Burne-Jones, Love Among the Ruins (oil version signed and dated: 23rd April 1894, Wightwick Manor)

Love Among the Ruins was first exhibited in 1873 (although Burne-Jones did not sign and date it until 1894) at the Dudley Gallery. Instantly recognised as a masterpiece, it was exhibited frequently, not least at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1878 and again at the inaugural exhibition of the Birmingham Art Gallery in 1885-86. The ever bitchy Whistler took great joy at the damage the watercolour version was subjected to when Goupil’s washed the picture with egg white, for the 1893 Paris exhibition, because ‘they take his oils for watercolours, and his watercolours for oils’.

This splendidly rich gouache and watercolour version (which sat on Burne-Jones easel for three years and then again when he restored the 1893 damage,) has not been seen in public for over a hundred years. It came onto the open market earlier this year with an estimated price of £3 – £5m, but sold yesterday for a staggering £14.8 million.

Portrait of Maria Zambaco
Burne-Jones, Portrait of Maria Zambaco (1870)

Love Among the Ruins could well be cited as testimony to the failed love affair between Burne-Jones and Maria Zambaco, who, in case you aren’t well versed, was a wealthy Greek heiress. Once again, we are met with the increasingly dull anecdotes of the Pre-Raphaelite lives: the opium, the affairs, the monkeys, the deaths, the babies, the suicides, the poetry, the art. It seems almost as if today’s attributed importance of these things is in this self same order, where worryingly we arrive at the art lastly. Does it make any difference if it is incontrovertible fact that Burne-Jones and Zambaco planned (and failed) a double suicide? Does it make any difference if it was only Zambaco who threw herself into the Thames? Are we seeking to recreate such a hoo-ha? Why should any of this white noise matter to us?

We should seek our focus upon the art, and perhaps upon the poetry from which it was drawn. Inevitably personal experiences shape a man, indeed they have great impact upon our individual choices, but we must seek to widen our understanding if we are to retrieve any true value from such a force majeure as Love Among the Ruins. Let us turn briefly to the poetry (not to the tawdry long since past, love affair). The eternal poetry of Browning.

Browning’s poem Love Among the Ruins (1855) has a somewhat disjointed feel to it. The trochaic couplets are jolted by three syllable lines of staccato rhythm. The intonation of the poem moves from ancient glory to humble love. The voice speaks of past riches and grandeur and it is not until the fourth stanza that we are introduced to the love which we know lays among the ruins of this now departed city grandeur. The girl awaits her lover, her golden hair a glow and her eyes ‘eager’, beckoning him (or us?) toward her. He (us?) knows that ‘she looks now, breathless, dumb Till I come’ Another Lady of Shalott, trapped within the confines of an embowered prison. Embowered by thorny briars and broken down majesty.

So does Burne-Jones’ painting mimic or portray Browning’s words? Is this a form of art writing? Should we accept this as mere illustration? I think that suggestion soon runs out of steam, just as the reliance upon the tragic love affair of Zambaco and Burne-Jones equally falls short of any meaningful analysis.1

As is typical of the time, we find the poem and the art are both toying and playing with Italian influences. We should research and value these aspects more than the Christie’s view that Burne-Jones was intent to ‘immortalize their [Burne-Jones and Zambaco’s] love’.2

Wood describes Burne-Jones as ‘depicting a romantic but pensive couple’. He references the strongly Italianate architecture but also, sensibly, discusses the affair and its demise as an acknowledged influence upon the mood of the work without indulging in the affair’s gory details. The colour is clearly Venetian in feel and who could not fall in love with the melancholic glory of the painting? The added layer of real life misery does not affect the melancholic languor which inhabits the painting. The figures are mournful, lost, reflective and yet enraptured within one another. They are each, the other.

There is a silence which is surprisingly quiet, not aggressive or challenging. It is a consoling nothingness, with no urgency to move or rise from within the space this couple find themselves. They have all they need in each other, just as Browning suggests ‘Love is the best’. Burne-Jones’ figures are forever enthroned in the majesty of their love, with their courtly robes and music as their attendants. They are time avoiding, they are eternal, perpetual and unreachable. We can only adore them from afar, and they are safe in spite of the ruins that engulfs them. They have overcome such devastation and love remains their lyrical, spiritual and physical companion.

This piece of pure romance, is indeed a heart felt one. Burne-Jones, no doubt, had experience. But this painting is an allegory, a representation of something eternal. Burne-Jones, forever the chaser of youthful dream, captures a moment of lovers bliss. They are both locked within and without. They represent an aesthetic timelessness. Beautiful and poetic.

But it is only one moment that is captured here. It is not the whole story of love, nor is it of Burne-Jones’ love, nor should we accept it as any definition of aestheticism. The way we should approach this painting, is with love itself.

1* A Victorian moral pre-occupation?