Thursday, July 24, 2008

The Sleep of Arthur In Avalon....

...almost slept forever....with the fishes.

My fiancee and I have enjoyed watching the BBC series The Private Life of a Masterpiece, which documents a different masterpiece in 1 hour programs exploring the entire history of the artwork, from conception to modern re-interpretation.

Thanks to the owner of for bringing my attention to this article, via the forums on his site. Burne-Jones' final masterpiece was almost destroyed 30 years ago. The story is below:

In the winter after his death, Arthur at Avalon was first seen by the public in a memorial exhibition. It was subsequently sold to Charles Goldman, a collector who in 1929 offered to sell it to the Tate; when the offer was refused, he lent it instead. There it was last exhibited in 1933, the centenary of the painter's birth. It remained on loan until April 1962, but at some point, probably in August 1939 when the Tate evacuated its paintings in preparation for the Second World War, it was removed from its stretcher, rolled, and put into a stout box some half-metre square and three metres long. In that it stayed undisturbed until 1963, when Goldman's heirs consigned it to Christie's, where I was then working, for inclusion in a sale by auction on Friday 26 April.

The box containing the canvas was not delivered until the previous Friday, 19 April. From a small black and white photograph I had to concoct a cata logue entry for a picture that no one had seen for 30 years and that played no part in the then available literature; it was thus with particular interest that I watched its arrival in the lofty anteroom, the unscrewing of the lid and the myriad spiders that scuttled from the box. The vast canvas was then gently unrolled on the floor, obstinate in its curvature, and the mass of webs and other arachnid detritus removed from it. How could we display so large a canvas without a stretcher? As a tapestry on a tapestry bar, I decided, but not one in the house was six metres long and another had to be procured. With the canvas tacked to it by the raw edge that had formerly folded over the original stretcher, it was hauled up the wall with a dozen of us supporting it to ensure that the inevitable inverted curvature was kept as open as possible. It worked. The canvas, however, was much weightier than any tapestry.

Christie's chairman, Peter Chance, then came in to see the masterpiece. Demure, a pink and silver man, short, stout and erect, he strode to its very centre and within a pace of it; at that moment the weight of the canvas began to tear it from the bar. Poor Peter reached to press it against the wall, but the avalanche could not be stopped, the canvas ripped away, curled forward and enclosed him in its vastness. Instead of standing still, he panicked, fought his way out of the belly of this whale, dishevelled, and the canvas lay face down, a crumpled heap.
The one thing that must never be done with a painted canvas is to roll it face in, but that is more or less what happened in its fall. When we reversed it and flattened it we saw the consequences — flaked paint lay thickly on the floor, the whole width of the canvas where flowers fill the foreground, the area of heaviest initial impact, was extensively damaged, and the widespread random damages elsewhere reflected the chair-man's efforts to escape.

I called Joan Seddon, old friend and Courtauld Institute contemporary, a distinguished conservator of paintings then working on the restoration of Mantegna's Triumphs at Hampton Court. We had until 9am on Monday morning, when the picture was officially on view — some 30 working hours, we thought — in which to camouflage the damages. Lying on cushions on the canvas Joan began work at the top, and I, on my knees, began at the bottom on the easier business of repairing the crudely painted flowers. Thirty hours were not enough and we worked through the night on Sunday.

During the week of the sale not a word was said by anyone. Did no one notice how much of Arthur at Avalon had been damaged? And if they did, did they assume that the damages were old? When the painting was bought by the museum in Puerto Rico, it was relined, cleaned and stretched before being framed and installed in a specially constructed room —- did none of the experts responsible for these procedures not notice how much of the paint was new? Or were all the damages stripped and re-restored without a word to the new owner? Looking at the painting now, 45 years later almost to the day, under the uneven glister of a patchy varnish, I could identify very few of Joan's interventions, but was appalled by the crude quality of the irises, blue-bells and forget-me-nots —- is any one of them by Burne-Jones himself, or are they all by one of the 20 assistants he once had, by Thomas Rooke, by me and subsequent restorers?


Meredith said...

Hi! Found your blog interesting. I have syndicated it on livejournal so other's can follow it.

Grace said...

How nice! Thank you :)