Lazy Nerd Explainer: How Jane Morris Became An Icon

Lazy Nerd Explainer: How Jane Morris Became An Icon

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Jane Morris - Designer, Chameleon, Muse

Jane Morris was a pivotal figure in the Arts and Crafts movement, an artists' model, and an embroiderer who embodied the Pre-Raphaelite ideal of beauty. As the wife of William Morris and the muse of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, she made a significant impact on the world of art and literature during her lifetime. In her own right. But you wouldn't know that unless you knew where to look. Not a lot of googleable results with all the answers so... here we are, nerds.

This article delves into Jane's remarkable life, detailing her transformation from humble origins to a sophisticated, multi-hyphenated woman of influence and the relationships that shaped her journey.

Early Life

Born on October 19, 1839, in Oxford, England, Jane Burden was the daughter of Robert Burden, a stableman, and Ann Maizey, a domestic laundress. Jane and her sister, Elizabeth, lived in poverty, with little opportunity for education or social advancement. The little blue plaque marking her birthplace in St Helen's Passage serves as a reminder of her humble beginnings.

Meeting the Pre-Raphaelites

In 1857, Jane and her sister attended a performance by the Drury Lane Theatre Company in Oxford. At the event, Jane caught the eye of Pre-Raphaelite artists Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones, who were working on the Oxford Union murals. Struck by her beauty, they asked her to model for them. Jane agreed, beginning her association with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and laying the foundation for her future life in the arts.

Transformation and Education

Despite her limited education and the likelihood of a life in domestic service, Jane's engagement to William Morris led to a private education that transformed her into a refined, well-read woman. With her natural intelligence, she quickly became proficient in French and Italian, developed an appreciation for classical music, and honed her skills as a pianist.

Marriage to William Morris

On April 26, 1859, Jane married William Morris at St Michael at the Northgate in Oxford. The couple moved to the Red House in Bexleyheath, Kent, where they had two daughters, Jane Alice "Jenny" and Mary "May" Morris. 

The Red House: A Creative Haven for the Morris Family

In 1860, Jane and William Morris moved to the Red House in Bexleyheath, where they raised their children and further developed their artistic skills. Jane, William, and their daughter May Morris produced designs, embroidery, and textiles, making a significant impact on the Arts & Crafts Movement.

The family eventually settled at Kelmscott House in Hammersmith years later.

Icon of Her Time


Jane was a model and muse to William Morris and to Dante Gabriel Rossetti1. She was also skilled in embroidery techniques and later became renowned for her own embroideries1. Highly intelligent, she passed her Cambridge local examination2. And she married William Morris at a time when it was unusual for a woman of her social class to marry a man of his1.


Jane Morris seemingly answered to no one when it came to how she moved through the world. At a time when she wasn't even allowed to vote, Jane never stopped defying conventions. That singular fashion of hers was never an act, though. Jane was a chameleon. A Renaissance woman. And her historically simple rise from working class diamond to portrait of a lady is far too basic an arc. And sure, it's easy to see why some say that Jane was the influence behind George Bernard Shaw's "Pygmalion" — adapted into "My Fair Lady" decades later — but clearly... that reductive rags to riches tale is just one part of Jane's story.


Without Jane Morris, would William Morris be the William Morris we revere today? Probably not. Different, certainly. As successful? Perhaps...

Jane Morris contributed to her husband's success in several ways. Without her and their daughter, May, the legacy of William Morris would look remarkably different. Both women regularly and rightfully contributed to iconic designs and patterns for Morris & Co. Each had an eye for design, so it truly was a family business.

Most notably, Jane helped Morris & Co succeed in critical ways that William Morris couldn't. Or certainly wasn't as good at. Jane was a masterful networker. Building connections and customers for Morris & Co in its early days that helped it grow into a thriving design business. Serving the finest in London society. And she did it all in her singular fashion, of course.

Rule breaker

Jane's longstanding affair with Dante Gabriel Rosetti (after marrying William Morris) was an open secret in London. William even had Rossetti come live with them for a time to help quiet rumors of anything improper. How that works to quiet down rumours of impropriety, well, you'll have to tell us...

The affair between Jane and Rossetti lasted many years. Jane only broke with Rossetti after he spiralled into addiction. A year after leaving him, she found love again. This time with the poet and political activist Wilfrid Scawen Blunt. Another open secret. Considered scandalous at the time 1, of course. And much more so the second time around, because Jane's influence, connections and notoriety had only grown over time.

Love her or loathe her, everyone who was anyone knew Jane Morris... or so they thought. In many ways, Jane was an unknown quantity to them all, and that was a large part of her enigmatic appeal. She didn't fit the high-society mold. A truly singular figure at the time.

Her iconic status can be viewed from several angles. Perhaps the one to end this section on is how Jane's independence and unconventional behavior challenged gender roles of Victorian society. Making her a symbol of female empowerment then and now 1. Her personal conviction and lust for life make a refreshing portrait in any era, but especially in the moral confines of Victorian England.

Jane Morris's Impact on the Arts & Crafts Movement

Embroidery and the Arts and Crafts Movement

Jane's keen interest in needlework led her to become a skilled embroiderer. She taught herself ancient embroidery techniques and soon became renowned for her exquisite work. While Jane, her daughters, and her sister Bessie all contributed to the embroidery for Morris & Co., the credit for the designs was often given to William Morris for commercial reasons. Despite this, Jane and Bessie's work on the three embroidered panels depicting illustrious women from Chaucer and Tennyson's writing, now at Castle Howard, is a testament to their skill and dedication.

Jane Morris's Artistic Legacy

Jane Morris was not only a muse for the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood but also a talented designer and embroiderer herself. As we've seen, her work influenced various aspects of Morris & Co's output. Specifics include wallpaper, furniture, glassware, and metalware designs.

Political Views and Activism

Although married to a socialist, Jane remained a Liberal Party supporter throughout her life. She was an ardent advocate of Irish Home Rule, demonstrating her engagement with the political landscape of her era.

Influence on Literature and Art

Jane's remarkable transformation and captivating personality left a lasting impression on the world of literature and art. She served as the model for the heroine in Vernon Lee's 1884 novel "Miss Brown" and may have inspired George Bernard Shaw's character Eliza Doolittle in his play "Pygmalion" (1914), which was later adapted into the film "My Fair Lady" (1964).

The Relationship Between Rossetti, Morris, and Jane Morris

The Close Friendship Between Rossetti and Morris

Initially, Rossetti and Morris were close friends, with some describing their relationship as Morris's "hero worship" of Rossetti. However, their friendship became strained due to Rossetti's chemical dependencies and his affair with Jane.

The Love Triangle Between Rossetti, Morris, and Jane

Jane became the love of Rossetti's life, even as she was married to William Morris. After the death of Rossetti's wife, Elizabeth Siddal, in 1862, the attraction between Rossetti and Jane intensified. Despite her admission that she never loved her husband, Jane never left Morris for Rossetti. Theirs was a curiously modern marriage in many ways. 

Kelmscott Manor and Dante Gabriel Rossetti

In 1871, William Morris and Dante Gabriel Rossetti took out a joint tenancy on Kelmscott Manor, a picturesque house on the Gloucestershire–Oxfordshire–Wiltshire borders. During William's trip to Iceland, Jane and Rossetti spent the summer furnishing the house. This period marked the beginning of their deep emotional connection and rumored romantic relationship, which influenced Rossetti's poetry and some of his best-known paintings. Eventually, Jane distanced herself from Rossetti due to his dependence on chloral hydrate, but they remained in touch until his death in 1882.

The Enduring Influence of Jane Morris on Rossetti and the Pre-Raphaelite Movement

Art critic Harry Quilter once said of Rossetti and Morris, "There is probably no record of a painter whose personality grew to be so submerged in the form and face of one woman."

Relationship with Wilfrid Scawen Blunt

Jane met poet and political activist Wilfrid Scawen Blunt in 1883 at a house party hosted by her close friend, Rosalind Howard (later Countess of Carlisle). The two formed an immediate bond, which eventually blossomed into a romantic relationship that lasted until 1894. Their friendship endured until Jane's death, showcasing her ability to form deep and lasting connections with influential figures of her time — outside the boundaries of 'appropriate behaviour' because Jane Morris did life her way... as all true icons do.

Jane's Later Life and Legacy

In the final months of her life, Jane purchased Kelmscott Manor to secure it for her daughters' future. She passed away on January 26, 1914, in Bath, England, and was buried in the churchyard of St. George's Church in Kelmscott. Her life story, from humble beginnings to a woman of influence and inspiration, continues to captivate audiences and serves as a testament to her resilience and determination.


Jane Morris, through her artistic contributions, relationships, and personal transformation, left an indelible mark on the world of art, literature and culture at large. Her story is a powerful reminder of the potential for growth and change, and her influence continues to resonate in the works she inspired + the legacy she left behind.


William Morris FAQs

Jane Morris was an English embroiderer and artist's model who played a significant role in the Arts and Crafts movement 123. She embodied the Pre-Raphaelite ideal of beauty and was a muse to her husband William Morris and to Dante Gabriel Rossetti 1. Jane Morris was a skilled embroiderer and talented designer who ran the embroidery side of Morris & Co, which was set up around her dining table at Red House in Kent 2. She was a key figure in the founding of Morris & Co and without her housekeeping and networking skills, the company might not have been formed 2.

Where is Jane Morris buried?

Jane Morris is buried in the churchyard of St. George's Church in Kelmscott, England.

Jane Morris was a famous Pre-Raphaelite model and the wife of William Morris. She had a long love affair with Dante Gabriel Rossetti, a prominent artist and poet associated with the Pre-Raphaelite movement 1. Their relationship has become the stuff of legend, and it has been widely discussed and analyzed in various biographies and scholarly works. The affair between Jane Morris and Rossetti has also been inextricably linked to the personal and artistic lives of other figures in their circle. Most obviously, William Morris and Georgiana Burne-Jones 2.

Jane Morris significantly influenced literature and art, particularly through her association with Dante Gabriel Rossetti. As Rossetti's muse and erotic partner, she became the dominant figure in many of his paintings, often impersonating roles of prominent women from medieval literature or ancient mythology 1.

Her enigmatic and melancholic figure contributed to the formation of the 19th-century Victorian England middle-class female stereotype and the second phase of Pre-Raphaelite art womanhood 1.

Additionally, Jane's involvement in many of her husband William Morris's endeavors, such as the family firm Morris & Co., the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, the 1882 Icelandic Relief Committee, and the Kelmscott Press, further demonstrates her influence on art and literature 2

Even more specifically, she served as the model for the heroine in Vernon Lee's novel "Miss Brown". Less verifiable but just as specific, Jane may well have inspired George Bernard Shaw's character Eliza Doolittle in "Pygmalion", which later went on to become adapted into the feature film, "My Fair Lady".

Jane Morris was politically engaged even though she did not have the right to vote. While she did not follow her husband, William Morris, into the Socialist movement, Jane retained liberal allegiances 1. Her letters reveal her awareness of the turbulent events of the 1880s and her involvement in various endeavors, such as the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings and the 1882 Icelandic Relief Committee 1. She was also an ardent advocate for Irish Home Rule, demonstrating her engagement with the political landscape of her time. 

These activities demonstrate Jane's commitment to preserving cultural heritage and advocating for fairness, justice, equality and freedom. Reflecting her political views and the ways she took action despite being confined by the social politics of the time simply by being a woman.

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood influenced the Arts & Crafts Movement in several ways. The Arts & Crafts Movement was a reaction against the industrialization of the Victorian era and sought to revive traditional craftsmanship and design 1. The Pre-Raphaelites, who rejected the mechanistic approach to art and formal training regime introduced by Sir Joshua Reynolds, sought to reform English art by returning to the abundant detail, intense colors, and complex compositions of early Italian art 2.

The Arts & Crafts Movement shared the Pre-Raphaelites' emphasis on traditional craftsmanship and the importance of nature 1. Additionally, many artists who were influenced by the Pre-Raphaelites, such as William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones, were also involved in the Arts & Crafts Movement 2.

Overall, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood's rejection of conventional methods of composition and emphasis on nature and traditional craftsmanship had a significant influence on the Arts & Crafts Movement.

What was the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood's main goal in art?

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was a group of young British painters who banded together in 1848 in reaction against what they conceived to be the unimaginative and artificial historical painting of the Royal Academy. They sought to express a new moral seriousness and sincerity in their works 12.

The Pre-Raphaelites appreciated the simplicity of line and large flat areas of brilliant color found in the early Italian painters before Raphael, as well as in 15th century Flemish art. They believed that art could alter society and aimed to reform the artistic establishment of Victorian England 345.

How did the personal relationships within the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood impact their art?

The friendships, collaborations, and personal lives of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood members were deeply intertwined, leading to the cross-pollination of ideas, techniques, and inspiration that significantly influenced their art and contributed to the development of the Arts & Crafts Movement.

What are some art and design movements influenced by the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and the Arts & Crafts Movement?

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and the Arts & Crafts Movement influenced several art and design movements. The American Pre-Raphaelites was a movement of landscape painters in the United States during the mid-19th century, named for its connection to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and for the influence of John Ruskin on its members 1.

The Brotherhood of Ruralists based its aims on Pre-Raphaelitism in the late 20th century, while the Stuckists and the Birmingham Group were also influenced by the Pre-Raphaelites 23.

The Arts & Crafts Movement influenced the Art Nouveau movement, which was characterized by its use of flowing, organic lines and natural forms 1. Additionally, the Arts & Crafts Movement influenced the development of modernist design, which sought to create functional objects that were also aesthetically pleasing 1.

Overall, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and the Arts & Crafts Movement had a significant influence on the development of several art and design movements.

Why do the personal lives of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood members continue to captivate audiences?

The complex relationships and personal lives of the members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, particularly the love triangle between Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Morris, and Jane Morris, intrigue audiences and art enthusiasts, serving as a testament to the enduring allure and mystique of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and their groundbreaking contributions to the world of art.

William Morris was a multi-talented artist, designer, craftsman, poet, writer, and socialist activist. He is recognized as one of the most significant figures of the British Arts and Crafts movement of the 19th century.

The Arts and Crafts movement was a design movement that emerged in Britain in the late 19th century. William Morris was one of the founders of this movement, and he made significant contributions to it through his work as a designer, writer, and craftsman. Morris believed that design should be accessible to everyone and that beauty should be an integral part of everyday life. He emphasized the importance of handcrafted objects and traditional techniques in design, and his work had a significant impact on the development of the Arts and Crafts movement.

William Morris's work spanned many different mediums, including textiles, wallpaper, furniture, and book design. Some of his most famous works include the "Willow Boughs" wallpaper design, the "Red House" (a home he designed for himself and his family), and his translations of medieval texts such as the "Odyssey" and the "Nibelungenlied."

William Morris was a committed socialist and believed that art and design should serve the needs of the people rather than the interests of the wealthy elite. His political beliefs influenced his work in several ways. For example, he advocated for the use of traditional techniques and handcraftsmanship as a way of empowering workers and promoting their skills. He also believed that design should be accessible to everyone, regardless of their social or economic status.

The Kelmscott Press was a private press founded by William Morris in 1891. Morris founded the press as a way of producing beautiful books that were designed and printed using traditional techniques. The press was known for its high-quality craftsmanship and attention to detail, and it produced some of the most beautiful and influential books of the Arts and Crafts movement. The Kelmscott Chaucer, a lavishly illustrated edition of Geoffrey Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales," is perhaps the press's most famous work.

William Morris's work has had a lasting impact on design and the arts. His emphasis on beauty and craftsmanship, his commitment to traditional techniques and handcraftsmanship, and his political beliefs have all influenced contemporary design and art. Morris's work continues to inspire designers and artists today, and his ideas about the value of skilled labor and the importance of social and economic justice remain relevant and important. Morris's legacy is a testament to the power of art and design to inspire change and promote social and economic equality.

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