Exhibition catalogue text

Catalogue entry from The Age of Rossetti, Burne-Jones & Watts: Symbolism in Britain 1860-1910


21 Clerk Saunders 1861

Watercolour 69.9 x 41.8 (27 1/2 x 16 1/2)
Inscribed 'E.B.J. | 1861', b.r.
Prov: Henry Tanworth Wells, RA; Mrs Winifred Hadley, by whom presented to the Tate Gallery 1927
Exh: New Gallery 1898 (1); Tate Gallery 1933 (4); Tate Gallery 1993 (7)
Lit: Bell 1892, p.34; G.B.-J. 1904, I, p.224; de Lisle 1904, pp.58, 179, repr. opp. p.58; Harrison and Waters 1973, pp.45, 75, pl.5, repr. in col.

Tate Gallery. Presented by Mrs Winifred Hadley through the National Art Collections Fund 1927

An intense interest in the folk ballads of the Border country had grown up among the members of the Rossetti circle since about 1856. Walter Scott's collection of ballads Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, gathered together from the surviving oral tradition and published in 1802-3, were much loved. In 1856 Elizabeth Siddal embarked on a watercolour of Clerk Saunders, based on Scott's poem (the drawing was lent to the 1857 Russell Place Pre-Raphaelite exhibition), and from 1858 until 1861 Swinburne (always proud of his Northumberland roots) devoted himself to gathering together a further collection of folk ballads of the Border country (published as Ballads of the English Border, 1925), which supplemented that of Scott's Minstrelsy. Burne-Jones's drawing Clerk Saunders reflects this preoccupation, and may be seen as a gesture of friendship to Swinburne, to whom he was very close in the early 1860s.

According to the catalogue of the New Gallery Burne-Jones memorial exhibition, this watercolour shows the moment when 'Clerk Saunders entreats May Margaret to let him into her house; she faintly repels him.' The rain pours down on the exhausted couple, but she hesitates to allow him into her father's house, knowing how her family will react if they believe that Saunders has seduced her. Swinburne sets the scene in the opening verses of his version of the ballad:

It was a sad and rainy night
As ever rained frae town to town,
Clerk Saunders and his lady gay,
They were in the Welds sae brown.

'A bed, a bed,' Clerk Saunders cried,
'A bed, a bed, let me lie down;
For I am sae weet, and sae wearie,
That I canna gae, nor ride frae town.'
'A bed, a bed,' his lady cried,
A bed, a bed, ye'll ne'er get nane.

For I hae seven bauld brethren,
Bauld are they, and very rude,
And if they find ye in bower wi' me,
They winna care to spill your blood.'

The poem has a tragic outcome, for May Margaret does in fact take pity on Saunders and he is discovered in her bed. Six of her brothers spare him, but the seventh kills him. Swinburne's version of the ballad ends with Margaret's father's attempting to comfort his daughter, but being rebuffed, while in Scott's the ghost of Clerk Saunders appears at Margaret's window to take his leave of her. Margaret asks him to kiss her farewell, but he resists: '"My mouth it is full cold, Margaret, / It has the smell, now, of the ground; / And if I kiss your comely mouth, / Thy days of life will not be lang.'

Christopher Newall

Published in:
Andrew Wilton, Robert Upstone, and others, The Age of Rossetti, Burne-Jones & Watts: Symbolism in Britain 1860-1910, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1997, p.124 no.21, reproduced in colour p.124