The Last Sleep of Arthur in Avalon
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Burne-Jones’ The Sleep of Arthur in Avalon is the artist’s magnum opus, despite the fact that he died before he finished it.

Starting in 1881, Burne-Jones worked on this piece for seventeen years – thirteen of which were the last of his life. The end was always just around the corner, but unfortunately so was death. By the time he died, Burne-Jones estimated that he had about two months left of work on the artwork. All he needed to do was tie up some loose ends, but alas it was not to be. If you look closely, “some of the instruments have no strings and figures have socks but no shoes.” But at 9 by 21 feet, the piece was just too big for anyone to finish, especially the perfectionist Burne-Jones.

He was so obsessed with it that at one point he resented an invitation to Queen Victoria’s jubilee celebration at the palace. He went, but he wasn’t happy about it and didn’t stay long. It was a borderline psychotic obsession, but his wife put it more gently. She said that for her husband, The Sleep of Arthur in Avalon was "A task of love to which he put no limit of time or labor."

The piece depicts King Arthur, who has been mortally wounded lying in the center of the canvas, with his head on the lap of his sister, Queen Morgan le Fay, who has brought him to the vale of Avalon to die. Like Burne-Jones as he painted this, King Arthur isn’t dead yet. The painting takes place in the eerie moments before the end. As his biographer, Fiona MacCarthy put it, “Arthur in Avalon is full of this weird stillness, the sense of time suspended that admirers of his paintings, including Picasso, regarded as quintessential Burne-Jones.” MacCarthy also made the awful connection that the artist might have been procrastinating on finishing this piece because he knew that the end of the painting would be the end of his life as well. Thanks for that, Fiona…

This painting was commissioned for Burne-Jones’ patron, George Howard, 9th Earl of Carlisle, to hang in his library at Naworth Castle. Obviously the commission didn’t work out because Burne-Jones died, but there was also a time four years into the making of the piece when the artist had to put the work aside and give his patron a smaller one with just a dying King Arthur instead of the whole shebang. At the time, all of the artist's friends were dying, and his own health was failing. He was complaining of a “throbbing heart and failing eyesight.” He began sleeping in the same pose as King Arthur, which was just too much to handle. But he would live to work on it again for another 13 years.

In 1963, Don Luis Ferré, the governor of Puerto Rico and the founder of the Ponce Museum of Art, bought the painting and, besides a quick stint in England when the Ponce Museum of Art was undergoing some renovations,The Sleep of Arthur in Avalon has been experiencing island life ever since.



  1. "Burne Jones's Last Painting To Be Exhibited In The UK For The First Time In Over 40 Years." N.p., 2018. Web. 4 Sept. 2018.
  2. MacCarthy, Fiona. "Fiona Maccarthy On Edward Burne-Jones's The Sleep Of Arthur In Avalon." the Guardian. N.p., 2008. Web. 4 Sept. 2018.
  3. "Moving Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones’ The Sleep Of Arthur In Avalon From Puerto Rico To London: Moving Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones’ The Sleep Of Arthur In Avalon From Puerto Rico To – Project | Tate." Tate. N.p., 2008. Web. 4 Sept. 2018.
  4. "Museo De Arte De Ponce." N.p., 2018. Web. 4 Sept. 2018.