Rossetti’s Pre-Raphaelite “stunner” Jane Morris
Jane Morris (née Burden) was the wife of the designer and poet William Morris and became one of the most favoured models of Pre-Raphaelite painter, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. As a lifelong fan of the Pre-Raphaelites, Dante Gabriel Rossetti has been one of my favourite artists for many years. In my mind, his muses play a strong part in the appeal of his paintings especially in the second, Arts and Crafts phase of The Pre-Raphaelite movement.
Jane Morris, Elizabeth Siddal ( Rossetti’s wife ) and Fanny Cornforth were Rossetti’s three favourite models who inspired the Romantic phase of Rossetti’s work, which focused on mood, sensual, unrequited and tragic love. I intend to explore these themes with the other Rossetti muses in time. Jane Morris with her enigmatic, brooding beauty seemed an exciting subject to work on. Her distinctive look and style, enhanced by Rossetti’s vision; alongside her association with the early Arts and Crafts Movement, inspired and motivated me to make a muse of her.
Jane Burden was born in 1839 in an Oxford slum dwelling along St Helen’s Passage, also known as Hell passage. Her mother worked in a laundry and her father was a stableman, they were poor, so Jane and her sister had a limited education and were probably expected to go into domestic service.
In 1857 at the age of eighteen, while attending a theatre performance with her sister Bessie, Jane’s striking beauty drew the attention of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones; Pre Raphaelites who were always on the look-out for “stunners”.
With her curly dark brown mass of hair, sullen expression, full, soft lips and long neck, Jane was quite unlike the rosy cheeked, golden haired, demure beauties of the time; she had intelligence and vibrancy which clearly appealed to the Pre-Raphaelite men who were struck by her looks. They invited her into the Pre-Raphaelite circle and persuaded her to model for them.
Initially Jane sat for Rossetti, becoming his main model, while Lizzie Siddal was away convalescing; Rossetti strongly desired Jane from the moment he met her.
When later he joined his wife Lizzie, Jane modelled for another member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, William Morris. While she modelled for the painting “La Belle Iseult” (also known as Queen Guinevere) Morris fell in love with her and before she knew it they were engaged. They married two years later, though by her own admission she was not in love with Morris.
After Jane’s engagement she was privately educated to become a rich gentleman’s wife. Her keen intelligence allowed her to recreate herself; she was a voracious reader and became proficient in French and Italian, as well as an accomplished pianist. Her speech and manners became so refined that her contemporaries referred to her as “Queenly” and later in life, she had no problem moving in upper class circles.
Rossetti commissioned Irish photographer John Robert Parsons, (1826-1909) to take a series of photographs of Jane Morris as visual reference for his paintings. They are believed to have been taken in the Red House and garden. Above
William married Jane in 1859 and soon after they moved to the Red House in Bexleyheath, co- designed by Philip Webb and William Morris himself.
The collaborative efforts of designing and decorating the house gave Morris and his friends the experience necessary to set up the firm of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Company, later known as Morris & Co.
Morris envisioned the house not just as a family home, but also a background to his ongoing artistic work. While living there in 1861 and 1862 they had two daughters, Jane Alice, known as “Jenny” and Mary, “May”.
Jane and her husband were happy for the first ten years of their marriage; her relationship with Morris was one of friendship, more than attraction. Family life kept her busy, and she actively contributed to the Arts and Craft Movement working with William Morris, Burne -Jones and Rossetti, painting murals, designing furniture and furnishings.
Jane was a skilled embroiderer and she played her part in creating exceptional tapestries for Morris & Co.
in 1871, Kelmscott Manor in Oxfordshire became the new home and inspirational retreat of William Morris, family, and friends. Morris and Rossetti signed a joint lease for Kelmscott, Morris delighted when first viewing the property with it’s “loveliest haunt of ancient peace”.
It is thought that there was an agreement between Morris and Rossetti to share the tenancy to allow Jane and Rossetti to spend time together without attracting scandal, as by now Morris was fully aware of their liaison, and people were noticing the pair.
Morris spent time away in Iceland researching and translating the Icelandic Sagas, leaving his wife and Rossetti at Kelmscott to furnish the house, allowing them several months to be alone together. Their intimacy developed that year and Jane modelled for several art works including Rossetti’s “Pandora”, “La Donna della Finestra” and “Water Willow”, to name a few.
Jane’s affair with Rossetti is widely known, some speculate that Jane married Morris simply to be close to his good friend Rossetti, others believe the two were emotionally involved even before their respective marriages. There was certainly infatuation and obsession on Rossetti’s part and at some point, probably after his wife Lizzie died, he began a sexual relationship with Jane.
Their affair lasted on and off for many years during which time Jane was the muse for many Rossetti masterpieces, familiar to Pre-Raphaelite enthusiasts. Their relationship was eventually blighted by Rossetti’s paranoia and dependance on Chloral hydrate, (used as a recreational drug in the 19th century) However they remained emotionally close until Rossetti’s death, aged 54 in 1882.
William and Jane remained married until William’s death in 1896, he was 62 and his physician said he died of “simply being William Morris and having done more work than most ten men”. Jane and her daughters continued to live in Kelmscott; Jenny was bright and destined for one of Cambridge’s new women’s colleges, but tragically developed acute epilepsy and was incapacitated for the rest of her life. May developed her skill as an embroiderer and found a career in art needlework, becoming a leading figure of Arts and Crafts and director of Embroidery at Morris & Co.
Jane Morris outlived her husband by eighteen years dying at the age of 75 in 1914.
To finish I have posted a few detail images and some of the various stages in the making of my Jane Morris muse.
Other Pre-Raphaelite muses by Marina