English artist's model Jane Morris (1839–1914) was an unconventional beauty who inspired the artist and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti to create many of his most famous paintings. These romantic portraits, done in the Pre-Raphaelite style and based on classical themes, portrayed her as a beautiful and brooding figure. Several of Rossetti's creative colleagues used her as a model for paintings, sketches, and stained glass, and she eventually married William Morris, founder of England's Arts & Crafts Movement.
Jane Morris was considered the greatest muse of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and his stunning portraits capturing her porcelain-skinned, raven-haired beauty embodied the Romantic ideals of the late-Victorian age. Outside the studio, Morris showed herself to have talents and abilities disconnected from Rossetti's vision. A celebrity in her day, she was nonetheless isolated due to her relationships with men, her husband, artist and activist William Morris, and Rossetti, in particular. Although scholars of art would judge her only by her painted image for decades, with the rise of gender studies in the late 20th century Morris was eventually viewed as a woman in her own right and her life positioned within the context of her culture.
Jane Burden Morris was born in a slum area of Oxford, England, on October 19, 1839. The family rented rooms on a narrow street, St. Helen's Passage, near the public stable where her father, Robert Burden, was employed as a groom. Her mother, Ann Maizey, was illiterate and a laundress who likely arrived in Oxford while working as a domestic servant. Morris had one sister, Elizabeth (“Bessie”), with whom she was close in age. Little else is known about her before age 18, when she was “discovered.”
One evening in October of 1857, the teenaged Burden sisters were enjoying a night out at Oxford's Drury Lane Theatre when they were approached by two men identifying themselves as artists. Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones were painters currently undertaking a project creating wall murals in the Oxford Union, a building housing the Oxford Debating Society. The murals were to depict scenes from the old English legend of King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table, and they needed a model for King Arthur's wife, Guinevere. Would Jane pose for them?
Although initially reluctant, Morris was soon persuaded by Rossetti, who at age 29 was making a reputation for himself. He was part of a group of young artists dedicated to restoring classical and medieval themes to British painting. Their club, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, promoted the idea that the very best paintings were done before Renaissance artist Raphael (1483–1520) corrupted art and sent it in the wrong direction. The brotherhood loved the spiritual and creative energy of medieval art, with its romantic images, deep colors, and noble themes. They especially loved to depict female figures, for which they needed classically beautiful women. Rossetti and Burne-Jones immediately recognized this unique quality in Morris, pronouncing the 18-year-old a “stunner,” their slang for a stunningly beautiful woman.
In Victorian England, the conventional idea of female beauty was petite, blonde, and delicate, and Morris was none of these. She was tall, with strong features, and possessed wild, curly, and dark hair. While drawing some critics, her prominent brow, long, straight nose, and shapely lips entranced many artist admirers who saw in her visage an otherworldly, somber strength. Soon Morris was in Rossetti's studio where, draped in folds of fabric, she inspired a Guinevere that shared her long, swanlike neck and dark, brooding eyes. As would become characteristic of Pre-Raphaelite art, Rossetti depicted his mythical heroine gazing to the side and away, as though contemplating some thought inaccessible to the viewer.
Although a romance soon developed between Rossetti and his comely model, he had already proposed marriage to his previous muse, the model Elizabeth Siddal. Now one of his colleagues, painter William Morris (1834–1896), asked her to pose for him, also as Guinevere. The two had met before and the painter was smitten, but he was also extremely shy. To express his feelings, he wrote a note on the back of his canvas, where she would see it while she posed: “I cannot paint you, but I love you.” Soon they were engaged, even though Jane thought of him as a friend rather than a lover. A driven, passionate, and intensely intellectual man, William did not pay attention to his appearance and appeared unusually scruffy next to his fiancée. However, he came from a respected middle-class family and was financially independent, thanks to a family inheritance. The marriage offered her a good life with opportunities for education and stimulating company. Although William Morris was best known as a poet and novelist, in time he would become world famous as a textile designer and social activist.
The Morrises' marriage in April of 1859 transformed the poorly educated Jane into the refined lady she aspired to be. Her husband hired private tutors to help her complete her education, and she proved to be an adept student. A voracious reader, she became proficient in French and Italian. She studied piano and demonstrated a talent for performing classical music. She worked particularly hard on her speech, replacing the common slang of the streets with the elegant elocution that signified the Oxford elite. Over the years, she would embrace her growing celebrity; a queenly figure, she was refined in dress, movement, and language and circulated easily among elite social circles.
The transformation of Jane Burden into the refined Jane Morris would ultimately inspire Miss Brown, Vernon Lee's 1884 novel about a poor girl's transformation into a lady. Noted English playwright George Bernard Shaw would adapt Lee's character as Eliza Doolittle in his 1914 play Pygmalion, which in turn inspired Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe's 1956 stage musical My Fair Lady.
Following her marriage, Morris continued to model for several artists in her husband's Pre-Raphaelite circle, and she inspired a kind of worship among these artists and their literary colleagues. Still in love with her, Rossetti hired a photographer, John Robert Parsons, to photograph Jane in the Red House garden, using the images for several of his paintings. The famous American novelist Henry James visited the Morrises in 1869, and described Jane as “an apparition of fearful and wonderful intensity” in a letter to his sister.
Although William and Jane Morris shared a mutual respect and raised two daughters, they led increasingly separate lives. When Morris and several friends started a decorative arts firm, Morris & Co., she contributed to the endeavor. Including Rossetti, Burne-Jones and several other artists, the firm produced Pre-Raphaelite-inspired designs for wallpaper, textiles, stained glass, and other interior products. Their output, based on timeless design and featuring meticulous craftsmanship, became highly sought after and the firm became a success. Morris, together with her sister and, eventually, her daughters, embroidered many of the firm's elaborate, ornate designs for use as screens and wall panels as well as for bed linens, pillows, and other objects.
After Rossetti's wife died in February of 1862, he renewed his affair with Morris. Aware of this intimate relationship, William Morris continued to travel for the design firm and research his writing; his famous fantasy novel, The Well at the World's End, would be published in 1896. In 1871, he and Rossetti leased a country house, Kelmscott Manor, which was located in a rural area known as the Cotswolds. While Morris was gone on a trip to Iceland, he left Jane and Rossetti and his wife to furnish and enjoy the house, together with Jenny and May. Jane Morris deeply appreciated her husband's discretion, on more than one occasion calling him the most generous and least selfish of men.
Morris developed a wide circle of friends with whom she corresponded and spent time. Daughter May eventually became her father's editor while continuing to do needlecraft for Morris & Co. Jenny, although equally bright and anticipating college, developed severe epilepsy and became a lifelong invalid. In 1876, Morris ended her romance with Rossetti, whose mental health had by now deteriorated due to his addiction to alcohol and a sleeping drug. They remained friends, however, and she continued to model for him until his death in 1882. A later affair, begun in the late 1880s with poet and political activist Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, lasted until 1894, and again she remained on friendly terms following the break-up. Jane cared for her husband in his final illness, remaining at Kelmscott Manor until his death in 1896.
Newly widowed, Morris moved to the seaside resort of Bath, living quietly for two decades. A few months before her death, she purchased Kelmscott Manor for her daughters, but never returned there herself. She died on January 26, 1914, and was buried at St. George's Church in Kelmscott. Containing many of her portraits, the exhibit “Janey Morris: A Pre-Raphaelite Muse” was staged at London's National Portrait Gallery in 2014.
Marsh, Jan, Jane and May Morris: A Biographical Story 1839–1938, Pandora Press, 1986.
Marsh, Jan, The Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood, St. Martin's Press, 1985.
Sharp, Frank, and Jan Marsh, The Collected Letters of Jane Morris, Boydell & Brewer, 2012.
Paris Review, September 1, 2016, Emma Garman, “Beauty Marks: On Pre-Raphaelite Muse Jane Morris.”
Daily Mail (London, England), http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2545376/Rival-Lizzie-Siddal-mistress-Rossettiwife-William-Morris-fascinating-life-Pre-Raphaelite-muse-Jane-Burden-revealed.html (January 24, 2014), Ruth Styles, “The Secret Supermodel: Rival to Lizzie Siddal, Mistress to Rossetti and Wife to William Morris, the Fascinating Life of Pre-Raphaelite Muse Jane Burden Revealed.”
Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood website, http://preraphaelitesisterhood.com/100-years-after-her-death-jane-morris-continues-toinspire/ (January 26, 2014), Stephanie Graham Pina, “100 Years after Her Death, Jane Morris Continues to Inspire.”
Rosetti Archive, http://www.rossettiarchive.org/docs/s364.raw.html (October 25, 2017), “Mrs. William Morris.”□