‘I cannot paint you but I love you’: ‘La Belle Iseult’ and the new Pre-Raphaelite muse

William Morris, 'La Belle Iseult', 1858
William Morris, ‘La Belle Iseult’, 1858

The year after William Morris finished La Belle Iseult, his only known easel painting, he married its model. Jane Burden was famously ‘discovered’ by Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones in an Oxford theatre in 1857 — they were out looking for a new ‘stunner’ to model for the Arthurian-themed murals at the Oxford Union, and Jane’s unusual, almost exotic beauty resulted in her modelling as Queen Guenevere. Today the murals are faded and murky thanks to the young Pre-Raphaelites’ total naivety when it came to wall-painting, but Rossetti’s watercolour study gives an idea of the overall composition and shows Jane posing as Guenevere appearing in a vision to Sir Launcelot, the knight whose sinful, adulterous affair with the queen prevented him from attaining the Holy Grail.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'Sir Launcelot's Vision of the Sanc Grael', 1857. Unfinished watercolour study for the Oxford Union mural.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘Sir Launcelot’s Vision of the Sanc Grael’, 1857. Unfinished watercolour study for the Oxford Union mural.

William Morris, who was also involved in the ‘jovial campaign’ of the Oxford mural project, soon fell hopelessly in love with Jane and started painting La Belle Iseult in the same year as her being scouted. Morris proposed to her in the spring of 1858 and they were wed in Oxford in April 1859. The painting is thus an important part of their courtship, though its subject matter — Thomas Malory’s version of the Tristram and Iseult legend — uncannily echoes later events in William and Jane’s marriage: like Iseult’s adulterous relationship with Tristram, Jane later had an affair with Dante Gabriel Rossetti and later admitted that she had never truly loved her husband. Morris’s painting depicts Iseult confined to her chamber and mourning her lover’s exile from her husband King Mark’s court; the girdle she fits around her waist symbolises a kind of enforced chastity. Her crown is garlanded with rosemary, symbolising remembrance, and convolvulus, representing ‘bonds or attachment’. Confusingly, the picture is often alternatively titled Queen Guenevere and it was exhibited under that name in the Morris memorial exhibition of 1897, but despite the similar themes of adultery in those two Arthurian stories the woman in the painting is now thought to be Iseult.

Alison Smith has also noted that the painting is one of several Pre-Raphaelite works to be influenced by Jan van Eyck’s fifteenth-century masterpiece The Arnolfini Portrait. It was purchased by the National Gallery in 1842 and undoubtedly must have impressed the PRB: its meticulous detail, rich colours, shallow non-High Renaissance perspective and late-medieval feel was echoed in Pre-Raphaelite paintings. Certain elements of the Van Eyck crop up in La Belle Iseult, such as the bed, the oranges, the little dog and the shoes on the floor; there is even perhaps some similarity between the poses of the two women, though this might be tenuous. As an interesting side-note, the real-life counterpart of the dishevelled bed in La Belle Iseult stood unmade, sheets crumpled, for several months in Morris’s rooms in Red Lion Square, London, while he worked on the picture. Such was that Pre-Raphaelite truth to nature!

Jan van Eyck, 'The Arnolfini Portrait', 1434. Not necessarily a painting of a marriage scene, as is often thought.
Jan van Eyck, ‘The Arnolfini Portrait’, 1434. Not necessarily a painting of a marriage scene, as is often thought.

Morris apparently disliked his painting and was clearly frustrated at his attempts to achieve anatomical accuracy. The popular legend goes that Morris, feeling a little dejected, wrote a message to Jane on the back of the canvas: ‘I cannot paint you but I love you.’ Rather sweet, and whenever I see the painting in real life I have to stop myself from taking it off the wall and flipping it over to see if Morris’s words are still there! I personally like the painting, especially since William is clearly indulging (and indeed excelling) in the more decorative elements of the picture: the patterns on the beside table, Iseult’s dress and the back wall are like a designer’s early work-in-progress. They also recall the patterns found in the fourteenth-century French Chronicles by Jean Froissart which Morris encountered as an Oxford undergraduate in the early 1850s; one of its gorgeous miniature illustrations later inspired his Daisy pattern.

'Dance of the Wodehouses' from Jean Froissart's 'Chronicles', Vol. IV, part 2, c. 1470-72
‘Dance of the Wodehouses’ from Jean Froissart’s ‘Chronicles’, Vol. IV, part 2, c. 1470-72

Finally, what about Jane herself? Surviving photographs of her — of which there are many, unlike Elizabeth Siddal — clearly show that she really was as unusual-looking in real life as she was in the paintings of her. She was the daughter of an Oxford stableman, born and raised in a house down a tiny passage near the Turf Tavern (today a commemorative blue plaque can be seen on the wall just before one reaches the pub); like Fanny Cornforth, then, she came from rather lowly origins to be exalted and loved by a group of bohemian middle-class artists. With her willowy limbs, heavy, almost masculine features and wavy raven hair, she was often described as being rather aloof, distant, enigmatic to the point of unearthliness. She seemed to offer a dark, exotic alternative to the red-golden-haired Elizabeth Siddal, and there is a certain solidity to Jane’s physiognomy which contrasts with the delicate ethereality of Lizzie. It’s easy to see why the unconventional Pre-Raphaelites were so drawn to her aura of unconventionality. Certainly, Morris does not quite capture this in La Belle Iseult as effectively as Rossetti did, but at least he tried: in my opinion, it is a lovely effort.

Photograph of Jane Morris, date unknown
Photograph of Jane Morris, date unknown
John R. Parsons with Dante Gabriel Rossetti, photograph of Jane Morris, 1865. From a series of photographic studies of Jane.
John R. Parsons with Dante Gabriel Rossetti, photograph of Jane Morris, 1865. From a series of photographic studies of Jane, portraying her as an unearthly Pre-Raphaelite beauty.

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Further information

  • La Belle Iseult on the Tate website.
  • Video (produced by my university!) about the Oxford Union’s Pre-Raphaelite murals
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