Morris, Burne-Jones and the women in their lives

William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones were devoted lifelong friends and collaborators in both art and business. Their private lives were also intertwined and grew to be as complicated as one of Morris’s intricate wallpaper designs.

Everything started out simply enough. Burne-Jones fell in love first, meeting Georgiana MacDonald (known as Georgie) in 1856, when he was 23 and she was 15. She was the daughter of a Birmingham Methodist minister and the MacDonald family – Georgie had seven siblings – kept a jolly household which made an attractive contrast to the cheerless Burne-Jones home. During the four long years of their engagement Ned went away to Oxford and Georgie studied art at the Government School of Design. When they married in 1860 they had only scraped together £30 and a deal table containing Georgie’s engraving tools, but they couldn’t wait any longer.

A year after Burne-Jones met Georgie, Morris fell in love with Jane Burden. She was the 17-year-old daughter of an Oxford stableman whom the Pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti had spotted in the audience at the theatre in Oxford. He asked her to model for him

and she then also began to sit for Morris. Morris was smitten but too shy to declare himself, and the story goes that he wrote on the back of the canvas “I cannot paint you, but I love you”. They became engaged, though Jane admitted she was not in love with Morris, and married in 1859.

The early years of both marriages were idyllic. The two couples were great friends and spent uproarious weekends at the Morris home The Red House playing hide and seek and picking apples in the orchard as well as working together on ambitious decorating projects. The firm that would become Morris & Co was founded in 1861 and both women were involved; Georgie painted tiles and Jane directed the embroidery arm of the business. Georgie’s involvement ended when she gave birth to her first son, Philip, as Victorian mothers were expected to devote all their energies to their children. Georgie and Ned would have two more children, Christopher and Margaret, though Christopher was born prematurely and died soon after birth. Ned was by all accounts a devoted father and used Margaret as a model for the angels in Birmingham Cathedral’s stained-glass windows.

Jane and William Morris also had children – daughters Jenny and Mary, known as May. May learned embroidery from her mother and became one of the most influential figures in the field. She took over the Morris & Co embroidery department from Jane and was later involved with what would become the Royal School of Needlework.

While their work and families continued to flourish, Morris and Burne-Jones’ relationships with their wives were less satisfactory. Burne-Jones carried on a long affair with his troubled model Maria Zambaco. After her tragic suicide attempt the heroic Georgie forgave him and nursed him through his subsequent physical and emotional collapse, writing “I know one thing, and that is that there is love enough between Edward and me to last out a long life if it is given to us.” Perhaps it was this extraordinary display of selflessness that made Morris finally fall in love with her after years of platonic friendship, or perhaps it was the fact that Jane Morris had been drawn back into the arms of Rossetti after the tragic death of his wife Elizabeth Siddal.  No-one knows what happened between Georgie and Morris, but Georgie destroyed all his letters to her from this period.

Georgie Burne-Jones and Jane Morris were both artistically talented women in their own right, and had they lived even fifty years later their talents might have been recognised, as were those of Jane’s daughter May. As it is it’s impossible, particularly in the case of the selfless Georgie, to wonder what she might have become had she not had to devote so much of her energy to supporting her husband.