26th April 2019
On this day in 1859 William Morris married Jane Burden. They met in 1857 and Morris is believed to have immediately fallen for Burden, the daughter of an Oxford stableman.
After they were married, the took a six week honeymoon which included a tour of Bruges, Paris and the Rhine. Afterwards, they returned to furnished rooms – 41 Great Ormond Street and then on to Aberley Lodge in Kent whilst their home – Red House – was being built. They moved into Red House together in 1860, the year after their wedding. The property was designed by Morris’s good friend Philip Webb, an architect and then the friends worked to furnish the property. Together with Webb, Burne-Jones, Ford Madox Brown and Rossetti, they worked together with their varying skillsets to furnish the house. Realising that at that time there was no interior design that Morris felt was beautiful enough for his home and created using the level of craftsmanship that he wanted for his home – in the age of the industrial revolution, Morris strived to return methods of production to traditional craftsmanship which he deemed a superior method of production and therefore end product.
Jane met William after she attended a performance by the Drury Lane Theatre Company in Oxford in October 1857. She was noticed in the crowd by Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Morris’ close friend Edward Burne-Jones – both Pre-Raphaelite artists who believed Jane epitomised Pre-Raphaelite beauty and wanted her to be their model. She initially didn’t turn up to the appointed sitting but after a chance run in with Burne-Jones, eventually sat for Rossetti and then for Morris. She’s perhaps best known for Rossetti’s most famous ‘Queen Guinevere’ and also Morris’ ‘La Belle Iseault’ which is his only (known) easel painting. The legend is that he was unhappy with the painting – which now is shown in the Tate Gallery – and on the reverse of the painting wrote to Jane, “‘I cannot paint you but I love you.”
It’s a romantic thought – the painting and her being his model and muse was an important part of their courtship. But perhaps the theme of the painting was a foreshadowing of what was to come. The Tristram and Iseult legend and Thomas Malory’s version of it did later echo the marriage between Morris and Jane. Just as Iseult had an adulterous relationship with Tristram, Jane had an affair with Dante Gabriel Rossetti which spanned years, eventually ending in them being friends for the rest of his life. The affair crushed Morris – not only was Rossetti Morris’s friend and colleague during the Firm years, but also, he truly loved Jane and their life and children, so her quite open betrayal did take its toll on him. He even went on an adventure to Iceland when Rossetti moved into their family home. Jane did even admit that she never did truly love William.
The question many have asked when looking into their marriage over the years. Simply put, she just wasn’t in the position to reject a suitor as eligible as Morris. The marriage would raise her through the class systems which was especially rigid during this time. At the time she met William, it was almost determined that she would enter the life of domestic service just like her mother. However, she knew that if she married Morris, she would be educated to become a gentleman’s wife.
Not only was Morris educated but his father had passed and Morris gained his inheritance and was independently wealthy at age 24.
Her intellect was clear – she became proficient in French and also Italian, she learned the piano and her manners became referred to as ‘Queenly’ by those that knew them so was her level of etiquette. Though she might have been born into a poverty stricken family, after her marriage and later in life, she had no problem holding her own and fitting in in upper class circles and events. She was also a skilled needlewoman with a particular focus on embroidery which she also taught to their daughters; Jenny and May.
It’s difficult to mention the Jane & William relationship without also mentioning the relationship of Jane and Dante. They might have had the spark and attraction when they first met, but Rossetti was already engaged to be married to Lizzie Siddal. Before his death, he admitted to a close friend he married Siddal, “out of a mistaken sense of loyalty and fear of giving pain,” it was true his heart had truly been stolen by Jane.
Her husband William and Rossetti took out a join tenancy on Kelmscott Manor in 1871. He almost immediately left for Iceland which left his wife and her lover in their home, which they furnished and spent the summer there together. She was one of his favourite muses since they met. In 1865 the relationship is thought to have started – though history could have it’s hand in warping this date. On some level, romantic or not, their relationship latest until 1882 when Dante passed away. The relationship was a deeply emotional one and was a huge inspiration for his work; both with poetry and his painting, in which she featured. The romantic relationship eventually deteriorated when she discovered his dependance on chloral hydrate – taken for insomnia but an addictive drug regardless. They did remain friends until his death.
Ultimately, the relationship hurt Morris and caused a rift in his marriage to Jane. They did however, remain married for the rest of his life.
Whilst living in Red House, Jane and William had two children together; Jane Alice ‘Jenny’ in January of 1861 and Mary ‘May’ born in March 1861. May is the best known of the two daughters as she later edited her father’s works and was involved in his business Morris & Co. You can read more about May here.
She might not have loved him in the romantic sense, but after William died, she did reflect on their life together. Ultimately, she didn’t regret her choices,“I suppose if I was young again I should do the same again.”