Artist profile: Rossetti – Jane Morris

Rossetti’s other main love interest and model was Jane (Burden) Morris (1839-1914), another young working-class woman who rose to wealth through her relationship with an artist.

The Roseleaf (c.1865)
The Roseleaf (c.1865)

Her parents were a stableman and a laundress in Oxford. When Burden was 18, she was discovered by Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones, and her future husband, William Morris; she had gone to the theatre and the artists were nearby, working on the Oxford Union murals. Impressed by her looks, the Pre-Raphaelites invited her to be their model, as they tended to do.

Burden modeled for Rossetti first and then Morris, who was enamored of her. She seems to have fallen in love with Rossetti from the get-go, but he, despite his affairs, still considered Elizabeth Siddal his Number One Lady. Unsure that she would ever marry Rossetti, having come from such a poor background, and knowing her looks wouldn’t last forever, I’m sure she felt a lot of pressure to marry Morris.

She was 19, and before the ceremony, was tutored in all the areas needed to be a rich man’s wife. Jane Burden learned French and Italian, and how to play the piano. She probably started out with a lower-class way of speech like Fanny Cornforth, but replaced it with a high-class accent. The transformation was so complete that others called her “Queenly” and she fit in very well with England’s rich society.*

William Morris taught Burden, her sister Bessie, and others to embroider. They produced embroidery for Morris & Co, the decorating company founded by Morris, Rossetti, and several others. Jane became famous in the art world for her skill; her daughter, May, was also an embroiderer and designer.

The sexual relationship between Rossetti and Burden, which produced several excellent paintings, started sometime after Elizabeth Siddal died, probably in 1865, when she started modeling for him again.

Photo of Jane Morris contrasted with Rossetti's pastel Reverie (1868)
Photo of Jane Morris contrasted with Rossetti’s pastel Reverie (1868)

Starting in 1869, Rossetti and Morris rented Kelmscott Manor together. This house, as well as the Morris home, is filled with Arts & Crafts treasures. For the summer of 1871, Morris visited Iceland, leaving Rossetti and Burden alone. But decorating is not all they did, if you know what I mean. If you catch my drift.

Divorce in the Victorian era was a major legal, economic, and social hassle, and the Morrises decided to stay married to avoid all that. (God knows their house was big enough – they didn’t need to see each other very often.)

In 1874, Morris effectively fired Rossetti from Morris & Co., and Rossetti moved out. Rossetti and Burden continued their relationship on and off until his death, but Burden saw him less after she realized he was addicted to chloral hydrate.

The Morris family – William, Jane, and their daughters Jenny and May – are buried in Kelmscott. Kelmscott Manor is now a historic site open to the public (not every day, though).

My favorite Rossetti painting of Jane is Proserpina from 1874. The final version was completed in 1882, the year Rossetti died, and BIG SURPRISE, he gave her red hair. Proserpina was part of a triptych displayed in the home of collector Frederick Richards Leyland along with Mnemosyne and The Blessed Damozel, both paintings of Jane.

Proserpine (1874)
Proserpine (1874)
Proserpine (1882)
Proserpine (1882)

*Endnote: Something that tickled me is that George Bernard Shaw indirectly based a character off of Jane Morris. She inspired the heroine in Vernon Lee’s book Miss Brown (1884), which was the basis for Professor Higgins’s mother in Pygmalion (my favorite play).

Other parts in the Rossetti artist profile series
Elizabeth Siddal
Fanny Cornforth



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