IT would seem a rash statement to affirm of the decoration of any single appartment that it was absolutely the best example of the style it obeyed. Yet if ever it were safe to speak thus unreservedly, it might be concerning the beautiful morning-room at the Earl of Carlisle's town house, Palace Green; representing, as it does, the united efforts of Burne-Jones, William Morris, and Philip Webb. The house, delightfully situated in a wooded lane opening directly out of the busiest part of High Street, Kensington, is itself a notable building; of which a critic wrote but lately, "of all Mr. Webb's town work this more than any other is presageful of the architecture that may become a part of the coming time . . . . the knowledge shown of the material, brick, is more than interesting — it is a revelation." Here, however, we are concerned mainly with the treatment of a single part of its well-planned interior — the morning-room, a fairly spacious and lofty apartment, lighted from the north by two large windows, between which stands the fireplace.
The room at first sight appears by no means gorgeous, nor even sumptuous —indeed, its momentary effect is somewhat austere ; but as the eye lights on the frieze which surrounds it, the coffered ceiling with decorated beams above, and the panels of dado below, rich in gold and silver, the whole appears to glow like a page of an illuminated missal; and yet so well is the balance kept by the plain masses of peacock-blue paint that even when eye has focussed all the gorgeous decoration in detail the breadth of treatment of the whole still still retains a splendid simplicity.
The frieze, occupying the space between the dado and the ceiling, is divided into thirteen compartments (including one in a niche below), without counting two very small panels in the angle by the right-hand window. All these (except the smallest, wherein is a single figure) are shown in the illustrations, But before examining them in order, it will be wll to look back: for the old-time story of Cupid Psyche as it is pictured here did not take shape as decoration for a room.
About the year 1865 William Morris was projecting an illustrated folio edition of "The Earthly Paradise," to be illustrated by his constant ally Edward Burne-Jones. The scheme was taken up with the ardour that distinguished him. Some forty-three designs for The Story of Cupid and Psyche were prepared by Burne-Jones, and the greater part actually cut on wood by Morris's own hands. A specimen sheet of four folio pages, with the illustrations running as a frieze across the top of the double columns of well-printed type on each page, was printed at the Chiswick Press; and, as a copy still extant bears witness, some of the compositions here illustrated appear in it. The work was to have been published by Messrs. Bell & Daldy, who had issued other of his writings, but just then Morris's old friend, Mr. F. S. Ellis, set up as a publisher, and the books were transferred to him. In th following year drawings were prepared for The Ring Given to Venus, Pygmalion, and a version of the Tannhäuser legend entitled The Hill of Venus. In all it would seem that some seventy subjects were designed. The original drawings for these passed to Mr. Ruskin (so Mr. Malcolm Bell tells us) and are now in the Taylorian Museum, Oxford. Mr. Fairfax Murray possesses a set of proofs from the engraved blocks, and many studies for the designs, and tracings made from the drawings for transfer to the wood-blocks. Mr. Aymer Vallance (writing later than Mr. Bell) says that the Taylorian collections are tracings, and that Mr. Fairfax Murray possesses the originals; which is probably a more correct statement. Mr. Walter Crane, whose share in the painting of the frieze we shall come to later, also owns a set of impressions from the engraved blocks and many tracings given to him by Burne-Jones.
Shortly before the death of William Morris the blocks were brought to light, and examined with a view to their being printed and published at the Kelmscott Press; whether in fulfilment of the scheme of thirty years before, as decorations of a folio edition of the poems, or as a book of pictures, does not appear to have been decided. It is a matter of keen regret that once more (this time by the unlooked-for death of the great craftsman) the publication was stayed, for few works would be more prized by amateurs and collector than a set [3/4] of these beautiful designs, the major part engraved by Morris himself, with a few others cut on the wood by Sir Thomas Wardle, the Misses Faulkner, Miss Burden, and Mr. Campfield.
In 1872 Burne-Jones arranged a selection from these Cupid and Psyche designs for the frieze in question, and the subjects (but slightly altered) were then drawn to the required size on canvas. Several of them were painted by the artist himself in that year, and for a long time he worked on the frieze at intervals, until, finding the task too arduous, he called to his assistance Mr. Walter Crane, who completed it. But some portions were retouched by the artist still later at different intervals up to 1881.
Several of the subjects of the frieze were also painted (or were in progress) as easel pictures. A painting for the Cupid and Psyche panel (in the angle) has been exhibited several and in this view of the studio of the painter taken shortly before his death, the procession which begins the actual series, well advanced, upon a large canvas.
Looking at the finished work as it appears to-day, it is not difficult to pick out the subjects wholly wrought (or, at least, finished) by Burne-Jones, and those for which Mr. Walter Crane is responsible. Despite the loyalty of the younger artist to the pre-arranged designs, his strong personality has unconsciously asserted itself. It would need no Morelli to discover this much, but it would be ungraceful to endeavour to apportion each group [end of 4/ beginning of 10] to its author, and here no such attempt is made. Indeed, it would be superfluous; for even in the medium of Scanned imagey the styles of the two artists betray their author clearly to those who can read brush-work as an expert reads handwriting.
The subjects start with the wall to the left hand as you enter the room by the door facing the windows; and on two walls the centre panel commences the theme, which is then continued first in the left and next in the right compartment.
Below each panel runs a long quotation from the poem, inscribed in thin Roman letters of gold upon the dull peacock-green of the woodwork. The wood-work, it may be interesting to add, was at first entirely white; but this pigment was found to mar the effect of the paintings, and so it was replaced by the present colour.
The first panel — a procession of maidens — seems to express not merely the actual lines inscribed beneath it, but also to refer to the lyric which prefaces the " May " section of the " Earthly Paradise." The poem opens, it will be remembered, with March — slayer of winter — the first month of the year according to the old Alban calendar. The passage recalled by the picture describes a vision wherein —
"For then methought the Lord of Love went by
To take possession of his flowery throne,
Ringed round with maidens, and youths, and minstrely."
Perhaps this is straining the interpretation somewhat, but throughout the room the inscribed quotations do not seem to have been chosen so much to supply descriptions of the scenes above them as to offer a parallel, by way of comment as it were, to the pictured legend. As, for instance, in the following quotation, below the central panel of the procession, on the western wall —
"O Father of a most unhappy maid,
O King, whom all the world henceforth shall know
As wretched among wretches be afraid
To ask the gods thy misery to show,
But if thou needs must hear it, to thy woe
Take back thy gifts to feast thine eyes upon,
When thine own flesh and blood some beast hath won.
For hear thy doom, a rugged rock there is
Set back a league from thine own palace fair,
There leave the maid, that she may wait the kiss
Of the fell monster that doth harbour there:
This is th emate for whom her yellow hair
And tender limbs have been so fashioned,
This the pillow for her lovely head."
Below the panel to the left (the one of Love bending over Psyche, already mentioned as a design carried out tint he picture), this extract is inscribed:
"As Love cast down his eyes with a half smile
Godlike and cruel: that faded in a while,
And long he stood above her hidden eyes
With red lips parted in a god's surprise."
While to the right beneath the panel, with figures in a lovely valley like a background of an old Italian masterpiece, is:
"But trembling midst her hope, she took her way
Unto a little door midmost the wall,
And still on odorous flowers her feet did fall
And roundabout her did the strange birds sing."
A window here breaks the frieze, and we come to three sections over the chimney-piece. Below the centre, on two panels, is inscribed:
Loved as thou art, thy short-lived pains are worth
The glory and the joy unspeakable
Wherein the Treasure of the World shall dwell:
A little hope, a little patience yet,
Ere everything thou wilt, thou may'st forget,
Or else remember as a well-told tale,
That for some pensive pleasure may avail."
The one to the left is above this couplet:
"'Sisters,' she said,' more marvels shall we see
When ye have been a little while with me,'"
and to the right:
"he told to us
A horrid tale thereof, and piteous,
That thou wert wedded to an evil thing."
In the corner formed by the second window (which almost touches the east wall), below the little panel (not illustrated) is the single line:
"For in his face she saw the thunder nigh."
And underneath another small panel, partly visible in our illustration:
"From out her sight he vanished like a flame."
The frieze here is partly broken into by a Gothic arch, in the lunette of which a finely grouped composition carries on the story; the legends below run in this order:
"thus, raising up the hand
That bore the lamp, one moment did she stand
As man's time tells it, and then suddenly
Opened her eyes, but scarce kept back a cry
The very Love brighter than dawn of day; And as he lay there smiling, her own name
His gentle lips in sleep began to frame."
* * * * *
"and once again
She heard the voice she now must love in vain.
'Ah, has it come to pass? and hast thou lost
A life of love, and must thou still be tossed
. One moment in the sub 'twixt night and night? [10/13] And must I lose what would have been delight, Untasted yet amidst immortal bliss, To wed a soul made worthy of my kiss, Set in a frame to wonderfully made?'"
Underneath the last sections of the frieze to the right are these two inscriptions :
"She, looking through the pillars of the shrine, Beheld therein a golden image shine."
* * * * *"There, waking at the dawn, did she behold,
Through the green leaves, a glimmer as of gold."
Here the door breaks the sequence, and we come to the panel where sit the three Graiæ.
The beaten road awhile, and as we weave
Fill thou our shuttles with these endless threads."
Below the panel with the boats the following extracts appear:
"O living soul, that thus among the dead
Hast come, on whatso errand, without fear,
Know thou that penniless none passes here;"
"O daughter, I am dead, and in this tide
Forever shall I drift, an unnamed thing,
Who was thy father once, a mighty king,"
And in the last panel of the southern wall, which ends the story, these two excepts:
But what was there she saw not, for her head Fell back, and nothing she remembered Of all her life."
* * * * *"Rise, Psyche, and be mine for evermore, For evil is long tarrying on this shore."
These close the quotations from the poem which surround the room. The scheme of the paintings, although frequent use of white in the robes of the figures keeps the whole fairly light, is not in a high key; here and there, as for Pysche's box and for her lamp, raised and gilded gesso is used, but only sparingly. The panels below are filled with a beautiful design by Morris, worked in flat gold and silver. The corbels and the "styles" of the decorated panelling immediately below the frieze are covered with a simple diaper in red, upon a burnished gold ground. The spandrels of the brackets supporting the beams of the ceiling are painted with conventional foliage, the free acanthus-like leaves which Morris loved, in golden browns and russets. Except in the ribs of the ceiling, which are decorated, all the rest of the woodwork, dado, windows, and door is in plain blue-green paint. The panelling of the ceiling itself is enriched with a Morris design painted in soft colours. A very fine chimney-piece, grate, and fender, after Mr. Philip Webb's designs (page 5), a superb gilded cassone with old Italian painting in its panels, and an old painted metal coffer, are the most notable objects in the room, where no superfluous furniture or bric-d-brac intrudes to destroy the air of repose.
On the landing of the great staircase is an organ, with a panel painting of St. Cecilia, and in the drawing-room are the Dies Domini, The Annunciation, Fatima, the Evening Star, Theophilus and the Angel (? [question mark in original]), and St. George, all by Burne-Jones and delightful landscapes by Signor La Costa, portraits by Leighton, and some charming Roman subjects by Mr. Walter Crane. Superb examples of Professor Legros's earlier manner, exquisite portraits of the Earl of Carlisle's children by Mr. Edward Hughes, and a statuette by Dalou are on the staircase or in other parts of the stately house. In Lord Carlisle's study hangs a set of sketches in colour on a small scale for the whole of the Cupid and Psyche frieze, a very early study in monochrome for Venus's Mirror, and a beautiful landscape background (for The Merciful Knight), with other drawings by the artist whose work entitles this article.
Yet all these objects of art do but play their part in adorning a quiet and restful home. The house is in sharp contrast with the average town mansion, where Louis XIV., XV., and XVI., varied by a trace of Adams, reign supreme. Compared with the average Park Lane palace it looks severe and simple; but it is pre-eminently an artist's home, which not only genius has enriched, but good taste has controlled. Nothing astonishes a visitor — room after room continues the initial idea and seems exactly what might be expected; only as you study each do you find how cunningly the architect has wrought his part, and how admirably the effect has been preserved, so that splendid things fall into the scheme simply and unobtrusively. Even its good taste is not unduly evident, but becomes the more apparent the more closely you observe it. By thus avoiding emphasis of all kinds, the treasures it holds seem but ordinary fittings, until more curious inspection shows many of them to be unique masterpieces. The majority of these are modern — a singularly pleasing exception to the average "palace" of to-day, which, if it holds masterpieces of any kind, is singularly careful that they shall be of goodly age, hall-marked as it were with official approval of their sterling value.
The Palace Green Series (now at Birmingham)
- Cupid Finding Psyche Asleep by a Fountain
- Zephyrus Bearing Psyche
- The King and Other Mourners
- Psyche's Sisters Visit Her
- Cupid Flying away from Psyche
- Psyche Sent by Venus
- Psyche at the Shrines of Juno and Ceres
- Psyche Giving the Coin to Charon
- Psyche Receiving the Casket Back
- Psyche Entering the Portals of Olympus
- Monochrome photographs of the Palace Green Murals in their original location
"The Cupid and Psyche Frieze by Sir Edward Burne-Jones at No. 1 Palace Green." The Studio. 15 (October 1898): 3-13.
Last modified 22 January 2007