Exhibition catalogue text

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


40 King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid 1884

Oil on canvas 293.4 x 135.9 (115 1/2 x 53 1/2)
Inscribed 'EBJ 18 | 84' b.l.
Prov: Purchased from the artist by the first Earl of Wharncliffe 1884, from whose executors bt by subscription by the Tate Gallery 1900
Exh: Grosvenor Gallery 1884 (69); Paris 1889; New Gallery 1892 (62); New Gallery 1898 (98); Tate Gallery 1933 (59); Hayward Gallery 1975 (146)
Lit: Art Journal, 1884, p.189; Art Journal, 1894, p.23; Magazine of Art, 1898, pp.515, 522; Bell 1903, pp.59, 62; G.B.-J. 1904, I, p.253, II, pp.85, 134-5, 139, 146, 201; de Lisle 1907, pp.1-2, 126-7, 168, 185; Ironside and Gere 1948, p.46; Harrison and Waters 1973, pp.141-5, col. pl.34; Taylor 1973, pp.148-55

Tate Gallery. Presented by subscribers 1900

Cophetua was an ancient African king who disdained women and was immune to love. However, one day he saw a beggar girl, and, falling instantly in love with her, vowed to make her his queen. Burne-Jones drew upon two sources for the subject. Richard Johnson's ballad 'A Song of a Beggar and a King' (1612), reprinted by the Percy Society in 1842, supplied such details as the colour of the maid's dress: 'As he out of his window lay / He saw a beggar all in grey'. Tennyson's poem 'The Beggar Maid' provided the mood of intense admiration:

Her arms across her breast she laid;
She was more fair than words can say:
Barefooted came the beggar maid
Before the king Cophetua.
In robe and crown the king stept down,
To meet and greet her on her way:
'It is no wonder,' said the lords,
'She is more beautiful than day.'

As shines the moon in clouded skies,
She in her poor attire was seen:
One praised her ankles, one her eyes,
One her dark hair and lovesome mien.
So sweet a face, such angel grace,
In all that land had never been:
Cophetua swore a royal oath:
'This beggar maid shall be my queen!'

Burne-Jones's visual inspiration is evidently the Italian quattrocento. Several writers have compared the composition with Mantegna's Madonna della Vittoria (Mus?e du Louvre, Paris) of which Burne-Jones owned a photograph. Carlo Crivelli's Annunciation, which entered the London National Gallery in 1864, seems to have provided him with the idea for the elaborate architectural setting and sumptuous decorative details. Gail Weinberg has suggested the source of the beggar maid's garment may be the figure of St John in Mantegna's altarpiece in the National Gallery, and connotations of sanctified poverty appropriate to both St John and the maid add weight to this.

Studies in a sketchbook in use in the mid-1870s indicate that by this date Burne-Jones had already decided upon the high and narrow format and the general disposition of the figures (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge; see Duncan Robinson's letter, Apollo, June 1973, p.626). Most of the work on the painting, however, seems to have taken place in 1883 and 1884, Burne-Jones taking great pains over it: 'I work daily at Cophetua and his Maid. I torment myself every day ... But I will kill myself or else Cophetua shall look like a King and the beggar like a Queen, such as Kings and Queens ought to be'. (G.B.-J. 1904, I, p.253). Burne-Jones wrote to Mrs Wyndham on 23 April 1884 that 'This very hour I have ended my work on my picture. I am very tired of it - I can see nothing more in it, I have stared it out of all countenance and it has no word for me. It is like a child that one watches without ceasing till it grows up, and lo! it is a stranger' (G.B.-J. 1904, II, p.139).

The picture was exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery that spring, where it attracted considerable attention and praise, the Art Journal noting 'It is the idea, the inspiration of this picture which makes it so fine, and raises it to the level of the work of the great masters of a bygone age' (1884, p.189). Five years later when it was shown at the Paris Universal Exhibition in 1889, it aroused even greater enthusiasm, and Burne-Jones was rewarded by the French government with the Cross of the Legion of Honour. The theme of the inferiority of riches and power of love, and the rejection of the material for the spiritual held particular relevance for a French generation influenced by Symbolist writers and artists who had promulgated similar ideas. In England the theme can be compared with the rejection of Mammon in pictures by Watts (no.52) and Evelyn De Morgan (no.97). Lady Burne-Jones stressed the importance of this aspect of King Cophetua and noted that her husband painted it

during the divergence of opinion between himself and Morris, on the subject of Socialism, bringing it to an end soon after Morris joined the Democratic Federation. The thought of the King and the Beggar lay deep in both their minds and the reception of 'Cophetua' in Paris by some who saw it there in 1889 proves how strongly it impressed on them a distinct meaning. M. de la Sizeranne writes that it seemed to himself and his friends as though in standing before it they had 'come from the Universal Exhibition of wealth to see the symbolical expression of the Scorn of Wealth'.
(G.B.-J. 1904, II, p.139)
There may also be more personal dimensions to the picture. The beggar maid's face looks very much like Georgiana Burne-Jones, as shown for instance by the similarity to her husband's 1883 portrait of her (private collection; repr. Hayward Gallery 1975, no.236). The picture exhibited here might therefore also represent the artist's feelings for his wife, and the lack of importance of worldly reward in comparison to their affection. However, their marriage had not been untroubled, as Edward's affair with Maria Zambaco and his conflicting loyalties testified. Indeed, Taylor has proposed that the maid can be identified as Frances Graham, on whom Burne-Jones doted, but who to his distress married John Horner in 1883 (see Taylor 1973, pp.148-55). The inclusion of anemones in the picture, symbols of rejected love, may support this, for they do not Wt the story of Cophetua. Their significance might equally, however, be a comment on the relationship between the Burne-Jones's.

This picture was particularly admired by Fernand Khnopff, who in his obituary of Burne-Jones in the Magazine of Art gave a rhapsodic account of his first encounter with it in at the Universal Exhibition in Paris in 1889:

there appeared, like a queen, supreme and glorious, the lovely picture by Burne-Jones, 'King Cophetua and the Beggar-Maid,' in the place of honour, the centre of a panel, with its beautiful frame of pale gold pilasters ornamented with scrolls.

Before the pallid beggar-maid, still shivering in her little grey gown, sits the king clad in brilliant black armour, who, having surrendered to her his throne of might, has taken a lower place on the steps of the dais. He holds on his knees the finely modelled crown of dark metal lighted up with the scarlet of rubies and coral, and his face, in clear-cut profile, is raised in silent contemplation. The scene is incredibly sumptuous: costly stuffs glisten and gleam, luxurious pillows of purple brocade shine in front of chased gold panelling, and the polished metal reflects the beggar-maid's exquisite feet, adorable feet - their ivory whiteness enhanced by contrast with the scarlet anemones that lie here and there. Two chorister-boys perched above are singing softly, and in the distance, between the hanging curtains, is seen a dream, so to speak, of an autumn landscape, its tender sky already dusk, expressing all sweet regret, all hope in vain for the things that are no more, the things that can never be. In this exquisite setting the two figures remain motionless, isolated in their absorbed reverie, wrapped in the interior life.

How perfectly delightful were the hours spent in long contemplation of this work of intense beauty! One by one the tender and precious memories were revived, the recondite emotions of past and present life, making one more and more in love with their superb realisation in this marvellous picture. The spectator was enwrapped by this living atmosphere of dream-love and of spiritualised fire, carried away to a happy intoxication of soul, a dizziness that clutched the spirit and bore it high up, far, far away ...
(Khnopff 1898, p.522)

Robert Upstone

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, pp.147-9 no.40, reproduced in colour p.148