Sleeping Beauty — but without the Kiss: Burne-Jones and the Briar Rose series

A princess falls under a spell and sleeps for a hundred years—but Burne-Jones never shows us the kiss that awakens her.

Edward Burne-Jones, The Briar Rose (The Briar Rose, The Council Chamber, The Garden Court, and The Rose Bower), c. 1890, oil on canvas (Buscot Park). Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker

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Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:00] We’re in Tate Britain, at a special exhibition of the work of Burne-Jones, and we’re in a room devoted to one cycle of paintings called “The Briar Rose.”

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:14] Telling the story of Sleeping Beauty, a princess who falls under a terrible spell. She and the entire royal court fall asleep for a hundred years until the prince comes and kisses her. With that kiss, she awakens and the entire royal court awakens.

Dr. Zucker: [0:34] But that’s not quite what we’re seeing here. The artist seems to focus on a single moment in time. At the beginning of the first canvas we see a knight, the only figure that is awake in the entire series. He stands wearing armor, his sword in hand, shielding himself from the thorns of the briar that surround him.

Dr. Harris: [0:54] But we get a sense of hesitation. He’s shielding his eyes from what is in front of him.

Dr. Zucker: [1:00] The other knights that have come before him and have been unsuccessful, caught in this thicket, and then come under the spell and have fallen asleep.

Dr. Harris: [1:08] A hundred years has passed. In that time, the rose-briar, these thorny, thick wooden branches, have overgrown the woods, removed the shields from the knights, have overgrown their helmets. Human time has stopped, but natural time has continued.

Dr. Zucker: [0:00] And the rose, which is usually an object of beauty, seems here to have a kind of malevolence. It seems to have hung the shields of the unsuccessful knights up almost as if they were trophies of its own victory.

Dr. Harris: [1:40] For the first panel, William Morris wrote, “The fateful slumber floats and flows/ About the tangle of the rose;/ But lo! the faded hand and heart/ To rend the slumberous curse apart!”

Dr. Zucker: [1:53] Let’s turn to the second canvas. Here, we see the king’s court.

Dr. Harris: [1:57] Morris’s line reads, “The threat of war, the hope of peace,/ The Kingdom’s peril and increase/ Sleep on, and bide the latter day,/ when fate shall take her chain away.”

Dr. Zucker: [2:08] I love the king having nodded off on his throne with the pointer on his scroll, as if he was in the midst of discussion with his ministers.

Dr. Harris: [2:16] We see a scribe at his feet with a book open.

Dr. Zucker: [0:00] The scribe is holding the place in his book, as if after a hundred years passes, he’ll pick right up where he left off. Just in case we missed the whole point, an hourglass that is a reminder that time has stopped.

Dr. Harris: [2:31] All of the figures are compressed in all four of the paintings to the very foreground. That helps us read this as a decorative pattern. The paintings are filled with decorative patterning, from the cape that the king wears to the tile work where we see reflections of the sleeping figures.

Dr. Zucker: [2:49] Let’s turn to the third panel. We’ve moved to what seems to be an inner court within the palace.

Dr. Harris: [2:54] For this panel, Morris penned these lines, “The maiden pleasance of the land/ Knoweth no stir of voice or hand,/ No cup the sleeping waters fill,/ The restless shuttle lieth still.”

Dr. Zucker: [3:08] We see on the right a large loom. What we’re presented with is a place where craft is made, where art is made.

Dr. Harris: [3:16] It reminds me of the kind of medieval workshop that Burne-Jones and Morris idealized. They rejected what they saw as the ugliness of mass-produced goods, and looked back to a time when works of art were made in workshops by hand.

Dr. Zucker: [3:32] Again, we see them reflected in this brilliantly polished floor, but these women are slightly more upright.

Dr. Harris: [0:00] The briar itself has not quite infiltrated this interior courtyard.

Dr. Zucker: [3:43] The last canvas in this series finally shows the princess.

Dr. Harris: [3:46] But not taking us to that moment of the kiss.

Dr. Zucker: [3:55] That’s what that Disney movie is all about. It’s all about that kiss and of the palace’s reawakening. We don’t see the action unfolding. Everything remains frozen.

Dr. Harris: [4:05] Morris wrote, “Here lies the hoarded love, the key/ To all the treasure that shall be;/ Come fated hand the gift to take,/ And smite this sleeping world awake.”

Dr. Zucker: [4:11] Here, we see the long figure of the princess laid out under this beautifully delicate cloth. Every surface is highly decorative. We can see peacocks in the carpet, the gems in the crown on the floor, a treasure box; highly ornamented, almost Islamic tiles in the floor.

Dr. Harris: [4:28] Jewels encrusted in the bed that she’s lying on, and my favorite, the silver bells around the hem of that cloth. We have this sense of sounds that could be made.

Dr. Zucker: [4:41] Look at the way that the thorny vines of the rose are here more delicate than in the panels that we saw before. This is the inner courtyard. It’s as if the rose is only just reaching this inner sanctum. We see its tendrils almost as if they’re fingers just reaching into the treasure box, just beginning to surround the head of the princess.

[5:01] I want to go back to a word you used a moment ago, which is the “decorative.” That became a dirty word in the 20th century, with the rise of what we often call “Modernism.” If we think about modern architecture, for example, wanting to strip away what was seen as the incrustation of history.

Dr. Harris: [5:18] Modernism saw the decorative as empty, as superficial, but it’s anything but that here. For Burne-Jones, the decorative is about looking back to the medieval. It’s about the political and social problems of modern life.

Dr. Zucker: [0:00] And so Burne-Jones is in a sense trying to bring poetry back into modern life. He’s doing that through the visual.

Dr. Harris: [5:40] Burne-Jones said, “When shall we learn to read a picture as we do a poem? To find some story from it. Some little atom of human interest that may feed our hearts with awe, lest the outer influences of the day crush them from good thoughts.”

Dr. Zucker: [6:00] As we stand in this room surrounded by these paintings, they become a refuge. A refuge from the world outside, the world of factory life, the world of mass production, a world that was speeding up.

Dr. Harris: [6:07] I think more than a refuge, I think something that will not just give us a place to escape to, but a place that will bring us back to something that is deeply human that we’ve lost.

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This series at Buscot Park

Peter Faulkner, “The Briar Rose,” The Journal of William Morris Studies (Winter 2009).

Alison Smith, Edward Burne-Jones (London: Tate Publishing, 2019).

Andrea Wolk Rager, “”Smite this Sleeping World Awake”: Edward Burne-Jones and The Legend of the Briar Rose,” Victorian Studies, volume 51, number 3 (Spring 2009), pp. 438–50.

Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

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Cite this page as: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris, "Sleeping Beauty — but without the Kiss: Burne-Jones and the Briar Rose series," in Smarthistory, April 10, 2019, accessed July 20, 2024,