Wednesday 8 October 2014

Review: Rossetti’s Obsession: Images of Jane Morris

Forgive the delay in this review – I attended the opening of Rossetti’s Obsession: Images of Jane Morris at the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow last Friday night.  This exhibition started in Bradford in March, making its way to the Lady Lever, Liverpool in June and has finished its tour in London.  This exhibition has been part of the centenary of Jane Morris’ death, and is dedicated to Jane as both image and reality.
Jane Burden (1858)
Whilst Jane, together with Lizzie Siddal and to a lesser extent Fanny Cornforth and Alexa Wilding, are always very much a focus for Rossetti exhibitions, they are rarely looked at as the subject alone.  In fact the change in focus from maker to inspiration is interesting not just for novelty’s sake.  By taking a directed look at the woman who provided the basis for so much of Rossetti’s work, there is an acknowledgement that the model is part of the creative process and not just a passive placeholder for the artist’s vision.  This obviously pleases me greatly as a researcher of models’ lives, but it also gave an opportunity to compare the woman with the inspiration she provided.

Pandora D G Rossetti
Housed in one room in the museum, the walls display an array of photos and chalks all reflecting one face.  The counterpoint of photos of the woman together with the images drawn from them reminds the viewer that this goddess, this woman of mythical wonder, was a real person.  The collection of John R Parsons’ photographs were familiar but to see them in a group gave a notion of Jane posing patiently as the artist positioned her and the photographer took the photographs, slowly.

Jane Morris (1865) John R Parsons
Seeing Jane’s face repeated and repeated in chalk, pen and ink made it easy to feel the unsettling obsession the Exhibition alluded to.  More than any of the other models, there is a disquieting aspect to the pictures of Jane, a possession, a desperation. Following her face around the room as she stares out at you, Rossetti’s repetition becomes a threat, a dream, a madness, especially as the pictures get bigger and Jane becomes the only focus.

Study for Mnemosyne (1876) D G Rossetti

Whilst getting caught up in the beautiful swirling chalks that surround you, it would be easy to lose sight of the reality but the final wall draws you back to Jane the woman.  Evelyn de Morgan’s heartbreaking study of an elderly Jane for The Hourglass, together with some photographs of Jane, no longer the focus of attention and looking disappointed and impatient, show the remains of a stunner, but I think the standout part of the exhibition for me was a spectacular bedspread, embroidered in William Morris’ design for Honeysuckle from around 1880 and embroidered by Jane and her daughter Jenny.  The sheer scale of the piece together with the skill and beauty of it defeats the notion that Jane was a vision without substance and left me feeling a little sad that Rossetti’s image of her as the passive goddess overwhelms reality.  It simply remains as a reminder that we cannot know Jane through the eyes of the artist, she is merely a reflection of himself.  To seek to know anyone through the art of another does a disservice to the subject and the interest of this exhibition is the discomfort it provides in reminding you of this.

Margje Bijl and the Honeysuckle Embroidery (© India Roper-Evans)
The reason for the delay in my review is that I have just had the pleasure of spending a long weekend with artist Margje Bijl, who you will remember from her exhibition (see my post here) earlier in the year.  Who better to attend the exhibition with than someone who explores the nature of Jane’s image in her art?  I had the pleasure of taking Margje off to Kelmscott, to visit both the manor and the graves and again felt the conflict of the Jane of our imagination and the woman who lay beneath the grave in the churchyard.  I suppose that is forever the paradox of being a muse.
Margje at the grave of William and Jane Morris
The exhibition runs until 6th January 2015 and details can be found here. Thanks to India Roper-Evans for the use of her photograph.  Her website can be found here.

For Margje's piece on the exhibition, stroll on over to her blog:


  1. Wow! That honeysuckle embroidery is sublime.

    It's great to see the enchanting Margje Bijl. I wonder if there were any visitors that did a double take when they saw her amidst the Jane images. :)

  2. Sounds like some wonderful and thoughtful creation. And I wish I could see that bedspread! It's lovely to see Jane finally getting a little recognition for her own work, even if the "craft" side of Arts and Crafts will likely never get its equal due.

    1. Errr... "curation", not "creation." Although there's some of that too. :-)

  3. Recent convert to PRB after DR, subsequent visits to Tate Britain & Birmingham, now getting slightly obsessed with the subject,hence signing up for your excellent blog with so much info contained therein!
    Saw the Jane Morris exhibition on recent trip to Liverpook,detoured to Lady Lever,really interesting I thought along with some excellent PRB works on display as well.
    Visited Kelmscott,Wightwick and Red House over the past couple of weeks,told you I had the bug!
    Blown away by the houses and displays, fascinating and made me realise the huge contribution they made to art and indeed social attitude!
    Ok enough rambling got backlog of blogs to check out!!

  4. Welcome aboard, David! It sounds like you've managed to pack in quite a bit of work so far. I know for a fact that next year we have some splendid exhibitions to look forward to, both Pre-Raphaelite and Victorian in general.

    Thanks for your comments.

  5. Hi David welcome to the merry throng. What a pleasure to read Kirsty's back catalogu of blogs for the first time! And now I see why Margje was over at this particular time, beautiful photos.


Many thanks for your comment. I shall post it up shortly! Kx