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.
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