Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Proserpine inside the artist's studio.
LONDON - On the banks of a particularly beautiful stretch of the Thames lined with overhanging willows – where it is easy to imagine The Lady of Shalott embarking for the last time, or Ophelia taking her last dip – stands the picturesque Kelmscott Manor. Surrounded by a high wall covered in honeysuckle and ivy, a first glimpse of the gables and chimneys suggest something enchanted and romantic lies within.
Kelmscott became the summer home of William Morris and his wife Jane in 1871. Unable to pay the summer rent alone, Morris invited his friend Dante Gabriel Rossetti to share the house, probably well-aware that Rossetti was in love with his wife. Drawn back to London to oversee the running of his successful decorators company Morris & Co, William left Jane in Rossetti’s company. The passionate artist’s desire for his friend’s wife was made manifest in his many paintings and drawings of her. One of the first was the drawing for Rossetti’s most famous painting of Jane, Proserpine made during the first summer at Kelmscott.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Proserpine outside the Kelmscott Manor.
I have always loved Kelmscott and when the chalk version of Proserpine came to us for sale I wanted to take the picture back to the place that inspired it. Seeing it on an easel in the room that Rossetti used as a studio was an intense experience, and there is something powerfully hypnotic about the way Jane glares out from the picture – both seductive and threatening in equal measure. But did she really look like this? Did this dark brooding creature stalk the gardens of Kelmscott plucking fruit from the overhanging boughs to bring to that Cupids-bow of a mouth? The answer is that she probably looked more ordinary and less otherworldly. Rossetti was not interested in painting women the way they looked – he wanted to paint the essence of womanhood. Love can play tricks on the mind, especially when it spills over into infatuation, and for Rossetti the image represented something stronger than the love affair itself. Jane maintained that she never gave herself sexually to Rossetti and eventually she asked him to temper his feelings for her. But in Proserpine we can see exactly how much Rossetti loved Mrs Morris – the overt sexuality of the picture makes it feel almost intrusive to look at her.
With upwards of 18,000 annual visitors, this important international heritage site urgently needs protecting for future generations. There are many exciting opportunities to give visitors an even richer experience of William Morris’ beautiful country home and the custodians invite partners and funders to help them protect this important legacy.