Who was Jane Morris? A lecture at Columbia University, NYC.
My photograph of Frank C. Sharp
Frank Sharp gave a lecture focusing on Jane Morris and the important moments in her life using excerpts of her letters from a new book he edited with Jan Marsh, ‘The Collected Letters of Jane Morris’ as well as gifting the audience with his wonderful stories of her, anecdotes from colleagues and friends of The Morris’s as well. He really brought her to life and shed new light on how we have ‘wrongly’ perceived Jane Morris over the decades. In addition, as Mr. Sharp spoke, he was accompanied by photographic images and paintings of Jane Morris through various stages of her life. However, only one photograph with one of her daughters was included. It was mainly Jane Morris alone, for whatever reason.
Throughout his fascinating lecture, I took notes and wanted to share just the highlighted memories or interesting bits. I do not own a copy of ‘The Collected Letters’ as it is very expensive, so I’m winging it purely as a lover of Pre-Raphaelite Art and someone who has studied the artists I admire in the brotherhood, purely for fun and enjoyment or to satisfy my own curiosity. Listening to Frank speak, I was wondering how Jane Morris fit into the Victorian era or did she? Was she more than just a painter’s muse? How intelligent was she? Did she have aspirations of her own or was she satisfied with being a painter’s wife? Well, Jane Morris was anything but satisfied with her lot in life. It is Frank Sharp’s belief, or so he stated in his lecture, that as a result of Jane Morris’s two affairs—one with Dante Gabriel Rossetti and one with Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, she has been branded and ‘immortalized’ as the ‘prostitute’ or someone so non sequential who doesn’t even rate as worth remembering. For instance, Frank explained how the lecture title, ‘Forgiving Janey’ occurred. He was discussing Jane Morris with someone who when her name was mentioned reacted with such disgust the person said to Frank, ‘I just can’t forgive that woman!’ Should we forgive her and what for? So, Frank began attempting to answer these questions and to dispel this negative myth of Jane Morris. He explained how editing books became such a problem for him because Jane Morris’s life was not catalogued since she was not deemed important enough for scholars and the like to ‘catalog an artist’s girlfriend’ which is exactly what one library cataloguer told Mr. Sharp while he was gathering his research. How do you trace a woman who he thought of as an important woman when the so called experts whose job it is don’t agree?
The next question Frank asked was why is Jane Morris significant? His answer, he believes because ‘she recreated her identity after meeting William Morris’. William Morris must have provided her with special tutors to better her education since it was after Jane met Morris she learned and became fluent in French and Italian. Jane would also alter her speech depending upon who she met and was engaging in conversation with throughout her life with William Morris. Jane was extremely well read; her letters tell us that she read Goethe and was a favorite of hers in addition to others such as Tennyson and Shakespeare.
Between the years 1865-1885 Jane was in charge of Morris & Co, the Morris Decorating Firm. Jane became an expert in embroidery including embroidering a set of curtains with floral designs. She contributed to a series of panels depicting famous women.
Jane taught her daughter May to embroider. Jane even critiqued May’s entry to one of William Morris’s books. Frank Sharp read an excerpt from a letter Jane wrote to May in 1899 that’s in the collected letters book but I couldn’t write down the entire excerpt of the letter, though.
In 1882 Jane became involved with the Icelandic Relief Fund. She also campaigned to help St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice, Italy. She handled the business with their home Kelmscott after the death of William Morris, including involvement in the printing press. Here, Frank reads an excerpt from Jane’s letter to Blunt, sorry couldn’t catch it.
Discussing Jane’s influence on Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Frank remarked on how Jane urged Rossetti to exhibit his paintings at the Grovesnor Gallery since ‘Ned’ or Edward Burne-Jones had already done so but Rossetti never took Jane’s advice and passed on exhibiting at the Grosvenor.
Also, Frank mentions how Jane last modeled for Rossetti in 1881 and in a previously unknown letter in 1882 Jane received news of Rossetti’s death owing to chloral, Jane says, ‘I gave up on him’.
Frank again emphasizes the purpose behind this new edition of ‘The Collected Letters’ book with Jan Marsh which includes previously unknown letters, totaling 570, is because Rossetti and Blunt’s letters depict Jane is such a negative light. They are hoping to make people aware of what an intelligent and genuine woman Jane Morris was.
Frank covers the brotherly friendship between William Morris and Crom Price who was a student of Rudyard Kipling. Frank reads excerpts from Jane’s letters to Crom Price, ‘I want to try to be respectable or I’ll be a pauper instead.’ And how she tells Price, ‘I have a new disease socialism on the brain.’ Jane Morris had a wonderful sense of humor. Jane Morris has a keen interest in politics but not William Morris’s idea of socialism. She had her own opinions on Socialism that were separate from her husband’s and she liked it that way whether or not Morris agreed with her was another topic altogether!
Frank discusses the idea or belief that Jane and William Morris had a broken marriage but says this is misplaced, especially if you take a look at the way Jane supported practically every facet of his career even honoring his memory after he died.
Jane Morris takes more than in interest in the suffrage movement even making her first friend as a result with Jane Cobden (?). Frank reads an excerpt from Jane Morris’s letter to Jane Cobden and this sentence struck me, “I want both sexes to have equal rights where women are better educated.” Also the name of Millicent Fawcett was mentioned as a friend of Jane Morris during this time.
Friends of Jane Morris during her later years include George and Rosalind Howard, the Countess of Carlyle, who resided at Castle Howard. A portrait of her can be found on the Rossetti Archive.
One side note: Frank Sharp mentioned that during Jane Morris’s time with Wilifred Blunt she designed the cover to his 1889 edition of In Vinculus and it was a creamy white cover with a shamrock. It is housed at the British Library. I looked for it online but couldn’t find it.
My photograph of a painting of Jane Morris as Pia de’ Tolomei by Dante Gabriel Rossetti
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