8th March 2016
Born Jane Burden, she grew up to embody the Pre-Raphelite ideal of beauty and became a model to many famous artists- including her husband William Morris and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. She grew up in Oxford, the daughter of Robert Burden- a stableman, and Ann Maizey- a laundress and therefore grew up having quite a poor childhood, she had little education herself and if she had not gotten involved with the artists, she probably would have followed her mother into the domestic service industry.
Instead, in 1857, along with her sister Elizabeth she visited the Drury Lane Theatre Company in Oxford; here, Edward Burne-Jones and Rossetti noticed her seated in the gallery below them and approached her to ask her to model for them. At first she was reluctant to accept the proposal, she did not know these men and was therefore wary, she didn’t even show up to the scheduled time Rossetti was meant to paint her for his mural; it was only when she by chance bumped into Burne-Jones that she agreed and was thereafter catapulted to become an iconic face of the Pre-Raphealite art movement. Over the years, Rossetti became obsessed with painting Jane; much of his artwork that you can see today uses Jane as his model.
Morris met Jane when he used her as a model for his painting of Queen Guinevere (also known as La Belle Iseult,) during this period, he fell in love with her and proposed, she agreed however by her own admission, she was not in love with him. In a rather sweet gesture, it has been said Morris wrote on the back of the Guinevere painting, “I cannot paint you, but I love you.” Guinevere, in perhaps a bitter irony was also famously beautiful; and famously unfaithful. Rossetti was already engaged to Lizzie Siddal at this time and, despite probably being in love with him from the get go, she agreed to marry Morris. After her engagement, her education was focused on as she needed to be privately educated to become a rich gentleman’s wife. She had natural intelligence and was able to learn French and Italian and also learnt to play the piano. Her manners were also honed as she improved her class, and her speech more refined. Perhaps taking inspiration from her husband, she became quite the talented needle woman as she created beautiful embroideries.
The couple had two daughters together- Jenny, born in 1861, and May born in 1862, the couple lived in Red House in Kent- a property Morris had built and he decorated, this remains as a beautiful National Trust property which is well worth a visit; the decorations he used in this house led to the Arts and Crafts movement. Later they moved to Kelmscott House which is now home the William Morris Society in the basement and coach house!
Morris went to Iceland in 1871, reportedly to leave his wife and his friend Rossetti to their affair as he found it too painful to watch; despite having invited Rossetti to live with them both in Kelmscott to keep the affair private. Once simply his favourite muse, once Rossetti’s wife died, the two seem to have developed a closer relationship which, on some level continued until his death in 1882. Of a Victorian marriage, it is not that surprising Jane married not for love but for class, this was done regularly and as a girl from a poor background, made financial sense. The relationship between Jane and Gabriel relationship did suffer due to his dependancy on chloral hydrate, a drug taken for insomnia, which she distanced herself from him due to. If you view his artistic impressions of Jane (of which there are many to choose from- even mythological roles he cast her in from Pandora to Proserpine,) she always has a sombre brooding face, which some have debated could be due to Rossetti’s own troubled soul, regardless, his artwork of Jane ensures her face is iconic of the ideal beauty of Pre-Raphaelite womanhood.
After Rossetti’s death, she had an affair with Wilfred Scawen Blunt; a poet and political activist that carried on until 1894. This was to be her last love, following the ending of the affair, her husband fell ill, and she cared for him until his death, after which she remained alone for the remainder of her life. She died 16 years after Morris, peacefully in her bed, aged 75.
Jane sits second from the right, in between her daughters Jenny and May, and in front of her husband, Morris. Photo from the National Portrait Gallery.