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1 THE WHEEL OF FORTUNE
1871-85

SIR EDWARD COLEY BURNE-JONES, Bt.
1833-1898

A gigantic blue-gowned female figure of Fortune, at the left, turns an upright wheel on which are fixed two near naked male figures, one above the other, the upper figure, the Slave, rests his right foot on the crowned head of the King below, beneath the King is the wreathed head and shoulders of a third man, the Poet.

 

 

 


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1 THE WHEEL OF FORTUNE
1871-85

SIR EDWARD COLEY BURNE-JONES, Bt.
1833-1898

Gouache, 114.3 x 53.4 (45 x 21)

Provenance: W.Connal, sale Christie's 14 March 1908 (8), bought Gooden and Fox for 250 gns; Alexander Henderson; H.W.Henderson, sale Christie's 4 June 1948 (44), bought Barbizon House for 100 gns; Cecil French.

Exhibited: Glasgow Institute 1888; Fulham 1967 (5); Sheffield 1971 (105); Arts Council 1975 (124); Fulham 1983 (5).

Literature: Bell, p.63; de Lisle, p.18-3; Fitzger-al-d, pp.140, 245, 305.

A gigantic blue-gowned female figure of Fortune, at the left, turns an upright wheel on which are fixed two near naked male figures, one above the other, the upper figure, the Slave, rests his right foot on the crowned head of the King below, beneath the King is the wreathed head and shoulders of a third man, the Poet.

Fortune's wheel first appears in classical antiquity as a metaphor for the vicissitudes of life for it raises the hopeful and abases the proud. It appears in mediaeval and renaissance art. Burne-Jones would certainly have known of Durer's engraving of Fortune.

There are at least seven versions of The Wheel of Fortune including four oils. The largest and finest of these, 1877-83 (199 x 100), in the Musée d'Orsay (Palais de Tokyo) Paris, was ex-hibited at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1883. Two smaller oil versions are those of 1871-7 (151 x 72.8) in The National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, and c.1882 (152 x 73.7), an unfinished monochrome, in The National Museum of Wales, Cardiff. A further oil (134.6 x 66) was in the collection of Lord Leverhulme, sold Knight, Frank and Rutley, 9-17 November 1925 (1066), the present whereabouts are unknown to the compiler. There are gouaches at Carlisle City Art Gallery, c.1870 (49.5 x 24.1), which differs from the later compositions as Fortune stands within her wheel, and The Watts Gallery Compton, 1871, with companion paintings of Fame, Love and Oblivion (each 30 x 16), which were also in Cecil French's collec-tion.

There are studies for the composition in a sketchbook, c.1882-3, in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, a pencil study for the King (27.1 x 18) of 1879 in the British Museum, 1967-10-14-47, (wrongly inscribed by Burne-Jones as a study for the Slave, a mistake repeated by J.A.Gere in Pre-Raphaelite Drawings in the British Museum, 1994), and a chalk study for the Slave, c.1871 (62.5 x 27.5) in the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.

Fortune, in some versions, was posed for by the actress Lillie Langtry (1853-1929), in about 1876-7. She confirmed this to the Trustees of the National Gallery of Victoria in 1909 and recorded the sittings in her autobiography, The Days I Knew, 1925; "Clad in grey draperies, a tall, very tall figure, I am depicted with resolute and pitiless face, turning a huge wheel on which kings, princes, statesmen, millionaires and others rise, reach the top, and then fall, to be crushed by the ever-revolving wheel of Fate - a cruel picture, but horribly true."

John Christian, in the catalogue of the Tate Gallery Pre-Raphaelite exhibition, 1984, pp.236/7, records that Fortune's head-dress was based on "a quaint little bonnet" designed by Mrs. Comyns Carr, the wife of a director of the Grosvenor Gallery, who was also responsible for several of Ellen Terry's stage costumes.

Burne-Jones began designing The Wheel of Fortune in 1871, after his first visit to Rome, where he had studied the Vatican frescoes. The painting owes obvious debts to Michaelangelo; Fortune is derived from the Sibyls of the Sistine Chapel ceiling and the naked males, with their exaggerated musculature and contraposto poses, are related to the Dying Slave, in the Louvre, The Captives, in the Accademia, Florence, which he had sketched in 1871, and the National Gallery Deposition. The painting was developed from the left hand composition of four upright allegorical designs, the others being Fame, Love and Oblivion, which divided the predella panels of a projected Troy Triptych conceived by Burne-Jones in 1870. The scheme was never carried out but is recorded in an unfinished oil, mainly by assistants, in Birmingham City Art Gallery (273 x 294.6) begun in 1870.

The design of the Troy Triptych is in the form of an Italian Renaissance altarpiece which Harrison and Waters, p.103, identify as Mantegna's San Zeno Triptych, painted 1475-59, in Verona, which Burne-Jones saw during his stay in Italy in 1862.

The Trojan Wars were of abiding interest to Burne-Jones and William Morris, Morris's Trojan poems, published posthumously, were written between 1857 and 1863 and Burne-Jones's projected Trojan murals, for William and Jane Morris's first home, Red House, Bexleyheath, were devised in 1861. According to Burne-Jones the subject still fascinated them in the 1890s.

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