Arts: Look back in languor

A century ago crowds flocked to see Edward Burne-Jones's Sleeping Beauty cycle: gorgeous figures slumped in high romantic swoon. How much of the enchantment remains today?
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The Independent Culture
Interiors contain such worlds of illusion, I think to myself as I walk along the dim and somewhat sepulchral corridor that leads from the seethe of Old Bond Street to the main entrance of Agnew's, that Old Master dealer par excellence. Outside it is all Versace and chic modernity; inside Agnew's, I am suspended in an environment of cloying, late-Victorian fustian and respectability: marble columns, heavy mahogany furniture, chandeliers, and coffered ceilings. The paintings around the walls are individually illuminated by brass lights. At the reception desk, I ask for Richard Kingzett, my host. A kindly, elderly man creeps out from the shadows at my back. "I am he," he says jocundly.

Richard Kingzett is the great-grandson of William Agnew, the man who bought the series of Burne-Jones paintings, which are currently on exhibition in the Top Gallery. This is a remarkable exercise in historical re-enactment. These paintings, known as the Briar Rose Series, were first shown here in 1890, soon after their completion. They were bought by Agnew's for pounds 15,000 and quickly sold on to Lord Faringdon, the railway magnate, for pounds 18,000 as adornments for Buscot, his 18th-century mansion in Oxfordshire. They have not left that house since.

In 1890, according to Burne-Jones obituary in The Times, the exhibition at Agnew's was a sensation. "Thousands of the most cultivated people in London hastened to see, and passionately to admire, the painter's masterpiece." According to Mr Kingzett, queues to see the paintings were so great that the horse-drawn omnibuses that used to ply up and down Old Bond Street were severely inconvenienced.

I sit alongside him, staring at the paintings, awe-inspiringly large as they are, and thinking about the money. "What is the equivalent of pounds 15,000 these days?" I ask him. He jumps up like a March hare, ever eager to please. "I'll go and phone my bank," he says.

This gives me a chance to ponder on the subject of this exhibition. Sir Edward Burne-Jones, Bt, was at the height of his fame in these years, and so prolific was he that his enormous canvases, which are often dream- like evocations of some lost medieval world peopled with images of the beautiful straight out of the Florentine Renaissance, adorn many of England's great municipal museums. I first came across him as a boy, in Sheffield, during one of those wearisome and dutiful tours of the Mappin Art Gallery. To this day I remember that long painting of The Hours, six pale-faced and frozen maidens sitting side by side, all looking exactly alike in their drapes, framed so heavily and so sumptuously in gilt. I was awe- struck. It was almost a religious experience.

The exhibition now showing at Agnew's is a cycle of paintings based on the Sleeping Beauty legend. The four principal canvases, The Briar Wood, The Council Chamber, The Rose Bower and The Garden Court, show unearthly images of stupendously Giorgionesque human beings in various poses of enchantment, slumped over, lying side by side or on top of each other. The creeping briar rose entangles them all.

Only the Prince, who stands to one corner of The Briar Wood, brashly, brilliantly armoured from top to toe, is awake and alert. Only he has the potency to undo the maleficent magic of the spindle with a well placed arid timely kiss.

"Six-hundred-thousand pounds!" a voice calls out from the doorway. "pounds 1 then is worth about pounds 50 now, apparently." Kingzett comes in carrying an enormous, leather-bound ledger beneath his arm. "This is the Day Book," he explains to me.

Every gallery transaction would have been recorded in it. The system remained unchanged until the advent of computers about 10 years ago, he estimates.

He opens it to 30 April 1890, and there it is, written down in a very elegant, copperplate hand: "E Burne-Jones, ARA. Four pictures of The Legend of the Briar Rose with copyright. pounds 15,000..."

"Who would have written that?" I enquire of him. "Your great-grandfather?"

"Oh no, the chief clerk would have written it?"

"And who would the chief clerk have been in your great-grandfather's day?" I ask, part teasingly, as if this were the final, puni- shing round of some Old Master Dealer's Quiznight.

"That would have been..." He pinches the corners of his eyes with his fingers... "Mr Greenfield," he says after just a moment or two.

"I remember meeting him in the gallery as a small boy. He was such a nice man."

My eyes stray across the pages of the open ledger. I recognise a name amidst quite a number of fairly mundane matters: JMW Turner, two drawings.

"How much were they?" I ask. Mr Kingzett taxes his eyes: "18 Guineas and... yes, 11 guineas respectively," he tells me.

A mere handful of guineas for a genius, fabulous sums for Burne-Jones. "Why was Burne-Jones so popular, do you think?" I ask.

The peppermint rattles around behind his teeth like a ball in a pinball machine as he ponders his response. "It was certainly to do with some ideal of beauty in those days, which was undoubtedly Florentine. There was a huge English community in Florence, of course. Burne-Jones's ideal of male beauty is pure Botticelli. And the vogue for medievalism, well, that's to do with his friend, Morris. It was an escape from industrialisation, I suppose... and back to simpler, purer notions of craftsmanship."

Is Agnew's, too, some fantastic escape from the complexities and the uglinesses of the present? I wonder. "In 1890, you were showing a painter who was at the height of fashion, Why have you not moved with the times?" Kingzett looks a bit sheepish, as if I may have caught him out in a whopper of a fib. "Well, I do agree that we haven't got much into the abstract world..." He stares at his own reflexion in his well-buffed, black shoes. "...if at all, though at one point we were doing Duncan Grant and all those Bloomsbury people..." He pauses. "The truth will out, no matter how widely and how delicately you may endeavour to skirt it. I suppose it's a matter of the partner's taste. You can't sell what you don't like yourself."

Suddenly, his arm sweeps out to take in the Burne-Jones, the Top Gallery with its maroon velvet wallpaper and its pretty dado; in fact, the whole of the gloriously solid and irreplaceable past.

"You see, my great-grandfather absolutely loved Burne-Jones. He owned a very fine one himself."

The Briar Rose Series is on exhibition at Agnew's, 43 Old Bond Street, London W1, to 16 December. There is a small charge for admission