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SPOTLIGHT: The PreRaphaelite Sisterhood

Saturday, September 08, 2018

As many of you will know, I have spent the past few years researching and writing about the fascinating lives of some of the women in the Pre-Raphaelite sisterhood for my novel Beauty in Thorns

BEAUTY IN THORNS is an historical novel for adults which tells the story of the tangled desires behind the famous painting ‘The Legend of Briar Rose’ by the Pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones. 

Four very different women tell the story: the wives, mistresses, and muses of the Pre-Raphaelites, Georgie Macdonald, Lizzie Siddal, Jane Burden, and Margaret Burne-Jones, the artist’s beloved daughter. 

The Pre-Raphaelites were a collection of daring young artists who outraged Victorian society with their avant-garde paintings, their passionate affairs, and their scandalous behaviour. 

Dante Gabriel Rossetti was one of the founders of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1848.  His work and ideals inspired Edward Burne-Jones and his friend William Morris to create their own art, and with it, to try to change the world. 

The ‘Sleeping Beauty’ fairy tale haunted Burne-Jones’s imagination, and he painted it many times over the course of thirty years, culminating in an extraordinary quartet of paintings that were greeted by the public with ‘enthusiasm amounting to ecstasy’ in 1890. It was bought for 15,000 guineas, the largest amount ever paid for an artwork in Britain, and Burne-Jones was consequently knighted in 1893.

Burne-Jones and his friends drew together an extraordinary group of young women who all struggled in their different ways to live and love and create as freely. 

In chronological order of birth:

Lizzie Siddal (b. 1829)
Discovered working in a milliner’s shop, Lizzie became one of the most famous faces of the early Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, modelling for paintings by Rossetti and Millais (she is his famous Ophelia). She and Rossetti began a passionate and turbulent affair. Heart-broken by his infidelities, Lizzie took refuge in laudanum. As she lay dying, Rossetti promised to marry her if she would only recover. They were married in 1860, but the birth of a dead child caused Lizzie to sink further into depression and addiction.  She died of an overdose in 1862. Rossetti famously buried his poems with her but later had her exhumed to retrieve the manuscript.

Jane Burden (b. 1839)
Jane was discovered by Rossetti and Burne-Jones in Oxford, and became one of their most striking and famous models. She married William Morris, but began a scandalous affair with Rossetti after the death of Lizzie Siddal. She had two daughters, Jenny and May. Her eldest suffered from epilepsy, then thought a most shameful disease.

Georgie Macdonald (b. 1840)
The daughter of a God-fearing Methodist minister, Georgie met Ned Burne-Jones when she was ten. He awoke her to a new world of art and poetry and beauty, and she shared with him her favourite fairy tale “Briar Rose”, which inspire him to create some of his most beautiful paintings. Georgie married Burne-Jones at the age of nineteen, after a four-year engagement. 

The early years of their marriage was idyllic, but in 1864 Georgie contracted scarlet fever, which brought on the premature birth of her second child, who consequently died. Her third child – a daughter named Margaret – was born in 1866, the same year as Burne-Jones began a passionate and ultimately calamitous affair with his model, the beautiful and fiery Maria Zambaco.

Margaret Burne-Jones (b. 1866)

The third child born to Edward and Georgie Burne-Jones, after the tragic death of their second son. She was a shy and reserved child remarkable for her beauty. As she grew, she found herself in demand as a model for the Pre-Raphaelites, but struggled with the unwanted attention. In 1888, she fell in love with the Scottish writer, John William Mackail, but her father refused to countenance their marriage. He was obsessively working on his painting of her as the sleeping princess in "The Legend of Briar Rose" series, and was afraid of losing his muse. Margaret had to find the strength to defy her father and marry the man she loved. 

The Pre-Raphaelite circle also included Effie Millais, Fanny Cornforth, Christina Rossetti, May Morris, Mary de Morgan, and many others who I wish I could have included in my novel. maybe one day I'll write something about them too ....  


BEAUTY IN THORNS: Edward Burne-Jones's Sleeping Beauty paintings

Saturday, September 08, 2018

The National Gallery of Australia has just announced a major exhibition of Pre-Raphaelite art, 'Love & Desire', will open in mid-December. It's bringing out many of the Tate's masterpieces for the very first time. This is a chance for Australians to discover the extraordinary luminous art of this circle of passionate rebellious mid-Victorian artists, which I have loved all my love and which inspired my novel, Beauty in Thorns.   

Beauty in Thorns is an historical novel for adults which tells the astonishing true story behind the famous 'Sleeping Beauty' painting by the Pre-Raphaelite artist Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones. Told in the voices of four very different women, Beauty in Thorns is a story of love, desire, art, and awakenings of all kinds. 

Burne-Jones painted the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale many times over the forty-odd years of his career: 

In May 1856, Burne-Jones drew a pencil sketch of his betrothed, Georgie Macdonald, as the Sleeping Beauty to amuse her little sister Louie on her birthday. He was 23 years old and Georgie was sixteen. I believe this is the sketch, though it has not been officially confirmed. 

In 1862, Burne-Jones designed a series of 'Sleeping Beauty' tiles for a client of the Morris & Co decorating firm, of which he was a partner. The princess looks very much like Lizzie Siddal, who had died a few months earlier of a laudanum overdose, and the prince kneeling to kiss her awake looks very much like her grieving widower Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The peacock (featured on the wall of the boudoir) is a symbol of immortality and rebirth.  This tile is one of nine in a sequence that begins with the baby in her cradle and ends with the marriage of the prince and princess. The tiles can be seen at the V&A Museum in Kensington.

In the 1870s, Burne-Jones had a tempestuous affair with one of his models, the sculptor Maria Zambaco, and he painted a very sensual version of Sleeping Beauty with his mistress modelling as the princess. The affair ended badly, with Maria attempting to drown herself in Regent's Canal.  At one point, Ned planned to run away with Maria but he ended returning to his wife and family so they would not be besmirched by the scandal. 

This painting - now in Puerto Rico - was the final in a sequence of three paintings that showed the prince in the briar wood, the king and his councillors asleep in the council chamber, and the princess asleep with her maids.

This beautiful drawing is a chalk study of his daughter Margaret that Burne-Jones made in 1881, when he was planning another sequence of painting inspired by the fairytale. Margaret was then fifteen, the age of the princess in the story.

And this exquisite painting of his daughter Margaret as Sleeping Beauty was created by Burne-Jones in 1884-1887,  as the final in a sequence of four enormous painting which now hang in Buscot Park, in Oxfordshire. Margaret was aged in her late teens and early twenties, and had fallen in love with a young poet and scholar named John William Mackail, much to her father's distress. 

The four paintings - called 'The Legend of Briar Rose' - caused an absolute sensation when they were first exhibited in 1890, with queues of carriages along Bond Street and crowds of people returning again and again to view them. Burne-Jones sold the quartet of painting for fifteen thousand guineas, the most money a British artist had ever been paid, and he was subsequently knighted by the Queen. 

His final painting is a small circle, entitled 'Wake Dearest' which he painted for his ever-loving and faithful wife Georgie in the final year of his life (1898). I believe she was the model for the princess. This tiny masterpiece - along with 37 other tiny glowing circles - were left to Georgie in his will, and later published as 'The Flower Book'. 

My novel Beauty in Thorns tells the story behind the creation of these exquisite drawings and paintings - a story of love, betrayal, heartbreak, death, and awakening of all kinds.  

BEAUTY IN THORNS: Love Triangles of the Pre-Raphaelites

Thursday, September 06, 2018

The National Gallery of Australia has just announced a major exhibition of Pre-Raphaelite art will open in mid-December, and so - being the world's most passionate lover of Pre-Raphaelite art - I thought I would share with you some of the incredible stories I discovered while researching my novel, Beauty in Thorns, which tells the story of the women of the Pre-Raphaelite sisterhood.    

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was a secret society of young and idealistic artists and writers which formed in 1848, in the hope of revitalising British art. It was a time of great social unrest, with bloody revolutions sweeping across Europe and uprisings protesting the impact of the Industrial evolution on the lives of ordinary people.

Self-portrait, drawn by Dante Gabriel Rossetti 

At the heart of the Brotherhood were three artists who were all students at the Royal Academy of Art. Named John Everett Millais, William Holman Hunt and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, they wished to discard the heavy brown tones and rough brushwork of most Victorian paintings and return to the luminous colour palette and lapidary detail of late medieval and early Renaissance art.

Lizzie Siddal painted as Ophelia by John Everett Millais

Millais, Hunt and Rossetti were inspired by myths, legends, fairy-tales, history and poetry, and – in the beginning, at least – had high moral ambitions, striving to paint with seriousness, sincerity and truth to nature.

The other members of the brotherhood were Rossetti’s younger brother William, who kept a diary of their meetings; the painter and art critic Frederic George Stephens; the sculptor Thomas Woolner; and the painter James Collinson, who resigned after breaking off his engagement to Rossetti’s sister, Christina. 

Although the Brotherhood dissolved in the early 1850s, it was to prove highly influential on a younger generation of artists, including Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris — two divinity students at Exeter College, Oxford— who gave up their studies to pursue careers in art. They hero-worshipped Dante Gabriel Rossetti and forged a close friendship with him that led to a new flowering of creativity.

An angel painted by Edward Burne-Jones

They painted, wrote poetry, and designed wallpaper, soft furnishings and stained-glass windows and furniture for the company they set up together, Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. (which was later called Morris & Co.). 

These three men of the later Pre-Raphaelite circle were also joined together in complex romantic triangles. After Rossetti’s first wife Lizzie died, he embarked on a passionate affair with Morris’s wife Janey. Morris turned to Burne-Jones’s wife Georgie for comfort. Burne-Jones, meanwhile, dallied with one of his favourite models, the sculptor Maria Zambaco. Their liaisons scandalised Victorian society as much as their radically different art.

Jane Morris painted by Dante Gabriel Rossetti  

My novel Beauty in Thorns tells the fascinating story of these three couples – Gabriel and Lizzie Rossetti, William and Janey Morris, and Edward and Georgie Burne-Jones – who lived and loved freely and ardently whilst creating some of the most sublime art the world has ever seen. 

Want to see more of Pre-Raphaelite art? Check out my Beauty in Thorns Pinterest page!

JANE MORRIS: her Life & Sorrows

Tuesday, August 01, 2017

Jane Burden Morris (b. 1939 – d. 1914)

Jane Morris is one of the four women who tell their stories in my novel Beauty in Thorns.

Her sorrowful face, her heavy ripples of hair, and sensual mouth were what first drew me to the Pre-Raphaelites. I was fascinated by her story – a girl from the slums who married a rich young man who loved her but could not paint her, and then her secret and ultimately tragic affair with one of his best friends. Reading about Janey led me to read about William Morris, and I discovered his poetry and his philosophies and his designs, all of which I loved.

His words, ‘Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful’, is one of my life mantras. 
Janey rarely spoke about her childhood. She kept it well-hidden, even famously refusing to allow John Mackail to include a drawing of the house in which she grew up in his biography of her husband. One of the few things she ever admitted is that she used to pick violets on the Iffley Road, outside St Clements. It is most likely she picked these flowers to sell. 

It is believed that Janey was the inspiration for the character of Anne Brown in Vernon Lee’s 1884 novel Miss Brown, which in its turn inspired George Bernard Shaw’s 1914 play Pygmalion, in which the flower seller Eliza Doolittle is plucked from the streets and taught how to speak and act, just as Jane Burden was by William Morris. Interestingly, Shaw was very close to the Morris family, living for some years in a ménage-a-trois with May Morris and her husband. 

It is necessary to understand what life would be like for a child growing up in a 19th century rookery. 

Her mother was illiterate, her father working as an ostler in a stable. Janey lived with her parents and brother and sister in a single room not much larger than a loose-box. Her life would have been hard and brutish and hungry, and she would have seen much that the other women in the book would have been protected from. It is known her father could be violent, as he was charged with assault on a neighbour, that he was unable to pay the parish poor rate, and that her parents separated after Robbie Burden refused to pay for his wife’s debts. 

Janey went to the local parish school till she was twelve, and then would have worked as a laundress, seamstress, or scullery-maid. Yet she was to later teach herself Italian, learnt to play the piano, and read unusually widely. Where and how Janey was taught to be a lady is not known, though there is one reference to friends of William Morris rowing to Godstow to ‘see Topsy’s Stunner’. I invented her teacher, Miss Leigh, and their skivvy, Violet, the only made-up characters in the novel.

To help me imagine Janey’s childhood, I am grateful to Margaret Fleming for her essay, ‘Where Janey Used to Live’ published in The Journal of William Morris Studies, Winter 1981, and for London Labour and the London Poor: A Cyclopædia of the Condition and Earnings of Those That Will Work, Those That Cannot Work, and Those That Will Not Work, by Henry Mayhew (1862). The Old Cotswold Dialect by Charles Gardiner was also helpful to me in imagining how Janey and her family might have spoken. 

It is not known whether Janey and Gabriel had an affair when they first met in Oxford, when she was only seventeen. However, Hall Caine wrote that Gabriel had confessed to him one night that ‘(he was) a man who, after engaging himself to one woman in all good honour and faith, had fallen in love with another, and then gone on to marry the first out of a mistaken sense of loyalty and a fear of giving pain.’ 

A drawing of Janey at the age of 17 by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

I have written what I believe most likely happened, but of course I cannot be sure. Maybe one day a lost packet of letters will be found that proves me right (or very wrong). 

The other great unknown about Jane Morris was her ill health. Once again she has not been treated with much kindness by her husband’s biographers. It has become fashionable to think of all Victorian-era women as hypochondriacs and hysterics, and Janey has not escaped this slur. E. P. Thompson’s 1955 biography of William Morris says explicitly: ‘Janey seems to have entered a settled melancholia and hypochondria (the symptoms mentioned include lumbago, sciatica, neuralgia, migraine, sore throats, fevers.)’ 

This has been repeated by all following biographers, including Fiona MacCarthy who, in her brilliant 1994 biography of William Morris, writes: ‘There remains the mystery of the ill-health of Mrs Morris, who took to the sofa at the age of twenty-nine, and never really left it.’ Even Jan Marsh, the most sympathetic of all the Pre-Raphaelite historians, entitles her chapter on the subject ‘Jane Discovers the Benefits of Invalidism’ (Jane and May Morris: A Biographical Story 1839-1938, published in 1986).

This is despite the evidence that Janey worked for Morris & Co as an embroiderer, was a notable housekeeper and cook, and went on numerous adventures to Broadway Tower in the Cotswolds, to Kelmscott Manor in the country, and to Italy and Egypt. Her letters are cheerful and full of a self-deprecating humour. 

It seemed poor Janey was only ever sick whilst in London. Quite apart from the smog, and the Great Stink of the sewage in the Thames, recurring outbreaks of cholera, smallpox, scarlet fever and measles, and the lack of antibiotics, no-one has ever investigated the possibility that Jane Morris may have been suffering from chronic arsenic poisoning from living in close quarters with wallpapers and fabrics known to be saturated with the poison. 

Janey’s ill-health began once she moved to Queen Square in London, where the Firm’s workshops were at that time situated. Apart from the fumes from the kilns and the leading of stained glasses, every room in the apartment was furnished with early William Morris wallpapers. Nine of the first eleven wallpapers made by the Firm have since tested positive for arsenic. 

Topsy’s father’s company, Great Devon Consols, was then the largest arsenic producer in the world. In 1862, a medical health officer established that three children in the Limehouse district had died as a result of arsenic poisoning from their wallpaper. Their symptoms were the same as Janey’s: headaches, fatigue, nausea, abdominal cramps, weakness or trembling in the limbs, and chest and upper respiratory tract complaints. Lily Yeats, who learnt embroidery from May Morris, even observed that Janey’s skin had become ‘sallow and coarse’, another known side effect of chronic arsenic poisoning. 

In 1875, the Firm announced it was no longer using arsenic in its wallpaper, and the next year William Morris resigned from the board of Great Devon Consols (and famously sat on his ceremonial top-hat to squash it). However, arsenic was still being found in the Firm’s wallpapers in the mid-1880s – and it was particularly strong in the ‘Trellis’ wallpaper which was used in the master bedroom at Kelmscott House in Hammersmith, where the Morris family lived after 1878. It has been argued that there is no evidence that arsenical wallpapers – produced by William Morris & Co or not – were poisonous, but the World Health Organization has just recently shown the dangers of long exposure to low doses of arsenic. Interestingly, in light of Jenny Morris’s epilepsy diagnosis, seizures are also a side-effect of arsenic poisoning.

The theory that Janey suffered from chronic arsenic poisoning seems to be borne out by the fact that she recovered much of her health whenever she travelled away from Queen Square or Kelmscott House, but relapsed once she returned to London. 

If you’d like to know more about arsenic poisoning, read The Arsenic Century: How Victorian Britain was Poisoned at Home, Work & Play by James C Warburton or King of Poisons: A History of Arsenic by John Parascandola.

A portrait of Janey by DGR - Kelmscott Manor can be seen in the background

Kelmscott Manor is, of course, the setting for Janey and Gabriel’s blissful summer of love in 1871. For many years, it was not known whether Jane Morris had an affair with Dante Gabriel Rossetti, or not. Many of their letters had been destroyed after Fanny Cornforth, Rossetti’s mistress and housekeeper, tried to blackmail Rossetti by threatening to sell them. Only a few survived. 

However, it is impossible to read Rossetti’s love poetry – which he wrote out for Janey in a small notebook– without being aware of the deep sensual bond between them. Many of these poems have not been published. I read them in the Special Collections reading room at the Bodleian Library in Oxford. It was unspeakably moving, seeing these beautiful poems of passion and yearning written in Gabriel’s bold handwriting and knowing that Janey kept them all of her life, despite the danger. Jan Marsh has edited a small booklet of the poems, called ‘Water-Willow & Well-Away’, if you’d like to read more of them.

After Gabriel’s tragic descent into madness and paranoia, Janey broke off the affair to protect her children. She wrote later: ‘he wanted me to go away with him altogether, to leave my children & everything. But you know I (could) not do that.’  

If you’d like to read more about Janey, the best books are Jane & May Morris: A Biographical Story 1839-1938 by Jan Marsh (1986), William Morris (1994) by Fiona MacCarthy, and Jane Morris: The Burden of History by Wendy Parkins (2013), which dismantles many of the unkinder myths circulated about her. 

Want to know more about the fascinating women of the Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood?

I do hope you enjoyed this blog. If so, tell me so! I love to read your comments. 

BEAUTY IN THORNS: My novel-in-progress

Tuesday, May 03, 2016

BEAUTY IN THORNS – My Novel-in-Progress

I am always being asked what I am now writing, and so I thought I'd share with you some of the work I've been doing in the past year.

I am about halfway through writing a new fairytale-infused historical novel which I am calling BEAUTY IN THORNS

It tells the dramatic story of love, desire, obsession and tragedy behind the famous painting of 'Sleeping Beauty' by the Pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones. 

Burne-Jones was one of a collection of daring young artists who outraged Victorian society with their avant-garde paintings and scandalous behaviour. After Burne-Jones broke off their passionate affair, his mistress Maria Zambaco tried to drown herself. Dante Gabriel Rossetti famously buried his poems in his dead wife’s coffin and later had her exhumed to retrieve the worm-eaten manuscript. His sister Christina wrote intense poetry filled with images of girls both sleeping and dead. His lover Jane Burden was married to one of his best friends, William Morris, and they maintained a secret ménage a trois for years, before Rossetti succumbed to madness. Morris himself fell in love with Burne-Jones’s wife Georgie, and wrote some of his most lyrical poetry for her. 

Burne-Jones was obsessed with 'Sleeping Beauty' and painted numerous different versions of the tale. Here are just a few:

BEAUTY IN THORNS is told by the voices of eight true-life women:

Georgie Burne-Jones

Her daughter Margaret Burne-Jones

Jane Burden

Her daughter May Morris

Mary de Morgan

Christina Rossetti

Lizzie Siddal 

Maria Zambaco

In the original fairy tale by Charles Perrault, there were seven fairy godmothers invited to the christening feast of the baby princess - and one who was not invited and so, in her rage and scorn, cursed the child. This was the inspiration for the eight fascinating women whose stories I have chosen to tell.  

With so many glorious Pre-raphaelite paintings to pour over, I had the most wonderful time building my writer's notebook, which is always a kind of scrapbook of my creative process. Here are a few pages: 

The first page of my notebook – a picture of one of Edward Burne-Jones’s famous ‘Sleeping Beauty’ paintings


First words of the novel written 4 January 2016 – recorded in my notebook

I have now written around 80,000 words and am around the halfway mark. Its always very exciting to see the book begin to weave itself together. 

Read more about the story behind the writing of BEAUTY IN THORNS here!


SPOTLIGHT: Books on the Pre-Raphaelites

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

I am in the early stages of writing and researching a new novel, which has a working title of BEAUTY IN THORNS. 

It tells the story behind Edward Burne-Jones's famous paintings of the 'Briar Rose' fairy tale, which he painted numerous times over the course of twenty tumultuous years. Most of the story will be told through the eyes of the women in the Pre-Raphaelite circle, such as Georgie Burne-Jones and her daughter, Margaret, and Jane Morris, and her daughters, Jenny and May.    

I am still in the early stages of researching, which means a lot of reading. Here are just some of the books I have been studying: 

Lizzie Siddal: The Tragedy of a Pre-Raphaelite Supermodel – Lucinda Hawksley

Like many others, I’ve always been fascinated by the brief tragic life of Lizzie Siddal, whose face appears in so many early Pre-Raphaelite paintings.

She rose to become one of the most famous faces in Victorian Britain and a pivotal figure of London's artistic world, until tragically ending her life in 1862.

A Circle of Sisters: Alice Kipling, Georgiana Burne-Jones, Agnes Poynter and Louisa Baldwin

 – Judith Flanders

The Macdonald sisters were a fairly ordinary mid-Victorian family. Their father was a Methodist preacher, their mother a chronic invalid. They moved often, following their father’s itinerant preaching routes, and so relied one each other for comfort and amusement. Attractive, lively girls, none of them was startling beautiful or brilliant, and yet they all made extraordinary marriages that led to extraordinary family dynasties. Agnes married Edward Poynter, president of the prestigious Royal Academy of the Arts; Georgiana married Edward Burne-Jones, one of the most extraordinary painters of the era; Alice was the mother of Rudyard Kipling; and Louisa gave birth to the future prime minister, Stanley Baldwin. In a way, their stories are a prime example for the way in which class boundaries in the Victorian era was changing, allowing those with talent and drive to change their social status.

The Last Pre-Raphaelite: Edward Burne-Jones & the Victorian Imagination – Fiona McCarthy

This is a great big chunk of a book, but very readable, and magisterial in its approach to the life and work of Edward Burne-Jones, one of my favourite artists. Best of all, it shines a light on to the inner life of the artist, helping illuminate the forces that drove this complex and haunted man.

Pre-Raphaelites in Love – Gay Daly 

This is a great book for anyone who wants a really readable look into the passions and scandals that defined the relationships of the Pre-Raphaelites. There’s wife-swapping, suicide, trials for impotence, affairs with models, exhumation of dead wives, madness, and horse skeletons being boiled in front yards. Gripping stuff.

Desperate Romantics: The Private Lives of the Pre-Raphaelites - Franny Moyle

Franny Moyle’s book was published in 2009, twenty years after Gay Daly’s Pre-Raphaelites in Love. So she has access to new research into the Pre-Raphaelites, as well as a greater freedom to talk about sex and drugs and rocking-and-rolling. Her style is racy and often funny, and lacks any kind of deep analysis or evidence. It was written as a tie-in with the BBC series of the same name, which very much focuses on the love affairs, rather than the art. It is, nonetheless, immensely readable and engaging, and is probably the best place to start if you want to know all the racy stuff about the Pre-Raphaelites.

have a lot more books on the Pre-Raphaelites to read, so if you're interested ... watch this space!


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