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Details & Cataloguing

British & Irish Art

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London

Dante Gabriel Rossetti
1828-1882
PORTRAIT OF MAY MORRIS

Provenance

J. Hamilton Hunter Old Masters, Antiques and Works of Art, London by whom sold Sotheby's, London, 20 June 1956, lot 15 as 'Portrait of a Girl', where bought by the present owner

Catalogue Note

May Morris (1861-1938) was the younger daughter of Rossetti’s closest friend, the designer William Morris and his wife Jane, a woman with whom Rossetti was passionately in love in his widowhood and who inspired many of his greatest works. Rossetti was very fond of May and her sister Jenny, who helped to fill the void left by the infant death of his only child; in the late 1860s he wrote of Jenny who spent most of her life as an invalid ‘I ought to have had a little girl older than she is’.  At one point Rossetti even half-seriously considerred trying to adopt May in whom he saw a streak of the genius that made her father one of the most remarkably talented men of his age. Rossetti admired the Morris sisters’ independent personalities, describing them to his mother on 17 July 1871, as; ‘dear little things – perfectly natural and intelligent, and able to amuse themselves all day long without needing to be thought about by their elders’. Rossetti recognised that May in particular had inherited her mother’s looks and was ‘quite a beauty the more one knows her and will be a lovely woman. She is very clever too, I think, and has a real turn for drawing.’ This innocent type of beauty offered Rossetti the opportunity to paint subjects that celebrate purity rather than sensuousness, such as Rosa Triplex of 1874 (sold Christie’s, 17 June 2014, lot 17) a tripartite watercolour portrait of the thirteen-year-old May in which she resembles the three identical petals of a flower.

This previously unrecorded and haunting portrait of May was almost certainly made at Kelmscott Manor on the banks of the Thames near Lechlade in Oxfordshire. Pre-occupied with work, Morris left his wife and daughters for long periods at the beautiful old manor house, the lease of which he shared with Rossetti from the summer of 1871. After a nervous collapse and suicide attempt in 1872, following a harsh criticism of his poetry, Rossetti began to spend increasing amounts of time at Kelmscott which Morris put at his disposal. It was a refuge for Rossetti to recover and at Kelmscott his relationship with Jane became obvious to many; a contemporary recalled ‘My most representative recollection of him is of his sitting beside Mrs Morris, who looked as if she had stepped out of one of his pictures, both wrapped in a motionless silence as of a world where souls have no need of words.’ (R.E. Francillon, Mid-Victorian Memories, 1914, p.172). May and Jenny’s company also lifted Rossetti’s spirits and he experienced for the first time what it would have been like to have children of his own. The sensitive portraits that Rossetti made of May demonstrate his affection for her and present a less mannered vision of the Morris beauty than those of her mother.

Despite Rossetti’s fondness for May he made relatively few pictures of her. His principal portaits of her were made in 1871, including a beautiful chalk drawing of her head (Society of Antiquaries of London, Kelmscott Manor) and a half-length pastel portrait of her leaning on a parapet and holding a pansy (private collection). At Kelmscott in the summer of 1873 May posed for the two attendant angels in Rossetti’s masterpiece La Ghirlandata (Guildhall Art Gallery, London) and this appears to be the last time that she posed for Rossetti – although it has tentatively been suggested that she posed for Mary Magdalene in 1877 (Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington). In the present picture Rossetti sketched an open book, perhaps a reference to her father’s literary prowess but also to May’s love of reading. In 1938 Sir Sydney Cockerell wrote of May; 'I first met her, a beautiful girl of 23, in 1885... with many excellent qualities she combined a dissatisfied attitude on life which interfered greatly with her happiness and with that of others... If only she could have married the right man what a different, more effective, and far happier woman she would have been!... She was in love with Bernard Shaw before he became famous and he with her... Stanley Baldwin fell in love with her too, and so did Burne-Jones.' (Philip Henderson, William Morris, his Life, Work and Friends, 1967, pp.299-300) She married the Socialist Henry Halliday Sparling but no man ever matched her father in May's estimation.

British & Irish Art

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London