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The Pre-Raphaelite Art Model: Jane Burden Morris

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An Arts Major and Published Indie Author who writes on various subjects pertaining to Humanities.

Jane Burden Morris, 1865

Jane Burden Morris, 1865

Much to a researcher’s disappointment, there is little-known information on the childhood years of Jane Burden Morris. Born in Oxford, England in 1839 to an impoverished working-class family, her father was a stable handler and her mother, a laundress.

Most likely, when Jane became of age, the family expected that she’d follow in the footsteps of other underprivileged young women and take on work as a domestic servant. One would think that with her station in life, she’d no other hope. Jane had a gift of intelligence, and to her advantage, she would use every bit to reforge her life’s direction.

... a figure cut out of a missal—out of one of Rossetti’s or Hunt’s pictures—to say this gives but a faint idea of her because when such an image puts on flesh and blood, it is an apparition of fearful and wonderful intensity … On the wall was a large nearly full-length portrait of her by Rossetti, so strange and unreal that if you hadn’t seen her you’d pronounce it a distempered vision, but in fact an extremely good likeness.

— American writer Henry James, describing the figure of Jane Burden Morris

Destiny in Oxford

A chance meeting occurred at Oxford's Drury Lane Theatre where Jane, who in the company of her sister, came across Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones.The two distinguished young men had spied the young girls who sat in the audience gallery below.

The duo introduced themselves as artists who were working with textile designer William Morris on a mural for the famous art critic, John Ruskin. They also explained their search for an alternative model to pose for their future paintings. Overwhelmed by her unconventional beauty, the two men begged for their opportunity to have this new goddess sit for them. Destiny would change Jane’s life forever.

"This is the only completed easel painting that William Morris produced. It is a portrait in medieval dress of Jane Burden, whom Morris married in April 1859.  La Belle Iseult (formerly known as Queen Guenevere)

"This is the only completed easel painting that William Morris produced. It is a portrait in medieval dress of Jane Burden, whom Morris married in April 1859. La Belle Iseult (formerly known as Queen Guenevere)

Jane's Modeling Years

Upon closer perusal, you might have a hard time trying to decipher the brooding and pensive eyes of Jane Burden Morris. The woman’s melancholic, almost soulful expression appears troubling. However, for Rossetti the dull pang expression and wayward reverie was the inspiration needed for a masterpiece. Attracted by her enigmatic nature, Jane personified all that was holy in the trained eyes of an artist who championed romanticism. Hence the reason he enlisted the model to sit for him for his vision of Queen Guinevere. It was during this time when Rosetti and Jane had fallen in love despite the artist’s betrothal to Elizabeth Siddal, another art model of the Pre-Raphaelite circle. Even more confounding was his romantic relationship with Fanny Cornforth, another of his models who was also a close confidante.

Jane had already met William Morris, a friend of Rossetti, with who she also agreed to sit for his painting, La Belle Iseult as pictured above. During this time, Morris fell in love with Jane, and she married him despite her hesitancy and admission that she did not return his love. For Jane, this union was most likely a marriage of convenience, which allowed her to rise above her lower station in life and enter the upper echelon of society. Some might agree that her choice was a shrewd and calculating move, but given her newfound status, one could imagine how hard it might be to turn away from the ease and comfort of being an artist model.

The Roseleaf by Dante Gabriel Rossetti.  Depicting Jane Morris with whom Rossetti was in love. The remote, melancholy tenor of the image seems to foreshadow their doomed affair.

The Roseleaf by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Depicting Jane Morris with whom Rossetti was in love. The remote, melancholy tenor of the image seems to foreshadow their doomed affair.

I cannot say that Rossetti’s presence was enlivening [in his later years]. My most representative recollection of him is of his sitting beside Mrs. Morris, who looked as if she had stepped out of any one of his pictures, both wrapped in a motionless silence as of a world where they would have no need of words. And silence, however poetically golden, was a sin in a poet whose voice in speech was so musical as his – hers I am sure I never heard.

— R.E. Francillon, Mid-Victorian Memories

Portrait of Jane Burden Morris in Porsepine by Dane Gabriel Rossetti

Portrait of Jane Burden Morris in Porsepine by Dane Gabriel Rossetti

A Turning Point at Kelmscott Manor

Jane continued to model for Rossetti. The time they spent together turned romantic after the death of his wife, Elizabeth Siddal. Some of Rossetti’s most significant works of art, such as the renowned Proserpine (pictured above) envisioned by his liaison with Jane, and because William Morris turned a blind eye to the relationship. One cannot say the reason for his resignation to this arrangement, maybe it was because he loved Jane, or his reverence for Rossetti.

Either way, it didn’t change the fact that in 1871 Morris and Rossetti took on a joint tenancy in the countryside at Kelmscott Manor (pictured below) and after that, William set sail for Iceland, leaving the two together. Hence, a passionate love affair ensued in his absence.

Kelmscott Manor - Oxfordshire, England

Kelmscott Manor - Oxfordshire, England

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The Passion Between Morris and Rossetti Dwindles

In the years that followed, Jane had improved her position in life despite her long-standing affair with Rossetti. During their relationship, she had received private teaching on every aspect of the role of a gentleman’s wife, becoming proficient in the romantic languages, learning classical music and excelling in the embroidery craft. As Jane moved higher on the social scale, her bearing seemed almost superior to those once considered her betters.

As for her relationship with Rossetti, she had distanced herself from him; her decision wasn’t because of their illicit affair but the sedatives he used to aid his bouts of insomnia. Jane loved him, but she could not abide by his choice to self-medicate with addictive drugs. Although they no longer shared an intimate relation, she remained in contact with him until a year before his death in 1882.

Two years later, Jane fell in love again. Her second illicit affair while married to Morris begun with William Scawen Blunt, a political activist with whom she had met through a close friend. This relationship kindled immediate attraction and lasted for several years before his death in 1894. Two years later – Morris himself had suffered from the effects of gout, epilepsy and died from contracting Tuberculosis in 1896. Leaving Jane widowed and very much alone.

Portrait of an aging Jane Burden Morris, the wife of William Morris, by Evelyn de Morgan (1904)

Portrait of an aging Jane Burden Morris, the wife of William Morris, by Evelyn de Morgan (1904)

Jane's Final Years

Before her passing, Jane purchased Kelmscott Manor to leave behind for her daughters. She never visited the manor again. Perhaps she did not need to revisit the past. Maybe somehow she made peace with all the incomplete fulfillment in her life. Jane died in her sleep on a cold winter morning in 1914 and buried in the cemetery at St. George’s church in Kelmscott.

Cited Sources & Works

  • R.E. Francillon. Mid-Victorian Memories p.172
  • Wendy Parkins. Jane Morris: The Burden of History (Edinburgh Critical Studies in Victorian Culture) 1st Edition
  • Kirsty Stonell Walker. Pre-Raphaelite Girl Gang: Fifty Makers, Shakers and Heartbreakers from the Victorian Era – Unicorn Publishing Group, February 15, 2020
  • Stephanie Graham Pena. Jane Morris: An Enigmatic Muse
  • The Paris Review: Beauty Marks

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 ziyena

Comments

ziyena (author) from the Somewhere Out There on April 15, 2021:

A Victorian soap opera at its finest! Ohhh, the webs we weave.

Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on April 14, 2021:

I love reading about these models, Ziyena. I never knew of them until I started following you. They have fascinating stories and many of them seem to be intertwined. But I guess that's indicative of the artistic circles the artists and models kept.

When I read of the models who went from rags to riches, I can't help but wonder if they stayed in touch with their own families while they rose in societal stature.

Thanks for another interesting read, Ziyena.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on April 12, 2021:

This is a very interesting article about Jane Burden, Ziyena. She had an interesting life once she started to model. Thanks for sharing.

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