Rooke was Burne-Jones’s studio assistant for thirty years, but was also an accomplished artist in his own right who regularly exhibited. He started at Morris and Co, from where Ruskin recruited him in 1879 to record Italian buildings for the Guild of St George. When Rooke exhibited this picture at the Royal Water-Colour Society in 1900, the critic of the London Evening Standard wrote that ‘Mr Rooke is to be congratulated also on the beauty of head and hand among blossoming almond boughs (“Phyllis”) (27 April 1900, p 5).
The story from Greek mythology is told in Ovid’s Heroides: Phyllis, deserted by her lover Demophoon, dies of grief and is turned into an almond tree by the gods. Demophoon returns and embraces the tree, which blossoms, and Phyllis comes to life again. The subject had earlier been treated by Burne-Jones