The last and greatest work by Edward Burne-Jones, The Sleep of Arthur in Avalon (1881-1898), will return to the UK from Puerto Rico for the first time in forty years when it goes on display as part of the major re-hang of the BP British Art Displays at Tate Britain in April 2008.
This enormous painting, measuring over six metres in width, is being loaned to Tate Britain with Frederic Leighton’s masterpiece Flaming June (1895) from the Museo de Arte de Ponce, Puerto Rico, while its galleries undergo a major renovation and expansion programme during 2008. These important British Victorian paintings will be shown alongside other masterpieces of late Victorian art from the Tate Collection.
Burne-Jones’s magnificent The Sleep of King Arthur in Avalon (1881-1898) was purchased for the Museo de Arte de Ponce in Puerto Rico by the island’s governor and founder of the museum, the benefactor Don Luis Ferré, in 1963. The vast canvas measures 279 x 650 cm and will be the subject of a one-room, in-focus display alongside related studies.
Flaming June, a favourite of Don Luis Ferré, was last shown in the UK in 1996 and has become an iconic work in Puerto Rico. The picture was one of the artist’s final works and shows a woman in a state of total relaxation, with brilliant orange drapery stretched across her body, as she sleeps in the heat of the Mediterranean sun. The theme of sleep and its associations with death and unconsciousness was important to both Leighton and Burne-Jones, and has additional resonance in these two works that were painted towards the end of the artists’ lives.
Described as his magnum opus, The Sleep of King Arthur in Avalon was the culmination of Burne-Jones’s career. Originally commissioned by his patron George Howard, Earl of Carlisle, to hang on a wall in the library of Naworth Castle, it was started in 1881 and Burne-Jones worked on it for 17 years; he even moved into a studio large enough for the purpose, but died before it was complete. The painting became increasingly autobiographical for the artist as he withdrew into himself. Towards the end of his life he wrote, “I need nothing but my hands and my brain to fashion myself a world to live in that nothing can disturb. In my own land I am king of it.”
Following the artist’s death the painting with its magnificent frame with Latin inscription passed to a neighbour of Burne-Jones’s whose descendents, John and Penryn Monck, sold the work at Christie’s on 26 April 1963. Even at a time when Victorian art was unfashionable, the sale was considered a significant loss to Britain.
Tate Britain has entered into a unique collaboration with the Museo de Arte de Ponce (MAP), Puerto Rico, which holds a major collection of British art. The collaboration aims to develop long-term relationships between the curatorial departments at both institutions in order to encourage a broader international understanding of the rich collections of nineteenth-century British Art in both MAP and Tate Britain. As part of the collaboration, Tate Britain Curators Alison Smith and Robert Upstone have been cataloguing the British works in the collection in Puerto Rico.
Tate Britain’s annual rehang of its collection presents several new themes and gallery displays in its story of British art. This year’s highlights include: the return of the Hogarth paintings after the recent tour of the Hogarth exhibition; an in-focus display of Andrea Soldi’s Portrait of Henry Lannoy Hunter in Oriental Dress, Resting from Hunting, with a Manservant Holding Game c.1733-6, which will be on display for the first time since it was acquired in 2004; Vorticism, including the work of Wyndham Lewis and David Bomberg; a display of Victor Pasmore’s paintings, reliefs and sculpture to celebrate the centenary of his birth; the early work of Robyn Denny; and Collage Montage Assemblage, Kurt Schwitters to Tracy Emin.