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)