I’m pleased to be able to offer a blog post by a guest writer, Evelyn Luther, and hope you enjoy it! The subject of Jane Burden is particularly appropriate as it is 100 years since Jane’s death on January 26th, 2014.
La Belle Iseult is an interesting painting from a Pre-Raphaelite whose painting work is often overlooked. In truth, the paintings of William Morris arguably never had quite the substance of his carvings, illuminations, and craftworks – the intricately realised décor of the room in which Iseult stands reveals the true direction of his talents. Nonetheless, La Belle Iseult is a worthy work, not least in that it is imbued with much of Morris’s interests and emotions. Indeed, painting it was reportedly a difficult experience for Morris as he was crippled by his ardent admiration for the model. Jane Burden, who posed as Iseult for him, was the love of his life and he later married her in a move which would prove quite as emotionally fraught as one would expect from the romance of a Pre-Raphaelite.
Painted in 1858, La Belle Iseult was for many years taken to be a painting of Queen Guinevere. The lady’s queenly demeanour, sombre features, and Arthurian garb were considered in the context of Morris’s The Defence Of Guenevere – published that same year – and the conclusion was drawn that this painting must necessarily depict Guinevere in the height of her emotional turmoils. However, research has since convincingly argued that the painting in fact represents another melancholy Arthurian queen – Iseult, the lover of doomed Tristan. Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur tells of Tristan gifting Iseult a small dog, which she adores and keeps close by her at all times. The painting contains a whippet-like hound curled up in the bedclothes – a detail which argues strongly in favour of Iseult as the painting’s subject, as no dog is ever mentioned as the close associate of Queen Guinevere. Furthermore, the painted queen wears sprigs of rosemary in her hair – an age old symbol of remembrance – while gazing mournfully into a mirror upon which the word ‘DOLORES’ (‘Grief’) is inscribed. Clearly this is a lady lost in grieving memory. Guinevere, while anguished, never suffers from grieving remembrance, yet Iseult goes through such an experience for most of her tale as she remembers and pines for the banished Tristan. A saga involving adoration and adultery is a poignantly apt subject for this, the only easel portrait which Morris ever completed, given his later relationship with the model.
Jane Burden, pictured here in the guise of Iseult, came from a deprived background but was possessed of a fearsome intelligence and vibrancy which clearly appealed to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. She was ‘discovered’ by Dante Gabriel Rossetti at a Drury Lane Theatre Company performance, which both she and Rossetti attended. Rossetti was struck on sight by her exemplary looks, and brought her into the Pre-Raphaelite circle as one of his models. During this time, William Morris became deeply enamoured of her, although many believe that Burden had long ago lost her heart to the charismatic Rossetti.
Morris and Rossetti
Rossetti, however, was not a good choice of paramour. Not only was he engaged to Lizzie Siddall, he was a renowned womanizer, known to visit prostitutes at a time when the spread of venereal disease was becoming of great concern to the authorities. Indeed, the Contagious Diseases Act clamped down on prostitution with the much publicised intent of cutting down STDs in men (the health of the prostitutes themselves apparently not being of much concern). Jane Burden was no fool. Knowing that it would be a mistake to get too close to Rossetti at this juncture, she tolerated Morris’s bashful advances. Driven to distraction by this enigmatic, enchanting woman, Morris found the experience of painting La Belle Iseult both intoxicating and frustrating in equal measure. He is said to have written ‘I cannot paint you, but I love you’ on the back of the canvas. A year later, the pair were married.
Jane undertook an education to bring her up to the standard expected of a gentleman’s wife, and she quickly excelled at all she turned her considerable aptitude to. Two daughters were born to the pair – Jane Alice in 1861, and Mary in 1862. For a time, Morris was blissfully happy with his muse. However, some speculate that Burden married Morris simply to remain close to Rossetti. Now that she was inextricably linked to him through bonds of marriage to a member of the brotherhood, she perhaps felt safer in embarking upon an affair with him. This view of things is perhaps casting Jane in too cruel and manipulative light – she was, after all, a worthy, intelligent and capable woman while Rossetti was a compulsive philanderer. Nonetheless, Rossetti at some point began a sexual relationship with his friend’s wife which simmered in the background for decades. Some believe that the two were involved even before their respective marriages. Most agree that the two were embroiled in an affair when Rossetti and Morris took a joint tenancy on Kelmscott Manor in 1871. Jane and Rossetti spent a good deal of time together at this house while her husband was away researching Icelandic sagas. The pair became extremely emotionally as well as sexually close – and they remained good friends even after their affair ended.
Jane’s relationship with Rossetti is said to have lasted until she discovered the extent of his drug dependencies – upon which she distanced herself from him sexually, although they remained emotionally close up until his death. By this time, any joy had left the Morris marriage, and Jane was later to admit that she had never loved her husband in the first place. The pair remained married up until Morris’s death – although by this time Jane had engaged in another affair with the political poet Wilfrid Scawen Blunt. Jane Morris outlived her husband by eighteen years, dying in 1914 at the age of 75. In 1904 she was painted once more by Evelyn de Morgan. It is a striking portrait, of a lady elderly yet still beautiful. Her dignity and poise is almost palpable, yet there is something of a wistful melancholy in her eyes – an echo of the emotion she portrayed all those years ago when modelling as Iseult for the infatuated William Morris.