19th October 2017
Born in 1839, Jane Burden was born in Oxford, the daughter of Robert Burden, a stableman and Ann Maizey a laundress. She grew up in a poor home and had little education herself. Had she not met and gotten involved with the artists, she probably would have followed her mother into the domestic service industry. Instead, she became the ultimate embodiment of Pre-Raphaelite beauty ideal.
Jane met William in 1857 when she visited the Drury Lane Theatre Company in Oxford along with her sister Elizabeth. It was Edward Burne-Jones and Dante Gabriel Rossetti who noticed her sat in the gallery below them and asked her to model for their art. She refused at first, so much so that she didn’t even show up to her scheduled time with Rossetti who wished to paint her for her mural – she didn’t know either of them and was wary. Upon a chance second meeting bumping into Burne-Jones, she finally agreed – unknowingly signing herself up to be the face of the Pre-Raphaelite movement as the woman in many of the artists paintings. The artist that loved to paint her the most was Rossetti who became obsessed with using Jane as his model and muse.
The two were undoubtably in love by this point, but he was engaged to be married to Lizzie Siddal and so after meeting Morris when she was his painting of Queen Guinevere (La Belle Iseult) she agreed to marry him. Ironically, Guinevere was famously beautiful – and famously unfaithful.
It can be noted here that by her own admission she was not in love with Morris at this point and it was a one sided love. It was now that she received her education – to become the wife of a wealthy gentleman, it wouldn’t do that she’d received little formal education. She was privately educated to learn French, Italian and the piano, also taught etiquette. Morris himself had an influence too as Jane became a talented needle woman, creating many beautiful embroideries.
Their daughter Jenny was born in 1861, followed by her sister May in 1862. The family moved to Red House in Kent – have you been? Today it’s a National Trust house and a beautifully preserved family home – famous due to it’s constant source of inspiration to Morris. It was this home that when he looked to decorate couldn’t find any suitable furnishings and so he, along with his good friend Philip Webb, created their own. It was from this the Firm – Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. was formed – later leading to his own venture, Morris & Co. The house led to the Arts & Crafts movement. Later they moved to Kelmscott House – the basement and coach house remains to be where our friends at the William Morris Society are! We love visiting, it’s beauty never fails to amaze us!
Ultimately, her marriage to Morris really seemed to come to it’s end in 1871 when Morris went to Iceland to escape the affair Jane was having with Rossetti after his wife died. Their affair had led Morris to move Rossetti into their home in Kelmscott to keep their affair private. It’s important to remember that during the Victorian times, a marriage such as Jane’s to William wasn’t unusual – for girls from poor backgrounds, a marriage for class and not love was extremely common.
Her relationship to Rossetti, though it lasted until his death in 1882, wasn’t without it’s issues. He had a dependancy on chloral hydrate, a drug which was taken for insomnia. She distanced herself from him due to this. His art of her has lived on, from her own modelling in his images to him using artistic impressions of her as mythological roles such as pandora, she had a sombre face in each. Art critics and historians have projected this onto the fact it reflects Rossetti’s own troubled soul. His art of her is nevertheless iconic of the epitome of beauty of Pre-Raphaelite womanhood, which must have undoubtably been incredibly flattering for her.
Her last love came in the form of an affair with Wilfred Scawen Blunt, was a poet and political activist, which carried on until 1894. After the ending of the romance, her husband fell ill and she cared for him until his death. After this, she remained single the rest of her life, dying 16 years after Morris, aged 75.
Her lasting image, due to Rossetti’s art, are of a sombre and sullen woman, though we know her to have a much more full and round personality. It’s important to remember her many talents – she had an active role in the family business Morris & Co., was a multilingual talented musician and embroider and a home maker for her 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.