The Beguiling of Merlin
1872-77 by Edward Coley Burne-Jones
Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight
The Lady Lever Art Gallery is a perfect place for the pre-Raphaelites. In the long gallery, complete with balcony and barrel-vaulted ceiling, the atmosphere
is romantic and quiet. Surrounded by art one may wander aimlessly, glancing up or down, their view always met by one of the many paintings that line the high walls. The Beguiling of Merlin is one of a pair of Burne-Jones’s that hang, dominating floor to ceiling, beside one another. The other, The Tree of Forgiveness, is also entwined with a delicately flowering tree; both invite us into the silvery magic of an enchanted forest. Based on the Arthurian legend, Nimue puts Merlin to sleep with his own spells; she has taken advantage of his skills, learnt during his desperate infatuation of her. The manipulation of enchantment, beautiful and deadly, is everywhere; magical and golden it glistens gleefully in the tree’s outstretched branches, gleaming on twisting knots of bark, glittering on small white blossoms. The picture appears aglow with magic; reflected across the panting, light rests dangerously on Nimue’s exposed throat, as she peers round to check that her incantation is at work. Exalted, she stands above Merlin, cloaked in translucent blue, snake-like clasps in her tumbling hair, she towers as a Grecian goddess while Merlin is frozen still, eyes glazed in a deathly trance. Her power is poignant throughout the painting, absorbing the light and flowery atmosphere that surrounds them. Burne-Jone’s palette is refreshingly sparse; it uses none of Millais’s deep greens or bright blues, but remains subtle, concentrated in silvery gold and grey, holding its mysticism fast.