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Detail from Edward Burne-Jones' Magpie Madrigal Society invitation artwork

Museum Blog: Rediscovering an original Edward Burne-Jones drawing

Tuesday 18 December 2018

At the Royal College of Music Museum we have been busy sorting through uncatalogued parts of our collection. In amongst a box of drawings we recently made a very exciting discovery: a set of designs by the celebrated Victorian artist Edward Burne-Jones, produced for the Magpie Madrigal Society.

Our collection contains numerous examples of 19th-century art, many of which we have already catalogued and digitised. These include works by John Singer Sargent, George Frederic Watts and Martin Archer Shee, as well as a striking portrait by Burne-Jones himself. What makes the rediscovered drawings so special is partly the status of their artist — the only Pre-Raphaelite to achieve world-wide recognition in his lifetime — but also their deeper connection with the Royal College of Music.

The Magpie Madrigal Society, active from 1885 to 1911, was a group of affluent and well-connected amateur musicians who gave one Charity Concert and one Invitation Concert every year. Conducted by Lionel Benson, the Society dedicateditself chiefly to English madrigals of the 16th- and 17th-centuries. However, it also performed music written for its members by RCM professors and students, including Hubert Parry, Charles Villiers Stanford, Ralph Vaughan-Williams and Gustav Holst. Many of their concerts took place at the College, too.

Each year the Society’s concert invitations were designed by a different artist. Prominent 19th-century figures obliged, including George du Maurier, Herbert Menzies Marshall and Hubert von Herkomer. In 1897, it was the turn of Edward Burne-Jones. Until now his contribution had been known to scholars in print form only, thanks to a copy of the final invitation in the collection of the British Museum.

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The majority of the original invitation designs survive in the RCM collection, as they were given to the College by Lionel Benson himself. The discovery of Burne-Jones’s design among the originals is a thrilling revelation! As an added coup, the main drawing is flanked by two cartoon-like sketches made by the artist as he worked out his design. 

We were quick to share our discovery with leading Burne-Jones scholars, including Peter Nahum of London’s Leicester Galleries. An expert in Victorian art, Nahum is currently compiling a catalogue raisonée of Burne-Jones’s work. He has confirmed that the RCM’s drawings will be added to this definitive record of the artist’s output.

As someone whose research explores the relationship between music and visual culture in 19th-century Britain, I was especially excited to see these drawings. There’s still much work to be done on the important connections between the worlds of music and art in this period, and the Magpie Madrigal Society drawings are a promising prospect for future research.

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Our rediscovery of these drawings is particularly well timed. The RCM collection also boasts a celebrated portrait by Burne-Jones of Polish pianist and statesman Jan Paderewski. This painting is currently on loan to Tate Britain as part of a critically acclaimed exhibition of the artist’s work, which runs until 24 February 2019.

We look forward to seeing Nahum’s catalogue in print, and are delighted to share news of our find with the wider community of Victorian scholars, art historians and admirers of Pre-Raphaelite art. Next year the RCM Museum is planning to celebrate the Magpie Madrigal Society design collection with a digital exhibition, so check our exhibitions page regularly for more information.

If any researchers would like to make enquiries about the Burne-Jones drawings, more information on who to contact and how to request access can be found here.

Anna Maria Barry
RCM Museum Research Assistant