Jane Morris, wife of William Morris became Rossetti’s muse throughout his later career. Born in 1839, the daughter of an Oxford stable-hand or ostler, she came to the attention of the Pre-Raphaelite circle in the summer of 1857 when Rossetti, along with with Morris, Burne-Jones and other young artists were working on murals, illustrating the Morte d'Arthur, as decorations for Benjamin Woodward’s recently completed debating chamber at the Oxford Union.
Struck by her unusual beauty and statuesque figure, Rossetti asked Jane to sit for the figure of Queen Guinevere for his section of the decorative scheme. The artist’s brother William described, ‘her face was at once tragic, mystic, calm, beautiful and gracious – a face for a sculptor and a face for a painter – a face solitary in England and not at all like that of an English woman…Her complexion was dark and pale, her eyes a deep penetrating grey, her massive wealth of hair gorgeously rippled and tending to black’ (W. Rossetti, Family Letters, I. p. 199). Even at this stage they seem to have been mutually attracted, but Rossetti was already engaged to Lizzie Siddal and it was Morris, who had also fallen for her, that Jane married in April 1859.
They settled at Red House, Upton, in Kent, designed for them by their friend, the architect, Philip Webb. The furnishing of this seminal building, so significant for the future development of the Aesthetic and Arts and Crafts movements, led directly to the foundation of the firm of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co., 'fine-art workmen', in 1861. Morris was the director, Rossetti a partner, and Jane's skill as a needlewoman was put to good use.
When Lizzie Siddal, Rossetti’s wife died in February 1862 from an overdose of laudanum, Rossetti left their bohemian 'crib' overlooking the Thames at Blackfriars and established himself in the large house in Cheyne Walk, Chelsea that was to be his home until his own death twenty years later. The Morrises remained at Red House until 1865, when, with two young daughters, they moved to Queen Square, Bloomsbury, thus enabling Morris to be nearer his work. In fact they were now living literally 'over the shop', the firm sharing the same premises. By now it was a flourishing business, having scored a great success with its stand at the International Exhibition at South Kensington in 1862. Morris was also deeply involved with The Earthly Paradise, the cycle of stories in verse that was to make his name as a poet when it was published in 1868-70. But his marriage was far from perfect. Never entirely in love with Morris, Jane had married him at least partly for his wealth and social position; when Lizzie died, the stage was set for a renewal of intimacy between Jane and Rossetti.
In the summer of 1865 Rossetti invited Jane to pose for a now celebrated series of photographs in the garden at 16 Cheyne Walk (see fig. 1) and the same year, she sat to him for a number of drawings. By 1868 she was sitting regularly for him and became the inspiration for many of his most celebrated works; Reverie (1868; private collection), Aurea Catena (1868; Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University), Mariana (1870; Aberdeen Art Gallery) and Le Pia de' Tolomei (1868-80: Museum of Art, University of Kansas), La Donna della Fiamma (1870; Manchester Art Gallery), Silence (1870; Brooklyn Museum), Pandora (1871, Private collection), Proserpine (versions 1872-82; Tate Gallery and elsewhere), Astarte Syriaca (1877; Manchester). She continued to sit to him almost until his death, inspiring his last major picture, The Day Dream (Victoria and Albert Museum), commissioned by Constantine Ionides in 1879.
During the first half of the 1870s, Jane and Rossetti managed to spend long periods of time together at Kelmscott Manor, the sleepy old Cotswold house on the upper Thames, on which Rossetti and Morris had taken a joint tenancy in 1871. Their affair lasted until about 1875, when Rossetti’s bouts of depression and increasing dependence on chloral, led Jane to finish the relationship. When her later lover, Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, asked her if she had really loved Rossetti, she replied: 'Yes, at first, but it did not last long. When I found that he was ruining himself with chloral and that I could do nothing to prevent it, I left off going to him’.' However, she continued to occasionally sit for him and they continued to correspond until a few months before his death in April 1882.
Much about their relationship remains obscure, the Rossetti and Morris families were keen to draw a veil over the details, and Jane herself destroyed vital evidence by burning most of her lover's letters for the years 1870-77. One surviving letter, dated 18 February 1870, indicates the strength and desperation of Rossetti’s love: ‘Dearest, kindest Janey…To be with you and wait on you and read to you is absolutely the only happiness I can find or conceive in this world, dearest Janey’ (R.C.H. Briggs, ‘Letters to Janey’, The Journal of William Morris Studies, I, no. 4, 1964, p. 10). Their correspondence which did survive, was housed in the British Museum, but remained sealed until 1964, fifty years after Jane's death, and was eventually published in 1976.
The striking treatment of silhouetting the head and shoulders against a plain background, cut off with a sweeping line was one the artist employed in his portrait drawings. It allowed both the artist and the viewer to engage directly and fully with the sitter unencumbered with extraneous detail. Such treatment also allowed Rossetti to capture and distil the beauty and the very spirit of the woman who inspired so many of his finest works. This distillation of portraiture to its purest form, was something which influenced later artists, such as L.S. Lowry, from whose collection this drawing is now sold.
The eminence of the provenance of the present work is testament to the regard in which it was held. Initially it was in the collection of Frederick Startridge Ellis (1830-1901), a bookseller, author and editor, who became a close friend of both Rossetti and Morris and who edited and published their work.
The musician and composer William Alwyn (1905-1985), in whose collection this work also resided, once identified Dante Gabriel Rossetti as a crucial influence on his work and in 1955, he composed ‘Autumn Legend’, a concerto inspired by the work of the Pre-Raphaelites. Amongst the works which he sold in 1962 were eleven works by Burne-Jones and ten by Rossetti, including the present drawing.
Lowry, who acquired this drawing in November 1962, followed in a long tradition of artist collectors, dating back centuries to artists such as Van Dyck, Lely, Reynolds and Lawrence. He had been fascinated by the work of the Pre-Raphaelites and of Rossetti in particular, since his student days. In 1956 he admitted, ‘as a student, I admired D. G. Rossetti, and after him Madox Brown. The queer thing is I have never wavered, they’re my two favourite artists still’. (Sir J. Rothenstein, Modern English Painters, II, London, 1956, p. 81). However, it was only in the 1940s once his own reputation as an artist was established, that Lowry began to consider owning a work by Rossetti and in 1953, he purchased his first. His collection eventually amounted to at least sixteen works by the artist. His favourite works were either in his bedroom or sitting room (see figs. 3 and 4); whilst others which had fallen from favour were stacked in his studio or hidden under his bed. David Bathurst, writing in his article 'Talking to Lowry' for the Christie's Review of 1964-5, noted 'he collects with an insatiable zeal. Few things can drag Lowry away from the north of England, but, as he says himself, "I'd be on the 11:58 tomorrow if you had another like the one I bought in April. I have nightmares sometimes that Christie's are going to hold an entire sale of Rossettis."
Amongst Lowry’s collection were two of the artist’s most important late works and Jane Morris was the model for both Prosperine (fig. 2) and Pandora. The former, when it was sold again in these Rooms, on 27 November 1987, lot 140, achieved a world record price for a Victorian picture. This was only broken when Pandora was sold, also in these Rooms, almost thirteen years later, 14th June 2000, lot 14.
It is initially difficult to see the connection that Lowry, with his industrial scenes and matchstick figures, could have with the voluptuous and soulful figures produced by the earlier artist. However, he not only adopted the Pre-Raphaelite method of preparing a support with layers of white, allowing them to harden, sometimes for years before using them, or sometimes adding a final coat just prior to starting work. Moreover, Rossetti’s influence is evident in Lowry’s portraits of female figures, many of which were idealised amalgamations. Like Rossetti, Lowry’s sitters fill the picture surface, gazing out to the middle distance, revealing little emotion. Furthermore he employs a similar technique of emphasising the sitter’s features through careful shading and outlines of specific features, particularly the lips and chin (fig. 5).