‘The Wizard’ by Sir Edward Burne-Jones

The Wizard

The Wizard by Sir Edward Burne-Jones

Accession number: 1912P17

Date: 1896-1898

The characters Prospero and Miranda from Shakespeare’s final comedy, The Tempest, are suggested by this unfinished oil painting. Contemporary nineteenth-century furniture and instruments are joined by more occult contraptions and ornaments, and the figures are richly adorned in deep blue, purple, brown and green fabrics – keyed together by the shared pink in elements of their attire. There is great attention to detail, but also spaces of obscurity and darkness; the palette is in fact relatively subdued compared with the vibrancy of many of Burne-Jones’ works. Sunlight streams through an ajar window in the far background of the painting, but the light reflected on the face of the female figure comes from the magical mirror that the magician draws a curtain aside to reveal. A ‘brave vessel’ (Act I Scene II, l. 6) can be seen in the glass, capsized in dark, stormy waters.

It seems fitting that Burne-Jones, late in his own life, should turn to Shakespeare’s late play, which has tended to be read biographically, and which is concerned with the problems of art and legacy. If, as Coleridge claimed, Prospero is ‘the very Shakespeare, as it were, of the tempest’,[1] then perhaps the wizard of this painting symbolizes the artist in the act of revealing the power of his art to a young woman. So many of Burne-Jones’ paintings had featured sirens and fatal women, but here sorcery and the power to direct sexual attraction are combined in the male figure.[2] Shakespeare’s Prospero supplanted the witch Sycorax as ruler of the island, but at the close of the play he recognizes their similarity by claiming responsibility for Caliban: ‘this thing of darkness I / Acknowledge mine.’ (Act V Scene I, ll. 309-10). Perhaps Burne-Jones drew upon the symbolic resonance of Shakespeare’s master conjurer in order to explore the relationship between his painterly creations and the women that had inspired them – to suggest an inextricability between the projected and the projector.

Thomas Knowles

[1] Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Notes on The Tempest’ in Terence Hawkes ed. Coleridge on Shakespeare: a selection of the essays, notes and lectures of Samuel Taylor Coleridge on the poems and plays of Shakespeare. Coleridge, Samuel Taylor, 1772-1834 (London: Penguin, 1969).

[2] See, for instance, Joseph Kestner, ‘Edward Burne-Jones and Nineteenth-Century Fear of Women’, Biography, Vol. 7, No. 2 (Spring 1984), pp. 95-122.