SIR EDWARD COLEY BURNE-JONES BT ARA (1833-1898) Biography
PRE-RAPHAELITE (founded 1848) Biography

Head of a Girl, Laura Tennant (England, c.1885)

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Graphite on paper

Dimensions

20.50cm high
18.00cm wide
(8.07 inches high)
(7.09 inches wide)
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Description / Expertise

Edward Burne-Jones was deeply affected by feminine charm and beauty. He produced many tender studies of female heads, often as studies for paintings, but also simply for pleasure. This drawing is probably one of those that he drew purely as a response to feminine beauty, as it does not seem to relate to any finished work. Because of Burne-Jones’s tendency to idealise the human face and figure, it is sometimes difficult to identify his subjects with any certainty.

Laura Tennant was a treasured friend of Burne-Jones and one of the most bewitching of the circle from cultured, aristocratic families who made up the artistic and literary group known as The Souls. Laura owned many works by Burne-Jones, which she hung in her dressing room where she entertained her suitors, and the artist used her as a model for a mermaid in The Depths of the Sea (1886). Burne-Jones also undertook a cover design for a children’s story she had written, which had been admired by John Ruskin.

Laura had grown up in the celebrated Tennant family home, The Glen, one of Scotland’s finest country houses set in the spectacular scenery of Peeblesshire. The family had bought a house in London in the fashionable Grosvenor Square in 1881 after Laura’s father, the entrepreneur Charles Tennant, was made Member of Parliament. Thrown headlong into London society, Laura and her sister Margot charmed all whom they met, and became the life and soul of the parties the attended. Alfred Lord Tennyson affectionately nicknamed Laura ‘little witch’ and Mary Gladstone, daughter of the Prime Minister, described her as: the sharpest little creature, like a needle, delicate and yet able to do everything beautifully … full of life and fun and up to anything in the world. … She had a naughtiness, the grace and quickness and mischievousness of a kitten. Her sense of fun, of antithesis, sometimes led her into daring expressions, dangerously near forbidden ground. Nothing was safe in heaven or earth or under the earth from the sallies of her wit.

There was another, more private side to Laura that shines through in Burne-Jones’s drawing, her look distant, as if far-off in a dream. Mary Gladstone perceived during her graver moments a Weltschmerzen in Laura’s eyes. She would become: an altered being, with that curious, indescribable weird, far off look in her eyes, so sad, so wistful, her face small and pale and pitiful as a suffering child’s, you could cry simply by looking at her, and at those times I used to feel she did not belong to us, the little body was here, frail and white, but the soul, it seemed to escape.

Laura married Alfred Littleton in May 1885 and was ‘supremely happy’. However, in 1888, shortly before her first baby was due, she lamented to her sister that I am sure I shall die with my baby. The birth was too much for her, and she died on Easter Sunday leaving a loving letter to her husband. Burne-Jones designed a beautiful memorial plaque to Laura, which is in Mells parish church, Somerset and wrote to Mary Gladstone: We shall all feel it, all of us, to the end of our days: it will be a never healing wound. What a brief delight it was. I am as unhappy as an outsider can well be–and so are we all. It is never out of our minds and the year feels darkened hopelessly.

1. Nancy Crathorne, The Story of The Tennants of the Glen, Macmillan, page 175-178

2. Ibid. page 178

3. Ibid. page 184