In the summer of 1857, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the Pre-Raphaelite artist, ws invited to paint some mural decorations in Oxford's new museum building. Rossetti immediately went to Oxford and, after visiting the new museum, happened to call at the Debating Hall which the museum's architect was adding to the Union buildings in St. Michael's Street. Apparently forgetting the plans for the museum, the artist in his impetuous manner, managed to persuade both the architect and the Union Building Committee to allow him and his friend, William Morris, to paint murals in the Debating Hall in return for materials and board and lodging.
All agreed that the subjects of the murals were to be taken from the Morte d'Arthur,m a tale sympathetic to Rossetti's medievalist sensibility, and the artist undertook to find more painters to help with the project. Rossetti went back to London to seek out friends, and found five straight away, including Edward Burne-Jones and Arthur Hughes, who were later to become renowned artists of the Pre-Raphaelite movement.
Rossetti and his youthful companions looked forward to a pleasant summer in Oxford, painting by day, talking and rowing on the river during the long, warm evenings, and they set to work with great vitality. Sometimes they were helped by undergraduates who came to watch and enjoy the artful activity and were subsequently cajoled into the role of assistants. A contemporary account by a student who was working in a nearby library conveys a vivid impression of the artists' robust good spirits, their laughter, songs, and jokes -- and the constant popping of corks from the unlimited bottles of soda water the Union supplied to them free of charge.
One night, while out in the town with his friends, Rossetti caught sight of two sisters, one of whom, according to his own description, was a "stunner": she had deep, intense eyes, a long neck, and a rich abundance of black, wavy hair. Rossetti, with his easy charm, soon managed to obtain an introduction to the girl, whose father, it transpired, was a groom who lived above some livery stables in the city. Her name was Jane Burden.
"Janey," as she came to be known, became a frequent companion of the artists who brought her to the theater and on outings to the countryside. She also posed as a model for one of the Union murals -- as Guinevere, the Queen whose idealized image served as inspiration for Lancelot. The drawing illustrated here is a study of Janey and may have been intended as a preparatory design for one of the murals, "The Vision of Sir Lancelot," in which Guinevere is shown holding an apple, a traditional symbol of the temptations of sensual pleasure. The same pose, incidentally, was repeated 10 years later, when Jane Burden sat for Rossetti as "Mariana."
In this drawing only the head is finished, but it perfectly illustrates Rossetti's conception of feminine beauty in that period. Janey's features appear a little more fine than in reality, judging from photographs of the same date, although her strong, determined jaw is accentuated, and her lips are given a sensuous fullness. The emphasis in the drawing, however, is on her eyes, which are large and remote, as though she is brooding over something lost or for something never found. The mood is of pensiveness and melancholy.
It should be recalled that melancholy was still, in the middle decades of the 19th century, considered to be an indication of sensitivity and was often regarded as glamorous and admirable. Rossetti himself was prone to fits of depression and languor, and frequently projected an idealization of these mental states onto the women he cherished. He tended, furthermore, to see women in a literary fashion, as incarnations of Guinevere, Beatrice, or Proserpine, and he became infatuated with his own ethereal idea of their physical beauty.
Jane Burden, as one of his major iconic images, obsessed Rossetti for much of his life, although her personality was not really as he imagined it: she was much more down-to-earth than the melancholy muse he adored. It would be years before he realized the strength of the attraction her image held for him, and in fact, during the months that Rossetti and his friends spent working on the murals, Janey was being courted by William Morris, Rossetti's friend, and shortly afterwards agreed to become his wife. Notwithstanding Rossetti's intense feeling for her, one wonders whether he was ever aware of the real Jane Burden.