Art historian Simon Schama explores the history of portraiture and unveils the secrets of some of the nation's best loved works of art. In this extract, he tells the story of Jane Morris (née Burden) and the artists infatuated by her
It was not the wandering armadillos, the kangaroos, the intermittently braying jackass, the Brahma bull (acquired because its huge eyes reminded Gabriel of Her), the two wombats, the cawing raven, the tunnelling woodchuck which laid waste to the lupins of riverside Chelsea, or the perpetually escaping raccoon which infuriated the neighbours on Cheyne Walk. No, the straw that broke the camel's back (and there was talk that Rossetti might be getting one of those, too) were the bloody peacocks: shrieking and carrying on whenever they pleased as if there were murder or something indecent happening at number 16; which, for all the neighbours knew, was probably the case.
They were God's little joke, the peacocks, so iridescently beautiful that they had to be equipped with a sound like a Wapping fishwife at throwing-out time. Naturally, their screaming only endeared them still more to Rossetti, who was a bit ofa strutter himself. The wombats were his babies. When one snuggled its damp snout into John Ruskin's waistcoat while he affected not to notice, continuing to talk of how they must remake universal brotherhood, Gabriel thought he was in heaven, or at least Eden. When one of them died in September 1869 he drew a comic image of himself weeping by an urn.
Into this Noahide backyard in July 1865, taking care not to tread on the dormice or the slithering salamander, stepped the tall figure of Jane Morris in her flowing gown. She had come to be photographed by the camera of John Robert Parsons, though it was Rossetti who was directing exactly how this was to be done, which was emphatically not in the style of bridal pictures but as high Romantic art. A marquee of the kind erected for the many parties at Tudor House had been put up in the garden. There was a Japanese screen, a wicker armchair and a couch on which Jane might lie, especially when her chronically troublesome back pained her.
She was wearing the loose-fitting, uncorseted, long silken dress of the kind she wore when she sat to Rossetti's paintings, often made by herself. The heavy waves of dark hair were parted in the middle and fell all the way to her thick brows, while the summarily brushed locks rose rather than rested on the nape of her neck as if touched by sensual electricity. Rossetti made sure that Parsons caught her in profile, showing off to most dramatic effect her strong nose and unsmiling Cupid's bow mouth, the upper lip full and arched. That day in high summer 1865 Jane Morris was the most magnificent of all the animals in his collection. It was just as well he had the perfect pretext constantly to stare at her; adjust her hair and her dress with the brush of his fingers.
Rossetti had first set eyes on Jane Burden in Oxford eight years before, in 1857. He had already made a name for himself as poet and painter; the loudest and most uncontained of the group that had, since 1848, called itself the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. The son of an Italian political refugee who taught the language at King's College London, Rossetti showed enough early talent to be enrolled at the Royal Academy drawing schools, but its academic discipline left him cold.
In the chronicle of their dawning it was an encounter with the hauntingly awkward engravings of the late-Gothic frescoes of Benozzo Gozzoli which convinced Rossetti, as well as his friends William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais, that what they characterised as the glossy 'self-parading' polish of High Renaissance painting had eclipsed an innocent devotion to the truths of nature (their professed god).
This over-varnished inauthenticity lived on, they thought, in the vulgarities of Victorian paintings and in the arid classicism embalmed in the teachings of the Academy's first president, 'Sir Sloshua' Reynolds; the butt of their ridicule. In its place the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood sought to recover through purity of colour, unaffectedness of design and truth to nature what had been long lost. Giotto and Gozzoli would live again in the London of the horse-trams. Ruskin, who himself believed that the Renaissance had ruined truth and beauty, loved their flamboyant passion and wrote in support.
In 1857 they accepted a commission to paint murals for the Oxford Union chamber. Rossetti's choice of subject was Malory's Morte d'Arthur: almost as much a holy scripture for the Brotherhood as the Bible or the painter's namesake Dante. Rossetti himself was most interested in painting the tragic passion of Lancelot for the Queen; the moment, in fact, when he was discovered in her chamber. At the theatre with Ned Burne-Jones, he saw the young woman who had to be his Guinevere. Jane Burden was 17, the daughter of a stablegroom, poor and uneducated; in other words, exactly how Rossetti – and most of the Brotherhood – liked their 'stunners': beautiful in their obliviousness to the pretensions of the middle class; soft wax waiting to be moulded by the apostles of the Natural.
It didn't always go according to plan. Lizzie Siddal, Rossetti's first great passion, for many years chafed at being model and educational project. Storms, increasingly violent, broke over them. The opiate laudanum quieted her torn-up lungs and her distress, but living together became a mutual torment. In 1857 Lizzie had gone north, so Rossetti was free to project the heat of his Arthurian fantasies on dark Jane.
While he frolicked and raved, she remained quietly enigmatic, which provoked him further. But there was competition from the younger, bearded enthusiast William Morris – wealthy enough from the family copper mines to be aspiring poet, painter, designer and, eventually, socialist. As an undergraduate he and Burne-Jones had fallen for the gospel preached by Augustus Welby Pugin, Carlyle and Ruskin, which imagined the Perpendicular England of the 13th century as a lost time of Christian community and beauty. If industrial England was to be saved from the brutality of the machine age, the spirit and practice of its craft had to return.
This was lute and sackbut to Rossetti's ears. From 1856, Morris and Burne-Jones shared lodgings in Red Lion Square in London, where Morris made his first designs for the house-beautiful – furniture, wallpaper, tapestries – with Burne-Jones specialising in the stained glass of which he would stay a graceful master. Morris looked at Jane Burden and saw the person who was destined to share this remade medievalism. She looked at his big, generous, whiskery-frisky self and saw protection, a future. They were married in 1859. Algernon Swinburne wrote, 'the idea of marrying her is insane. To kiss her feet is the utmost man should think of doing.'
He may have been right. Those who fell for Jane could not help doing things for her as a way of fully possessing her, or at least inhabiting a life with her; and the more they did, the more enigmatic she became: floating about in the long gowns which pleased them; wincing occasionally when her treacherous back hurt; arranging herself decoratively on the couch. The way she carried herself, unencumbered by hoops and stays, the dresses flowing with her limbs along with the intense gaze coming from the grey eyes, mesmerized everyone. It was the living Janey who was the work of art.
Morris flung himself into creating their model house: designed and built at Bexleyheath, ten miles into Kent from London. It would, he thought, be an easy commute to Red Lion Square, where the 'Firm', including Rossetti and Burne-Jones, had established themselves to design and make – using artisanal techniques – their perfect decor for house and home.
Love was not wholly absent, even though, much later, Jane said she had never really loved her husband. Two girls were born. Morris wanted the Red House to become itself an ideal community, but the commute was taking four hours a day and Burne-Jones grimaced at the thought of leaving London for good. They sold up and moved to Queen Square. Morris might have rented out the Red House so that one day he could return, but was too saddened by the uprooting to face ever seeing it again. In London they saw more of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who made little secret of how he felt about Jane.
By the time of the photographs in the garden of Tudor House, Rossetti had been a widower for three years. He had finally married Lizzie, only for her to suffer a stillbirth, which led to a mental collapse. All that helped was laudanum. In 1862 she took enough to kill herself. Horrified and distracted with guilt, Rossetti threw the manuscript copy of his most recent poems into her coffin to be buried with Lizzie. He would come to regret the extravagant gesture. In 1869 he decided to have the coffin opened to retrieve the poems. To those aghast at this literary exhumation, he claimed Lizzie herself would have 'approved of my doing this. Art was the only thing for which she felt seriously. Had it been possible to her I should have found the book on my pillow the night she was buried; and could she have opened the grave no other hand would have been needed.'
It wasn't money which made Rossetti perform this act of selfish desecration. He was making plenty: £2,000 in one year, more than enough for him to take Tudor House in a Chelsea which was not yet smart. He stuffed it with beautiful things and with a mass of antiques and porcelain acquired while trawling the stalls of Hammersmith and Leicester Square. Chinoiserie abounded. Some rooms were packed with mirrors; others with Delft tiles and brass chandeliers. Pictures banged into each other on the crowded walls. It was madhouse and funhouse. Whistler and Swinburne were close by. Fanny Cornforth, voluptuous, golden-haired, deliciously dirty-mouthed, moved in as model and warm company in the big oak four-poster hung with heavy green velvet. Let the dull neighbours be scandalised; who cared?
Rossetti was painting a succession of women, some of them models he charmed into sitting when he encountered them in the street, like the gorgeous Alexa Wilding. Poetry would fall from his lips; his dark eyes locked on to theirs and he laughed like Mephistopheles. It was hard to say no. He painted these women in hotly sensual colours, crowding the picture space so completely that their bewitching faces and generous bodies were pressed to the greedy gaze of the beholder. There was drapery, greenery, pierced fruit, peaches and pomegranates; flowers which were shedding petals and tight buds beginning to open. With every tiny, curling, scarlet tongue of a honeysuckle blossom, Dante Rossetti perfected these visual seductions and called them poetry, art, the enchantment of the senses. Despite all the doctoral theses, it's essentially Victorian soft porn, but the most beautiful soft porn that has ever been realised in paint.
Janey, as everyone now called her, was different: dark where they were golden-haired; silent while they were raucous and gigglesome; gracefully elongated while they were roundly buxom. Morris was not an idiot. But he was also principled in his conviction that true marriages should never be bound by constraints. So he put up with Rossetti's many visits and let Janey go and sit for a series of drawings, each one the mark of deep, unshakeable adoration; love letters in soft black chalk.
In the garden that afternoon in high summer 1865, Janey stood, lay down, sat, leaned forward; all with the identical expression of inwardly resigned, cow-eyed secret sorrow that aroused Rossetti so intensely. Off and on went the lens cap of John Robert Parsons; off and on. Gabriel took the photographs and drawings as studies for a great painting he would make of her in the lustrous blue silk dress she had made, probably at his suggestion. It would take him three more years to finish and, even then, with good reason, he was not wholly satisfied with it, knowing that he had worked her face in particular until it looked oddly cosmetic and waxen, with none of the graceful looseness of his drawings. But whatever its shortcomings, The Blue Silk Dress served as a kind of notice that, if her person was not Rossetti's, her picture was. He knew what an impression she made on visitors like Henry James, who described her as a:
figure cut out of a missal . . . an apparition of fearful and wonderful intensity . . . a tall lean woman in a long dress of some dead purple stuff, guiltless of hoops (or of anything else, I should say), a maze of crisp black hair heaped in great wavy projections on each of her temples . . . a thin pale face, great thick black oblique brows joined in the middle . . . a long neck without any collar . . . in fine complete.
And now he, Rossetti, was the maker and keeper of this vision, and he was shameless enough to say this in a Latin inscription painted on the top of The Blue Silk Dress. Making a disingenuous nod to her marriage, it declared Jane 'famous for her poet husband; most famous for her face; finally let her be famous for my picture'.
However impassive the mask Jane showed to the rest of the world, Rossetti knew she was not indifferent; so did the increasingly tormented Morris. She came to Cheyne Walk, sittings or not. She and Rossetti shared complaints: her back; his eyesight, which had started to give him trouble; headaches, of course, on both sides; heartaches evidently, too. Partings, even for a few days, became painful. And not-withstanding the Blue Dress picture, try as he might, the painter-poet still could not contrive a picture remotely adequate to the fierce acuteness of his gaze and the force of his desire. In January 1870 he wrote as much to her:
. . . the sight of you going down the dark steps to the cab all alone has plagued me ever since – you looked so lonely. I hope you got home safe & well. Now everything will be dark for me till I can see you again. It puts me in a rage to think that I should have been so knocked up all yesterday as to be such dreadfully dull company. Why should it happen when you were here? . . . How nice it would be if I could feel sure I had painted you once for all so as to let the world know what you were; but every new thing I do from you is a disappointment, and it is only at some odd moment when I cannot set about it that I see by a flash the way it ought to be done. Such are all my efforts. If I had had you always with me through life it would somehow have got accomplished. For the last two years I have felt distinctly the clearing away of the chilling numbness that surrounded me in the utter want of you; but since then other obstacles have kept steadily on the increase, and it comes too late.
Your most affectionate Gabriel
Did those 'obstacles' include the inconvenient husband? Rossetti was painting stories of unhappy unions: La Pia de' Tolomei featured Jane as the wife unjustly accused and locked in a tower in the Tuscan Maremma, where she died of poison; in Mariana she is depicted as the character in Measure for Measure betrothed to and abandoned by the sanctimonious sexual hypocrite Angelo.
Yet, however distressed Morris was by the obviousness of Rossetti's infatuation, he never thought of bringing things to a crisis and forbidding him her company, since he knew that would further alienate his wife. An alternative was to disappear himself, and this he did in the summer of 1871, all the way to Iceland, where he set about translating Njál's Saga. There seemed no bottom to William Morris's put-upon good nature. Before he departed for the landscape of treeless black lava beds and geysers, he and Rossetti went in search of a country house to rent for this and, perhaps, succeeding summers.
They found what they were looking for in a miraculously unspoiled Elizabethan manor house at Kelmscott, near the headwaters of the Thames on the Oxfordshire–Gloucestershire border. Rossetti described it as an earthly paradise, and so it was and still is. There were 17th century tapestries in situ; a walled garden; a parliament of rooks (also still there); an outdoor privy for three (convenient, in the circumstances); and no close neighbours peering in to confirm the scandalous gossip. Rossetti brought two of the antique Chinese lacquer cabinets he had been collecting and collared the perfect north-facing studio space, where he installed his bed. Morris's unoccupied bedroom adjoined his and, beyond it, Janey's room. On the ground floor there was a modest dining room and a living room with a hearth of Dutch tiles installed by Janey and supplied by the Firm.
We will never know for sure whether, once the little Morris daughters were asleep, Janey or Gabriel walked through William's room, separating them, and joined their bodies. Whatever happened or didn't happen, Rossetti was content, playing with the girls, making lovely sketches of them, walking together down to the willow-hung river; writing his sonnets in a sun-dazed trance of love. Some of them are so heavy with sexual pleasure that it is difficult to believe Rossetti was writing from wishfulness.
Even such their path, whose bodies lean unto Each other's visible sweetness amorously, –
Whose passionate hearts lean by Love's high decree
Together on his heart for ever true,
As the cloud-foaming firmamental blue Rests on the blue line of a foamless sea.
When summer ended, so did the idyll. Morris came back from Iceland loaded with runic gifts for the girls. Now, at night, the missing husband and father lay literally between Gabriel and Janey's rooms. The House of Life, the sequence of sonnets Rossetti had written as a hymn to their passion, was ridiculed by one particularly vicious critic, who sneered at him as the founder of the 'fleshly School of poetry'; work that was indecent when it was not ridiculous. Rossetti took it badly, had a paranoid breakdown, reached for the chloral hydrate, was taken to Scotland to avoid commitment to a lunatic asylum. There, devoted friends did what they could to restore his sanity and calm.
In London, in the garden of Tudor House, the animals were behaving badly. The young kangaroo had eaten its mother; the raven had bitten off the head of Jessie the owl; the armadillos were falling prey to prussic acid laid on as bait for them in the next-door garden; and a deerhound had torn another dog to pieces. Probably none of the beasts was being adequately cared for. His friends saw the menagerie as an amusement for Rossetti, who, whatever the neglect, expected the animals to perform entertainingly for guests.
He tried coming back to Kelmscott, but the summer of 1871 was never to be recaptured. He mooched and brooded, and alternated between chloral hydrate for his insomnia and whisky to cut its bitter taste. The drug put him down and the booze woke him up. By 1874 it had become unendurable. Rossetti marched out from Kelmscott, never to return, leaving behind the Chinese lacquer cabinets, which are still there. Two years later Jane decided she would see him no more. In her absence, stricken by the loss, Rosetti found release for his desperation in the form of a succession of great, strange paintings.
His creative imagination returned to Italy, the land of his ancestry, and to Michelangelo in particular; the old mannerist Michelangelo whose figures stare and brood, turn their elongated limbs about the pictured space. There was something about Jane's face, almost androgynous, that put Rossetti in mind of Michelangelo's prisoners struggling to get loose from their bed of stone. He painted her in entrapment: the many Proserpines doomed to imprisonment in Hades after nibbling a single pomegranate seed, the fruit painted by Rossetti with tormented vividness, the gem-like seeds lying in their split casing.
The paintings were accompanied always by sonnets spelling out her mournful predicament, the daylight of the earth remote in the background. Then there was Janey lost in a daydream halfway up an entangling tree, her book forgotten, a wilted honeysuckle bloom in her lap. In Astarte Syriaca, Aphrodite's archaic predecessor, she is turned frontally to the beholder, eyes bigger, mouth fuller than ever, the green gown much closer than usual to the lines of her breasts and thighs, as though Rossetti was painting to remember; at once more physically present and more remote than ever.
In the last years, the alternation between chloral hydrate and whisky became extreme. Rossetti's kidneys were half destroyed and he was in a lot of pain. By the end of the 1870s he could barely walk. Tudor House was in disarray; the back-garden zoo emptied; friends sighed when they felt they should go and see him. There were days when he lay in bed staring at the blue vases filled to the brim with peacock feathers.
In the summer of their delight he had painted Janey in a format small enough to fit a particular 'beautiful old frame I have'. Her head is tilted on the long swan neck; the eyes are impossibly large, the lips impossibly full; behind her are the silvery stream, a gentle swelling hill and the gables of the house: Rossetti's house of life. Rossetti sold it, but Jane had a good copy made. Morris's daughter May inherited the care of Kelmscott and kept it there; you can see still see it in Janey's bedroom, where every day she would be confronted by the look of her own inconsolable wistfulness.
Simon Schama brings Britain to life through its portraits, as seen in the five-part BBC series The Face of Britain and the major National Portrait Gallery exhibition
Churchill and his painter locked in a struggle of stares and glares; Gainsborough watching his daughters run after a butterfly; a black Othello in the nineteenth century; the poet-artist Rossetti trying to capture on canvas what he couldn't possess in life; a surgeon-artist making studies of wounded faces brought in from the Battle of the Somme; a naked John Lennon five hours before his death.
In the age of the hasty glance and the selfie, Simon Schama has written a tour de force about the long exchange of looks from which British portraits have been made over the centuries: images of the modest and the mighty; of friends and lovers; heroes and working people. Each of them - the image-maker, the subject, and the rest of us who get to look at them - are brought unforgettably to life. Together they build into a collective picture of Britain, our past and our present, a look into the mirror of our identity at a moment when we are wondering just who we are.
Combining his two great passions, British history and art history, for the first time, Schama's extraordinary storytelling reveals the truth behind the nation's most famous portrayals of power, love, fame, the self, and the people. Mesmerising in its breadth and its panache, and beautifully illustrated, with more than 150 images from the National Portrait Gallery, The Face of Britain will change the way we see our past - and ourselves.
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