William & Jane Morris

Jane drawingWilliam Morris, drawing of Jane Morris in medieval costume, 1861, pencil and ink on paper, 51 x 41cm.  © William Morris Gallery, London Borough of Waltham Forest

Last month I gave a short talk at the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow about a piece on display. I was really pleased to have the opportunity to research and talk about a drawing I love and give my interpretation. Here’s a typed version of what I said, with a few extra dates and details.

This is a drawing by William Morris, of his wife Jane. It was made in 1861, two years after the Morris’ marriage. The drawing seems unfinished; in fact it is a preparatory sketch for a wall painting.

Jane may well look familiar; she is best known as the muse and model of the Pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti and is recogniseable as the subject of a number of his paintings. She remains something of a celebrity-figure: for much of 2012 she starred on posters across London for the Tate exhibition Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde, as the central figure in Rossetti’s painting Astarte Syriaca of 1877.

Before her marriage to William, Jane’s surname was Burden. She was born in Oxford in 1839, to Robert Burden, a stableman, and his wife Ann Maizey. It was here in Oxford, in 1857,  that she first met Rossetti. Jane and her sister were attending a performance of the touring Drury Lane Theatre Company, when she was spotted by Rossetti, who declared her a ‘stunner’ and invited her to sit for him. She began modelling for him, and then, after Rossetti introduced her to his friend, for Morris. Painting, however, was not Morris’s forte, and he made only this drawing and one painting of his wife. Once while trying to paint Jane, his wrote on the canvas “I can’t paint you but I love you”.

As I have said, Jane is best known as a model for Rossetti’s paintings. She modeled for him from their meeting in 1857, long after Jane’s marriage to William in 1859, and up until Rossetti’s death in 1882. As Jan Marsh has pointed out, Jane’s “long love affair with Dante Gabriel Rossetti has become the stuff of legend”. The deeply affectionate nature of their relationship is obvious from surviving letters, as well as the large amount of time they must have spent together for Rossetti’s paintings. Throughout this complex relationship, however, Rossetti and William Morris remained friends, and fellow workers as partners in the firm Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and co.

Jane and this drawing form part of the close connection between the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and the Arts & Crafts movement. After William and Jane married in 1859, their friends helped to decorate and furnish their new marital home, Red House. Morris made this drawing as a preparatory sketch for a wall painting which was planned for the house, but never executed. It shows Jane posed as if she is about to board a ship; the ladder she is about to step onto, and the planks of the vessel can be seen faintly sketched around her.

There are differing interpretations as to the subject matter depicted; she may be Iseult, the Irish princess who fatefully fell in love with Tristan aboard a ship heading for Cornwall, but it seems more likely that she represents Helen of Troy, the face that launched a thousand ships.

Morris has put particular care and attention into the hair and fabric in his depiction, especially the beautifully-patterned sleeve lining of Jane’s dress. This reflects his turning towards the decorative arts at the time, as he sets up the firm Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and co. the very same year, then in 1862 made Trellis – his first wallpaper design.

The subject matter of the drawing and medievalising costume show Morris’ interest in past eras. Through art and design, he harked back to what he believed to be periods of greater craftsmanship, freedom and creativity, in contrast to the industrialism, artifice and restriction of Victorian Britain. These sentiments were shared and expressed by his friends and associates in the circle of the firm and Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

Jane herself seems to have shared these sentiments. She and William worked closely on needlework projects, together unpicking old pieces of embroidery to discover and recreate old techniques. She was a skilled seamstress and is likely to have made the dress she wears for this drawing, as she did for Rossetti’s painting The Blue Silk Dress of 1868. The dress she wears for William’s drawing harks back to the medieval period and is loose flowing. It would have been easy to move in compared to conventional women’s clothing of the time, which controlled and shaped women’s bodies with corsets and crinolines. In photographs of Jane and her two daughters, they wear similarly loose, unconventional clothing.

It is easy to see Jane Morris as a still, silent and demure muse, because the paintings and photographs we ‘know’ her through are still, silent and demure. We often make the mistake of interpreting sitters, particularly women, through the medium by which we see them. However, once we realise that our perspective is distorted, we can see them in a different light.

What I find most interesting about this drawing is how it reveals Jane Morris’ contribution to the Arts & Crafts movement and Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. She may have sat or stood still for this drawing and many other works, but she also contributed to them by her actions and movements, notably her skill in dressmaking and embroidery. This drawing reveals a collaboration between William and Jane.

None of the many paintings, drawings or photographs of Jane show her smiling, but in real life she did! A friend of Jenny & May Morris regularly visited the house, and remembers Jane for her “delicious and chuckling laugh with which she would greet our youthful extravagances”.


Tim Barringer, Jason Rosenfeld, Alison Smith (eds.), Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avante-Garde (Tate, 2012)

Jonathon Benington, Simply Stunning: The Pre-Raphaelite Art of Dressing (Cheltenham Art Gallery and Museums, 1996)

John Bryson and Janet Camp Troxell (eds.), Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Jane Morris: Their Correspondence
(Oxford University Press, 1976)

Jan Marsh, The Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood (Quartet Books, 1998)

Jan Marsh and Frank C. Sharp (eds.), The Collected Letters of Jane Morris (Boydell Press, 2012)

Linda Nochlin, The Politics of Vision: essays on nineteenth-century art and society  (Thames & Hudson, 1991)

Nålebinding attempt

Ever since I saw these socks in the Victoria & Albert Museum I’ve wanted to try nålebinding. Thanks to some excellent tutorials on youtube and Richard Rutt’s The History of Knitting, I’ve started to have a go. Even though it can produce a fabric structurally identical to knitting, nålebinding is sewn with a threaded needle. I doesn’t unravel like knitting because the yarn is pulled through each stitch. I describe it as ‘knitting backwards’. The easiest way to explain how it’s done is through photos, so here’s the first stage: making the initial ‘knot’ and row of loops.

Tsarist Russia in colour



A while ago I came across an amazing photo archive of the work of a Russian photographer called Sergei Produkin-Gorsky. I’ve been longing for a way to share it with as many people as possible, so here’s a post dedicated to his work. Produkin-Gorsky (1863 – 1944) was a chemist and photographer. He developed an early form of colour photography which involved taking three black and white pictures in (fairly) quick succession – one through a blue filter, one through a red, and another through a green. Once developed, the resulting picture could be projected through the three filters to create the rich photographs you see here. There’s a more detailed and better explanation of the process on the wikipedia page here.

With the help of some kit and funding provided by the last tsar, Nicholas II, Produkin-Gorsky was able to carry out a personal vision of traveling around the Russian Empire documenting life at the beginning of the twentieth century.

I’ve chosen just a few of these images to show the diversity of the people, places, landscapes, buildings, activities and objects that he documented. The negatives were bought by the US Library of Congress in 1948, and are available to see on their website here. All of the photos were taken between around 1905 and 1915.










12.Saluktin Mines











Image List

1. Peasant girls, 1909.

2. In the middle, 17th century carved wooden image of Christ lying in His Tomb; on the sides, carved wooden figures of St. John the Theologian and St. John the Baptist. In the Rostov Museum.

3. At Kivach waterfall, 1915.

4. Work at the Borkalsk ore mine

5. Old church of St. Nicholas, the Miracle Worker in the village of Nyrob.

6. Sart woman in Samarkand, 1905 and 1915.

7. Emir of Bukhara, 1911.

8. Unidentified.

9. Constructing concrete floor of the dam, Beloomut, 1912.

10. Carpet merchant, Samarkand.

11. A mirror.

12. The Saliuktin mines, near Samarkand.

13. Greek women gathering tea, near Chakva, the Caucasaus.

14. Bamboo trees, Chakva.

15. Old church of St Nicholas the wonder worker, Nyrob, 1910.

16. Flowers.

17. On the Sim River.

18. Triglolastochka or sea cock (Chelidonichthys)

19. Mirza-uluk-bek Registan square in Samarkand, between 1905 and 1915.

20. Haystack, 1909.

21. A woman standing at the entrance of a yurt.

22. Sunset over the sea.

A day for scissors, glue and paint

Today I helped out with a family activity day at the William Morris gallery. Since William Morris visited Iceland (twice) and was inspired by its beautiful landscape, culture and traditional handicrafts, the theme was ‘Iceland adventure’.

I learned a few things: where Iceland is (=between Greenland, Ireland and Norway), what the Icelandic for ‘volcano’ is (=volcano, ha!), and that if you give a child a pencil and paper they can do wondrous things.

Naturally, our family-friendly take on the country involved a LOT of scissors, glue, paint and newspaper. This was the beautiful result!

iceland I was not a little proud of my papier-mâché night-before contribution..iceland3

..now complete with lava flows (no ash cloud though).iceland2

Knitting survey update

whotaughtyoutoknitSo far I’ve had 696 responses to my knitting survey. Yikes!

I think this is mainly down to the wonders of ravelry, after I posted a link to the survey on the ravelry forum. Thankyou to everyone who took part, and please pass on the link to anyone you think might be interested.

Lots of people have asked me the very fair question of What do you intend to do with the results? So here goes.

Initially, my main reason for putting together the survey was curiousity about how and why people learn to knit. A conversation with my dad about his experience of learning to knit (making blanket squares for refugees in cub scouts) got me wanting to interview others about their first experiences of knitting.

I realised that an online survey would reach the most people and in different parts of the world, albeit only english-readers with access to a computer and the internet.

I typed up the questions that covered the areas that most interested me (e.g. How old are most people when they first learn to knit? How do people’s learning experiences tend to differ from one country to the next?) and that I thought would allow people to tell their stories. Then I released the survey into the wilderness, and, as an afterthought, posted it on ravelry.
I don’t have much more of a motive for setting up this survey than that. I’m very interested in knitting and its social history. Perhaps this survey will lead to a bigger research project on the social history of knitting, but for now I’m happy to see what comes of this initial investigation.

I will be posting the results of the survey here on the blog once I’ve collected a week’s worth of data, had a good look at it and worked out the best way of presenting and writing it up.

Thanks again!

A Reminder



Today I walked past the Ecuadorian embassy and noticed a surprisingly heavy police presence for such a quiet, well-to-do street. One policeman stood on the steps of the building, another around the corner, and a police van was parked across the road. Then I saw a small group of people holding a flag, written on which were the words ‘FREE ASSANGE’. With a jolt, I remembered that Julian Assange has been under a kind of house arrest in this building for the past seven months.

The story has largely disappeared from UK news, but a handful of people make sure that there is a constant reminder and witness to the political stalemate taking place on this quiet, cold London street. It reminded me that even the act of standing, watching and waiting can be a powerful form of activism.