Edward Burne-Jones, along with William Morris, was the most important artist in the second Pre-Raphaelite group. This gouache is a study for a low relief commissioned in 1882 by George Howard, the ninth earl of Carlisle, for the library of Naworth castle. It depicts the battle of Flodden Field (1513) in which James IV's Scottish troops fought Henry VIII's English army. The legendary fury of the battle was immortalised in Walter Scott's poetry and Burne-Jones has focused on the crucial moment in the struggle. The patron's ancestor, Thomas Howard, can be seen charging at the head of the English troops while the Scottish king is dealt a fatal blow.
Burne-Jones'Flodden Field, with its metallic, unreal colour scheme, conjures up a violent, twilight world of chivalry in which history merges into poetry. Direct borrowings abound—from the great artists of the Renaissance, particularly Uccello, Michelangelo, Altdörfer and certain funerary reliefs, as well as from Füssli and Blake. This abundance emphasises the artist's scholarly aesthetic environment.
But Burne-Jones's interpretation of the classical theme of the cavalry charge is particularly personal and expressive. The composition sweeps forward as if carried by the waves of attacking troops, given rhythm by the stark lines of their lances. The fury of the battle leaves room for suffering and death symbolised by the lifeless bodies in the foreground.
Far from the domain of ethereal idealism to which he is too often confined, Burne-Jones gives the full measure of his dramatic power in Flodden Field toute la mesure de sa puissance dramatique. The painting is a timely reminder that Burne-Jones's decorative work is crucial for understanding his art.