PRE-RAPHAELITE (founded 1848) Biography

Portrait Head of King Cophetua (England, c.1883 - 1884)

Not for Sale Not for Sale
Oil on un-primed canvas


56.00cm high
42.00cm wide
(22.05 inches high)
(16.54 inches wide)
71.30cm framed height
58.10cm framed width
6.00cm framed depth
(28.07 inches framed height)
(22.87 inches framed width)
(2.36 inches framed depth)
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The artist's studio sale, Christie's London, 16th July 1898, lot 61: sold for £28 gns,to:
R Ackermann; by descent to:
Private collection; to 2004


W.A.S. Benson, Drawing Its History and Uses 1925, page 21
Cosmo Monkhouse, British Contemporary Artists, 1899, illustrated, page 128
Peter Nahum, The Brotherhood of Ruralists and the Pre-Raphaelites, 2005, The Leicester Galleries Exhibition Catalogue, illustrated, number 22
Alison Smith, Burne-Jones, Tate 2018, Catalogue number 113 illustrated pages 33 and 155

Exhibition History

London, Peter Nahum at The Leicester Galleries, The Brotherhood of Ruralists and the Pre-Raphaelites, June - July 2005, number 22
The Lightbox, Woking, Visionary Victorians: British & European Painting 1850 – 1900, 9th May - 5th July 2009
London, Tate Britain, Burne-Jones, 24 October 2018 - 24 February 2019, Cat. no. 113 illus pp. 32 and 155

Description / Expertise

This meditative study was made for King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid, Burne-Jones’s magnificent exhibit at the Grosvenor Gallery of 1884. One of the artist’s most celebrated paintings, King Cophetua has become the ‘Mona Lisa’ of Burne-Jones’s oeuvre; an image so often illustrated and discussed that it has become synonymous with his name. One version now hangs in the Duveen Gallery in Tate Britain and the other in Birmingham City Art Gallery. The romantic tale of King Cophetua captured the imagination of the Victorians, an antithesis to the all-pervading pursuit of material wealth that epitomised the industrial revolution. It inspired William Holman Hunt and Alfred Lord Tennyson, but it was Burne-Jones’s emotive image that struck home.

The legend relates how the king set out on a quest throughout his Kingdom to find true beauty. He discovered it in none other than a poor maid. From Burne-Jones’s early studies for King Cophetua, it seems that the artist initially visualised the King reaching up to embrace the maid. Increasingly however, he sought to emphasise the definitive reversal of status: the King humbled by beauty and sitting in awe at the maid’s feet. It is as though he is unworthy to approach her and the viewer, like the King himself, becomes transfixed upon the beautiful maid.

Burne-Jones chose subjects that were autobiographical. He worshipped women and tended to put them on the pedestal of his dreams, rather than confront reality. His sparkling sense of humour often provided another line of defence. The head-study of the King would have been of particular importance to the artist and most likely came toward the end of the preparatory process for the finished oil. From the 1870s, Burne-Jones had concentrated on the overall design of the composition, before approaching the psychological nuances of the drama. Neither portrait nor fantasy, but a combination of a carefully chosen model and a vivid image from the artist’s imagination, the King’s head portrays the psychology of the moment. The King is spellbound and respectful, yet still dignified and regal.

There is a reference to William Benson, the ‘arts and craft’ designer and architect, sitting for the head of King Cophetua.(1) He was closely involved with the painting, for which he designed and made the King’s crown. W.A.S. Benson, architect, engineer and designer, became a director of Morris and Co. in 1896. However, Bill Waters has pointed out the striking resemblance of the sitter to the Babylonian Priest who sat for Burne-Jones in the early 1880s. The priest, who could not speak a word of any European language, set out to travel the world in order to obtain money for his Nestorian Monastery. He had stumbled on Burne-Jones’s house by accident and the artist, admiring the priest’s striking looks, used him briefly as a model. A soft pencil head study bears the same strong features and sculptural head of hair as the Copethua head study.(2)

(1) W.A.S. Benson, Drawing Its History and Uses 1925, page 21
(2) Cosmo Monkhouse, British Contemporary Artists, 1899, illustrated, page 128