The first lines of any description of Jane Burden Morris describe her as a muse to important men. Well, yes. Her dark, sad beauty managed to catch the eye of Burne-Jones and Rossetti, a fortuitous constellation of genes and environment that gained her entry into a circle of men who would change the direction of fine and decorative arts for the next 150 years.
Jane was the daughter of a stable hand and her mother was illiterate. She was destined for domestic service. Yet when Morris decided to marry Jane, she hesitated, but as Rossetti was in a committed relationship with Lizzie Siddal, and having few options at the ripe age of 18, she relented. And William was a nice man. As Jane was uneducated, Morris paid to have her educated as a fine lady, a process that took a year, giving him time to build Red House. Jane mastered her “file lady” lessons to the point that she came to be, as the years progressed, referred to as “queenly”.
Mistress of Red House
Why did Morris decide to marry Jane? Projection onto the dark beauty certainly, but she was not unintelligent. She taught herself French, Italian, and a smattering of Latin, raised two children and managed a large household (while maintaining a torrid love affair with a man who can hardly be described as low maintenance), was a loyal friend if not a loyal lover to a man was passionate about everything, whose interests were many, and for whom the term “overachiever” pales. Jane played hostess to her husband’s friends and some of the greatest mind of her age.
Jane loved her children dearly. She did not love Morris, but didn’t say so until he was gone, even to friends. Their daughter, May, was an expert at embroidery, a skill she learned from her mother.
Left: Daisy wall hanging for Red House, embroidered by Jane. The subsequent Daisy patterns in tile and fabric took this as their inspiration.
Right: Detail from the bed covering for Morris’s bed, embroidered by Jane and May Morris.
Detail from an embroidery of William Blake’s Tyger Tyger from the Songs of Innocence and of Experience.
The Muse, and oh yes, The Adulteress
A woman in her early 20’s. One man loves her, but romance is not his strong suit. The other, a man 9 years her senior, see a goddess and an inspiration. An understandable choice, and one she eventually came to regret.
Left: Morris, Queen Guinevere. Right: Rossetti, Proserpina.
This, though, is how I think she would like to be remembered:
Jane and May Morris.
Note: This is an expanded version of text from my website: William Morris Tile