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.
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 1. She was also skilled in embroidery techniques and later became renowned for her own embroideries1. Highly intelligent, she passed her 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.
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.
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.