Jane BURDEN (Mrs William Morris) (1839–1914)
St Helen’s Passage, Oxford
Jane Morris as Proserpine,
painted in 1874 by her lover
Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Jane Burden was born on 19 October 1839 in a slum dwelling in St Helen’s Passage (leading from New College Lane to the Turf Tavern) also known as Hell Passage. Her father was a stableman and the family moved frequently from one poor abode to another in the yards off Holywell. When she was eighteen and attending a performance at the theatre, her unusual, striking beauty drew the attention of Rossetti and Burne-Jones, always on the look-out for ‘stunners’. With her massy black hair, sullen expression, full lips and long neck and fingers she was quite unlike the demure beauties of the time and they persuaded her to sit as Guinevere for the Arthurian murals they were painting at the Oxford Union. William Morris, another member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, fell in love with her and they were married at St Michael’s Church, Cornmarket, in 1859. The bride gave 65 Holywell as her place of residence on the marriage certificate. She was given an express education to fit her for her new social status.
The first Morris home was the Red House, Bexley Heath, which became the cradle of the Arts and Crafts Movement. Jane was an accomplished embroiderer and played her part in creating extraordinary tapestries for the Morris firm. Morris said that he found it difficult to paint her but she became the inspiration, over the years, for many studies by Rossetti. In 1871 Morris and Rossetti took a joint tenancy of the enchanting Kelmscott Manor in Oxfordshire as a rural retreat where Jane and Rossetti, who had become lovers, could spend time together. The affair finally ended in 1876, blighted by Rossetti’s bouts of paranoia.
William and Jane had two daughters, Jenny, destined for an academic career until she was struck down by epilepsy, and May, who developed her own career as an embroiderer and became the leading figure of Arts and Crafts after the death of her father. Jane loved Kelmscott, not so far from Alvescot where her mother had been born, and later built some cottages designed by Philip Webb as a memorial to her husband. She had hoped to give the village a hall but that ambition was eventually realised by May Morris, her daughter. Jane finally succeeded in buying the Manor in 1913, just one year before her death. All members of the family are buried in the village churchyard.
Henry James commented on Jane Morris: “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.’
- Source: Jan Marsh, Jane and May Morris
- Picture: St Helen’s Passage
The plaque was unveiled on 19 October 2007 by Dr Jan Marsh, President of the William Morris Society. It is erected on the modern wall of the Hertford College building in St Helen’s Passage (off New College Lane) where some of the dwellings had stood.
Oxfordshire Blue Plaques Board
Mrs William Morris
Pre-Raphaelite Muse / and / Embroiderer
was born in a dwelling / in this passage
19th October 1839
William Morris Society