The painting was originally commissioned from Burne-Jones by his patron George Howard, 9th Earl of Carlisle, to hang on a wall in the library of Naworth Castle. Howard shared Burne-Jones's affection for the Arthurian legend and left the choice of topic to the artist. Burne-Jones started working on it in 1881 and continued for 17 years. Within this period, he also designed the stage set for the play King Arthur by J. Comyns Carr that premiered in London in January 1895.
The 1880s brought the deaths of Burne-Jones's close friends. As they died, the artist experienced mounting isolation and painful awareness of his own mortality. Immersed in his work, Burne-Jones identified himself. By 1885, the association with Arthur reached the point where Burne-Jones had to ask Howard to replace the grand scene with a smaller painting focused on the departed king. Howard agreed to cancellation and never requested his downpayment back. Nevertheless, Burne-Jones returned to the original grand painting, and worked on it for the remaining thirteen years of his life. Arthur became increasingly autobiographical for the artist as he withdrew into himself; "above all the picture is about silence. More
Burne-Jones was closely involved in the rejuvenation of the tradition of stained glass art in Britain; his stained glass works include the windows of St. Philip's Cathedral, Birmingham, St Martin in the Bull Ring, Birmingham, Holy Trinity Church, Sloane Square, Chelsea, St Barnabas's Church, Addison Road, Kensington, St Martin's Church in Brampton, Cumbria (the church designed by Philip Webb), St Michael's Church, Brighton, All Saints, Jesus Lane, Cambridge, Christ Church, Oxford, St. Anne's Church, Brown Edge, Staffordshire Moorlands and Christ Church, Walmsley.
His early paintings show the heavy inspiration of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, but by the 1860s Burne-Jones was discovering his own artistic "voice". In 1877, he was persuaded to show eight oil paintings at the Grosvenor Gallery (a new rival to the Royal Academy). These included The Beguiling of Merlin. The timing was right, and he was taken up as a herald and star of the new Aesthetic Movement.
In addition to painting and stained glass, Burne-Jones worked in a variety of crafts; including designing ceramic tiles, jewellery, tapestries, mosaics and book illustration, most famously designing woodcuts for the Kelmscott Press's Chaucer in 1896. More