19th October 2020
Born in 1839, today marks Jane Morris 181st birthday. Her talent shouldn’t be overlooked, nor should William’s love for her. We thought in todays blog, we’d give you a few ‘did you know’s’ on Jane.
It was actually a stroke of luck for Jane that she was discovered by the group of artists. She grew up poor, born in Oxford to Robert and Ann Burden – a stableman and a laundress. Her mother was illiterate and probably arrived in Oxford as a domestic servant. Jane would probably have followed the same destiny if not for a chance meeting of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones at a theatre in Oxford. They spotted her and wanted her to sit for their art – renowned for her beauty, she was the epitome of beauty standards at the time. She went on to sit for some of the most famous English art works of all time – including Rossetti’s Queen Guinevere. By the following spring, she was engaged to William Morris. Becoming Jane Morris altered the course of her life forever.
Jane married William out of the fact it would forever draw her out of poverty and secure her future as the wife of a gentleman. They had two children together; Jenny and May. But the love of her life was arguably Rossetti. He was already engaged to be married to Lizzie Siddal when they met. It’s known that before he died, he told a friend he married Lizzie, “out of a mistaken sense of loyalty and fear of giving pain,” instead of true love. Jane and Rossetti had a well known love affair for years throughout Jane and William’s marriage. This was of course very hurtful for Morris since he is known to have really loved Jane and Rossetti was his friend and college.
We mentioned she grew up poor, but her marriage changed that. She was educated to become a gentleman’s wife. So much so that her peers referred to her as “queenly.” She practically reinvented herself through her educated, with tutors but not taking away the fact she had a natural intelligence. She was well read, proficient in French and Italian, an accomplished pianist and had refined speech and manners, hence “queenly.”
Jane was an extremely talented embroiderer, teaching both her daughters the skill. Google “Jane Morris” and you’ll see it’s actually her first tag, she’s remembered best for her embroidery and the Pre-Raphaelite ideal beauty. It’s known that though Jane, daughters Jenny and May and Jane’s sister, Bessie, all supervised and embroidered for Morris & Co. Credit for some designs went to Morris himself “in the interests of commercial success.”
Her marriage appears to have come to an end in 1871 when Morris escaped to explore Iceland. It was at this time Rossetti had moved into their home, Kelmscott to keep the affair private after Rossetti’s wife Lizzie had passed away. During the Victorian times, it’s not uncommon for a girl from a poor background to marry a man for class and money. Her relationship with Rossetti lasted until his death in 1882. Though this also wasn’t without issue – he had a dependancy on chloral hydrate (a drug taken for insomnia.) She did distance herself from him due to this. His art lives on as almost a homage to their love, his art is of the iconic Pre-Raphaelite beauty of womanhood. That’s got to be incredibly flattering!
Her last love was an affair with Wilfred Scawen Blunt. He was a poet and political activist. This carried on until 1894, until her husband fell ill and she cared for him until his death. She remained single after, dying 16 years after her husband, aged 75.
Months before her death, Jane bought Kelmscott Manor for her daughters. She never returned there after the purchase however and died on the 26th January 1914. She’s buried in the churchyard of St. George’s Church in Kelmscott.
Due to her portrayal in Rossetti’s art in particular, throughout history she’s thought of as a sullen and sombre woman. We know through accounts for her to have more of a rounded personality than this. Though she is often remembered through her romantic life, she had talents in her own rights outside of her marriage and family life. She had an active role in the family business, Morris & Co., was intelligent, multilingual, a talented musician and embroider. She was also a home maker for Morris and their two daughters.
Along with her intelligence and hobbies, she’s also captured the attention of art fans for generations as she remains to be the face of Pre-Raphaelite womanhood.