The Life of Pre-Raphaelite Art Model Jane Burden Morris
Much to a researcher's disappointment, there is little-known information on the childhood years of Jane Burden Morris other than she was born in Oxford, England in 1839 to an impoverished working-class family, her father was a stable handler and mother was a laundress.
Most likely, family expected that when Jane became of age, she'd follow in the footsteps of so many other underprivileged young women like herself and take on work as a domestic servant. One would think that with her station in life she'd no other hope. Even so, Jane had a gift of intelligence, and to her advantage, she would use every bit of it to reforge the direction of her life.
... a figure cut out of a missal—out of one of Rossetti’s or Hunt’s pictures—to say this gives but a faint idea of her because when such an image puts on flesh and blood, it is an apparition of fearful and wonderful intensity … On the wall was a large nearly full-length portrait of her by Rossetti, so strange and unreal that if you hadn’t seen her you’d pronounce it a distempered vision, but in fact an extremely good likeness.— American Writer Henry James on Jane Burden Morris
A Chance Meeting at Oxford
As it happened, a chance meeting occurred at Oxford's Drury Lane Theatre where Jane who in the company of her sister, came across Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones. The two distinguished young men had spied on the young girls who were sitting in the audience gallery below.
The artist duo introduced themselves as artists who were working with textile designer William Morris on a mural for the famous art critic, John Ruskin. They also explained their search for a new model to pose for their future paintings.
Overwhelmed by her unconventional beauty, the two men begged for their opportunity to have this new goddess sit for them. As destiny would have it - this was the moment when Jane's life would change forever.
The Modeling Years
When studying the brooding and pensive eyes of Jane Burden Morris, one might have a hard time deciphering the reason for the woman’s melancholic, almost soulful expression. The look of dull pang and wayward reverie was precisely the inspiration needed for a masterpiece and Jane personified all that was holy in the trained eyes of an artist who championed romanticism. Rossetti enlisted Jane to sit for him, inspiring him to create his vision of Queen Guinevere. It was during this time with Rosetti that Jane had secretly fallen in love with the artist, yet to her desolation, he’d already betrothed himself to another art model, Elizabeth Siddal and was possibly already romantically involved with Fanny Cornforth, yet another artist model who sat for him in the past. There has been speculation about two other art models, Annie Miller and Alexa Wilding, although the later woman of the two has been disproven mainly about romantic involvement with Rossetti.
Eventually, Jane met William Morris, a friend of Rossetti with who she also agreed to sit for his painting, La Belle Iseult. During this time, Morris fell in love with Jane, and she eventually decided to marry him despite her hesitancy and admission that she did not return his love. For Jane, this union was most likely a marriage of convenience, which allowed her to rise above her lower station in life and enter the upper echelon of society. Some would agree that it was a shrewd and calculating move on her part, but given her new-found status, one could imagine how hard it would be to turn away from the ease and comfort of being an artist model.
A Turning Point at Kelmscott Manor
Jane continued to model mostly for Rossetti. Eventually, their time spent together turned romantic after the death of his wife, Elizabeth Siddal. Some of Rossetti’s most significant works of art such as the renowned Proserpine envisioned by way of his liaison with Jane, and partly because William Morris turned a blind eye to the relationship. One cannot say the reason for his resignation to this arrangement, maybe it was because he deeply loved Jane, or possibly his reverence for Rossetti.
Either way, it didn’t change the fact that in 1871 Morris and Rossetti took on a joint tenancy in the countryside at Kelmscott Manor and shortly after that, William set sail for Iceland leaving the two together. Hence, a passionate love affair ensued in his absence.
The Passion Dwindles
In the years that followed, Jane had improved her position in life despite her long-standing affair with Rossetti. In that time she had been given private teaching on every aspect of the role of a gentleman’s wife, becoming proficient in the romantic languages, learning classical music and excelling in the embroidery craft. As Jane moved higher on the social scale, her bearing seemed almost superior to those once considered her betters.
As for her relationship with Rossetti, she had decided to distance herself from him; her decision wasn’t due to their illicit affair but rather the sedatives that he used to aid his bouts of insomnia. Jane loved him, but she could not abide by his choice to self-medicate with addictive drugs. Although they no longer shared an intimate relation, she remained in contact with him until a year before his death in 1882.
Two years later, Jane fell in love again while still married to Morris. Her second illicit affair commenced with William Scawen Blunt, a political activist with whom she had met through a close friend. This relationship kindled immediate attraction and lasted for several years before his death in 1894. Consequently, two years later – Morris himself had suffered from the effects of gout, possibly epilepsy and eventually died from contracting Tuberculosis in 1896. Leaving Jane widowed and very much alone.
I cannot say that Rossetti’s presence was enlivening [in his later years]. My most representative recollection of him is of his sitting beside Mrs. Morris, who looked as if she had stepped out of any one of his pictures, both wrapped in a motionless silence as of a world where they would have no need of words. And silence, however poetically golden, was a sin in a poet whose voice in speech was so musical as his – hers I am sure I never heard— R.E. Francillon, Mid-Victorian Memories
The Final Years
Before her passing, Jane purchased Kelmscott Manor to leave behind for her daughters. She did not go back to visit the mansion that had given her so many years of memories, passionate love, pang, and sorrow.
In the end, perhaps she did not need to revisit the past. Maybe somehow she found a way to make peace with all the incomplete fulfillment in her life. Jane died peacefully in her sleep on a cold winter morning in 1914. She is buried in the cemetery at St. George’s church in Kelmscott.
Cited Sources & Works
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