The famous Mrs Morris
Jane Burden was born in Oxford, the daughter of a laundress and a groom an upbringing in Victorian Britain that would have been poor and deprived.
Jane’s introduction the Pre-Raphaelite circle came when was approached at the Drury Lane Theatre, Oxford by Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones to model for their work on the debating chamber at the Oxford Union. She did not turn up for her first sitting, likely presuming that motives may be other that professional. It was her work as the model for both Guinevere and La Belle Iseult that launched her iconic career and began her acquaintance with William Morris, who was also working as an artist on the project. In 1859 William and Jane married and moved into the house they had commissioned in Bexleyheath.
" It’s hard to say [whether] she’s a grand synthesis of all the 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."
Morris and Co.
It was the process of decorating their new marital home, Red House, which led to the birth of Morris and Co in 1862. Jane was actively involved in production for the company from the beginning, working as embroiderer and going on to manage the embroidery department as the company quickly expanded.
Alongside her work for Morris and co. Jane continued her modelling work for Rossetti, their relationship was to develop into a love affair that lasted from 1865 until 1876, Rossetti painting her obsessively during this period.
Jane and Rossetti’s extra marital affair was not kept hidden from William Morris in fact itseemed to be public knowledge. Although the relationship must have been hugely painful for Morris the trio formalised the arrangement by the joint rental of Kelmscott Manor in Oxfordshire. The country home enabled Jane and Rossetti to conduct their unconventional relationship out of the gaze of London society. Morris spent most of this period away in Iceland. Jane left Rossetti in 1876 but was to retain the rental of Kelmscott until the end of her life, very much making its unique decoration an important part of her own legacy.
The volume of Rossetti’s works that feature Jane, mean she is known today as the embodiment of Pre-Raphaelite style and one of the most famous models of all times.
My Fair Lady
Jane’s impact was also felt in her own time. The novelist Henry James was in awe at meeting her in person. She was individual and directional in her style opting for medieval dress at home at Red House and dozens of “strings of outlandish beads” instead of the corsets and crinoline of the age. Janey became fluent in French and Italian and was a voracious reader. Outside her immediate group of fellow Pre-Raphaelites she moved in the upper circles of poets, politicians and aristocrats. Conjecture even has it her “Queeny” self-education was the inspiration for Vernon Lee’s ‘Miss Brown’ (who later inspired the character of Eliza Doolittle.)
Jane died in 1914 outliving both Morris and Rossetti. After the sale of Red House in 1865 she and William had never owned property. She bought her home Kelmscott Manor shortly before her death securing the inheritance of her daughters Jenny and May. She continued to model in later life, most notably for Evelyn De Morgan in 1904. Her role as head of the Morris and Co embroidery department was passed on to her famously talented daughter May Morris.
Jane is buried near the place she made her home in the churchyard of St George’s, Kelmscott.