Exhibition catalogue text

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


20 Sidonia von Bork 1560 1860-1

Watercolour and bodycolour 33 x 17 (13 x 6 3/4)
Inscribed '1860 E. Burne Jones. fecit', lower left, and 'Sidonia von Bork 1560' on the original oak boards
Prov: James Leathart; Goupil Gallery 1896; William Graham Robertson; by whom given to the Tate Gallery 1948
Exh: New Gallery 1892 (8, 11); Goupil Gallery 1896 (10, 12); New Gallery 1898 (24); Bradford 1904 (118, 126); Rome 1911 (400, 401); Tate Gallery 1933 (33); RA 1934 (841-2); Newcastle 1968 (26-7); Hayward Gallery 1975 (24); Tate Gallery 1984 (230); Tate Gallery 1993 (2); Nottingham 1994 (4)
Lit: Athenaeum, 1873, p.343; Bell 1892, pp.30-1; G.B.-J. 1904, I, p.215; de Lisle 1904, pp.48-9, 179; Harrison and Waters 1973, p.70; Christian 1973b, pp.100-9; Fitzgerald 1975, pp.73-4

Tate Gallery. Bequeathed by W. Graham Robertson 1948

This watercolour, with its pair, Clara von Bork [Tate Gallery N05878], was inspired by Johannes Wilhelm Meinhold's Sidonia von Bork, die Klosterhexe, translated by Speranza Wilde as Sidonia the Sorceress (1849). Penelope Fitzgerald has called the two watercolours 'his two real apprentice pieces, which mark the beginning of an individual style' (1975, p.73). Burne-Jones's choice of subject reflects the intense interest the book held for the circle of late Pre-Raphaelite artists: Rossetti had first discussed it in a letter to William Allingham in September 1854 (comparing it to Wuthering Heights) and was said to have 'a positive passion' for the book (Ruskin, Works, XXXVI, p.457, n.2). Ruskin was concerned that Ellen Heaton might be shocked: 'You seem mightily scandalised about Sidonia - I have never read the book. Edward [Burne-Jones] told me she was only a witch ... as it was, I saw no more harm in it than in his drawings of Medea and Circe, or any other of his pet witches and mine' (ibid., p.457).

According to Meinhold's story, Sidonia was a woman of great beauty who used her powers of sorcery to destroy innocent lives, and who was particularly vicious and unforgiving to the men who could not prevent themselves from falling in love with her. It was this mixture of beauty with evil, cruelty in sensuality, and invitation mixed with menace, that Rossetti and his circle found so thrilling, and the one that defined the instinct towards submission to female sexual power that is connected with the cult of the 'Stunner'. Burne-Jones's relish for such a subject, and the psychological skill with which he captures the deviousness and mendacity of the figure (modelled on Rossetti's mistress Fanny Cornforth), is revealed absolutely when the drawing is compared to its pendant, the portrait of Sidonia's cousin-in-law the virtuous Clara von Bork (Tate Gallery [N05878]) (for whom Georgiana Macdonald, shortly afterwards to be married to Burne-Jones, served as model) whose innocence is symbolised by her loving protectiveness towards a nest of chicks stalked by a vile cat.

Burne-Jones's Sidonia von Bork was intensely admired by the artist's friend Algernon Swinburne, who was reminded of it by paintings by Filippino Lippi that he saw in Florence in 1864. When Swinburne wrote up his account of the Florentine school he gave himself the opportunity to praise 'Mr E. Burne Jones's nobler drawing of the young Sidonia wearing a gown whose pattern is of branching and knotted snakes, black upon the golden stuff' (Fortnightly Review, 1868, pp.16-40).

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, pp.122-3 no.20, reproduced in colour p.123