Burne-Jones was fascinated by what he called prominent women. The drawings represent Emma De Burgh, a lady with the Last Supper tattooed on her back, who Burne-Jones became fascinated with during a trip to the London Aquarium. In her book Relations and Complications, Gladys Brook, The Dayang Muda of Sarawak, mentions how Edward Burne-Jones drew Emma for her husband Bertram Brooke (The Tuan Muda of Sarawak) during the artist’s visits to his house.
These visits of Swinburne during the Tuan Muda's illness were interspersed by those of Sir Edward Burne-Jones: He came frequently in the afternoon, after his walks or when he had returned from the city, and on several occasions he drew pictures to distract my future husband. Some of these I am reproducing: they will have a durable interest, for they have never seen the light of publicity. One of the first was a caricature of my husband walking down to bathe. Another day Sir Edward, who had been to the Aquarium during the afternoon, came back and drew for Tuan Muda a fat woman he had observed there with the scene of the Last Supper tattooed across her broad back ... Another day he again gave vent to his animosity and drew two fat women whom he disliked intensely - caricatures which he said were real ... The sketches will throw a light on Sir Edwards personal character; as he executed each drawing at my husband's bedside he would recount at length the story of its inspiration. These stories my husband used often to repeat to me, looking over again the drawings, which he counts among his greatest treasures. (1)
Bertram Willes Dayrell Brooke, H. H. the Tuan Muda of Sarawak (1876 – 1965) was a member of the family of White Rajahs who ruled the British Crown Colony of Sarawak in the north-western end of Borneo for a hundred years. As the son of Sir Charles, the second Rajah, and brother of Vyner, the third Rajah, he held the title “Tuan Muda” as heir presumptive, meaning “Little Lord” or “Young Master.” The title carried with it the style “His Highness.” According to the OED Supplement, “Tuan” or “Tuwan” (pronounced as a monosyllable “T’wan”) in Malay means “lord” or “master,” a title of respect given by Malays to an Englishman or other European and hence Conrad’s famous usage in Lord Jim (1926): “They called him Tuan Jim: as one might say – Lord Jim.” Brooke’s future wife, Gladys, H. H. the Dayang Muda of Sarawak, left an account of her husband’s encounter with Burne-Jones in her memoir, Relations & Complications (1929):
Swinburne came frequently to visit Tuan Muda, who was then lying on his back with a tubercular abscess. The poet would read aloud his songs and ballads, trying to make his voice and words become the very elements – the sea, the wind – of which he wrote. Nearly every poem he wrote at this time was sent to Tuan Muda for criticism. . . .These visits of Swinburne during the Tuan Muda’s illness were interspersed by those of Sir Edward Burne-Jones. (1)
A letter from the poet Algernon Charles Swinburne to his mother, Lady Jane Henrietta Swinburne, written from his home, The Pines, Putney Hill, London, on 5 December 1892 described his missions of mercy:
I have made the acquaintance of a neighbour, Lady Brooke (the Sarawak Rajah Brookes) whom Mrs. Ritchie (née Thackeray) brought to call on me, with a petition that I would visit her poor bed-ridden boy who was longing to have a nearer sight of me than out of window (I pass their house twice each morning on my way to and from Wimbledon). So of course I went – and fell in love with the poor boy, who is evidently what his poor mother describes him – the bravest and most patient and bright-tempered young fellow that ever was laid on his back for months if not years at the fidgety age of 16 or thereabouts. She says I “have done him more good than 1000 doctors” . . . but they (doctors) hope he will get round at last. I have called twice since, with books to amuse him – and have managed not to cry in his presence, though thinking of him and his gratitude and pleasure (at sight of me) has more than once made my eyes smart and moisten in private. (2)
Bertram Brooke was 16 at the time Swinbune called and would turn 17 on 8th August 1893, when Burne-Jones was still visiting him. His address was “Elmhurst, Wimbledon Common” from stationery on which Burne-Jones drew a caricature. It was certainly though Swinburne, who was a close friend of EBJ’s, that the artist was first inspired to visit and entertain the poor boy with funny drawings, undoubtedly being as moved by his plight as his friend was.
Burne-Jones also shared this joke with his confident Mary Gaskell who later sentimentally recalled in a letter of October 1938 how she had met Burne-Jones at a dinner party where they had laughed together about Emma the tattooed lady. I found myself sitting next to Burne-Jones…He remarked “I have seen Mrs Gaskell, a sight today that you have never seen.” “What?” I asked. “The Tattooed lady he gravely replied” “Have you? I cried, isn’t she wonderful. I saw her years ago” “So did I”, he said, “and went again today!” From this dinner party of happy laughter grew a perfect friendship between the two that ended only with death. In his copious letters to Mary he frequently discusses Emma and her tattooing and drew her several times.
1. [Gladys Brooke,] H. H. the Dayang Muda of Sarawak, Relations & Complications, Being the Recollections of H. H. the Dayang Muda of Sarawak, John Lane, The Bodley Head, London 1929, pp. 97-98.
2. The Swinburne Letters, edited by Cecil Y. Lang, Vol. 6 (1890-1909), Yale University Press, New Haven 1962, Letter No. 1612, pp. 46-47
Bertram Willes Dayrell Brooke, H. H. The Tuan Muda of Sarawak, drawn for him by the artist; to his wife:
Gladys Brooke, H. H. The Dayang Muda of Sarawak; by descent in the family to:
Sotheby's Belgravia, 29th June 1976, Lot 246
London, Peter Nahum at The Leicester Galleries, The Brotherhood of Ruralists and the Pre-Raphaelites, June - July 2005
London, Tate Britain, Edward Burne-Jones, October 24, 2018 - February 24, 2019, cat. no. 80, p. 113, illus.
H. H. The Dayang Muda of Sarawak, Relations and Complications, 1929, page 98
- Caroline Arscott, William Morris and Edward Burne Jones Interlacing, London 2008, page 159, illustrations 89-90
Maev Kennedy, Tattooed ladies, quick wit and a mystery affair: the other side of Edward Burne-Jones, The Guardian 18 October 2018 illustrated