Tag Archives: The Beguiling of Merlin

Mythology On Canvas: Mythological Model (2)

The early Pre-Raphaelites allegedly had a fancy for using working class women as models and taking them on as their mistresses. I find myself asking “why this socio-economic group?” Perhaps it had to do with economic vulnerability and the likelihood of compliance. Edward Burne-Jones came along a bit later and continued this dubious tradition with one notable exception. Maria Zambaco was wealthy as well as artistically trained. Although she is featured in numerous paintings, I have been unable to find an actual photograph of her which shows her with any clarity. I’m always interested in seeing the reality behind fanciful imagery when actual people are involved.


The above photograph was claimed by one source on the internet to be of Maria, but the name at the bottom doesn’t look right. I believe it is actually that of one of her cousins.

Burne-Jones is said to have been in a loveless (at least physically) marriage with his wife, Georgia Burne-Jones. She had experienced difficulty in the birth of their most recent child, and they had ceased having physical relations. When Edward was commissioned by Zambaco’s mother to paint her daughter, he very well could have been susceptible to having the affair which lasted at least until 1869. He has been described as both indecisive as well as oddly possessive of the women (including relatives) in his life.

He idealized his mistress (some of his descriptive quotes of their relationship in mythological terms struck me as inanely disturbing), and he made plans to leave his wife. The affair was discovered, causing a scandal, and he backed out. Maria attempted to get him to agree to a joint suicide pact by taking laudanum. When this was unsuccessful, she threatened to jump into Regents Canal, and his efforts to restrain her resulted in such an hysterical scene that the police were called.

There is speculation that the affair did not end there, that Zambaco futilely tried to start up a relationship with Auguste Rodin in Paris, and/or that Burne-Jones made some pointless attempts at resuming the affair. At any rate, he continued to use her as a model, but the nature of the characters she portrayed changed. In the following painting, she appears as the temptress, Nimue. On closer observation, what look like snakes can be seen in her hair.

The Beguiling of Merlin by Edward Burne-Jones
The Beguiling of Merlin by Edward Burne-Jones

Now contrast that role with her character in the next painting from the Perseus series (done earlier). Here, she is gazing on a reflection of the head of Medusa which is held by Perseus. Oddly enough, the profiles of the two figures are similar, which makes me think that she might have been a model for both of them.

The Baleful Head by Edward Burne-Jones
The Baleful Head by Edward Burne-Jones

So she seems to have morphed from rescued innocent in the above painting (which was completed before the affair ended) to the semblance of a treacherously attractive Gorgon in the previous painting, which is one of the last in which she modeled for this artist. Similarly psychological underpinnings have been attributed to the next painting, also one of the last in which Maria Zambaco sat for Edward Burne-Jones.

The Tree of Forgiveness by Edward Burne-Jones
The Tree of Forgiveness by Edward Burne-Jones

In this visual re-telling of Phyllis and Demophoon from The Metamorphoses by Ovid, the man appears to be recoiling from the aggressively amorous woman as she emerges from a tree. That particular element of revulsion is not part of the account I read of this story, and significance has been attached to it by some observers.

All of this brings me to these photographs of the grave of Maria Zambaco in London’s West Norwood Cemetery, where she was buried under her original family name. For me, these pictures serve as a grim reminder of where all carnal passion ultimately ends.



In future posts, I will re-cap some of the paintings in which she is cast as various characters from mythology.