The Curious Life of Pre-Raphaelite Muse Jane Burden Morris

Jane Burden Morris was not just wife to William Morris, the founder of the Arts and Crafts Movement, she also played inspiring muse to other artists like Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The American novelist Henry James spoke of her when he said , “It’s hard to say whether she is a grand synthesis of all Pre-Raphaelite pictures ever made – or they a keen analysis of her – whether she’s an original or a copy. In either case, she is a wonder.”

Jane was born on October 19, 1839 in beautiful Oxford, but in an area of town colloquially referred to as Hell Passage – in reality a home just off New College Lane. A blue plaque dedicated to her now stands firmly on the wall of Hertford College close-by. Her father’s job was as a stableman and she and her family lived a very poor existence with her mother being described as illiterate and most likely a servant of some kind that had been brought to Oxford.

All of this changed, however, when Jane and her sister visited a theatre in Oxford and were noticed by Dante Gabriel Rossetti and fellow painter Edward Burne-Jones, who happened to be in town working on Arthurian murals for the university. They introduced themselves to Jane Burden and asked her to model for them. This was not the most noble of professions in the 19th Century, but Jane consented all the same. She began to first sit for Rossetti, who painted her as Queen Guinevere for the murals, but eventually moved on to model for William Morris, who fell madly in love with her. As Jane hadn’t received proper instruction, which was only normal for someone in her era having been brought up in abject poverty, she was instructed privately and became highly educated later in life. Meanwhile, Jane and William Morris were married in Cornmarket in 1859.

Jane and William first set up their home together in Bexley Heath and called it the Red House. All the while she was still sitting for portraits and working on her own creations for William Morris’s company. Eventually they would move to Kelmscott Manor in Oxfordshire where Rossetti would also reside with them. By this time Jane and Rossetti had already embarked on an affair together, believed to have started in 1865, and Jane was to become the inspiration for many of Rossetti’s most famous paintings, such as his Proserpine. Rossetti’s deep and abiding dependence on drugs like laudanum and chloral didn’t bode well for the relationship in the long run and eventually it ended altogether.

After her relationship with Rossetti had finished, Jane chanced to meet Wilifred Scawen Blunt in 1884 and the two of them embarked on an affair together and stayed friends up until her death. Jane managed to outlive William Morris, who died in 1896, when she finally succumbed herself in 1914 in the town of Bath.

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