrison. Burne-Jones. London: 1973.
Last modified 5 June 2020