William Morris

La Belle Iseult

1858

Medium
Oil paint on canvas
Dimensions
Support: 718 x 502 mm
frame: 960 x 755 x 61 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Bequeathed by Miss May Morris 1939
Reference
N04999

Summary

This is the only completed easel painting that William Morris produced. It is a portrait in medieval dress of Jane Burden, whom Morris married in April 1859. The picture has been identified in the past as Queen Guenevere, partly owing to the fact that Morris published his first volume of poetry, The Defence of Guenevere, in March 1858. However, recent research has established convincingly that the picture is intended to represent Iseult mourning Tristram's exile from the court of King Mark.

Iseult appears to have recently arisen from her bed, where a small greyhound lies curled up among the crumpled sheets. In Le Morte d'Arthur (c.1470), the author, Sir Thomas Malory (c.1405-71), reminds us that 'the queen had always a little brachet [bitch-hound] with her that Sir Tristram gave her the first time that ever she came into Cornwall, and never would that brachet depart from her but if Sir Tristram was nigh' (quoted in Banham and Harris, p.115). She stands wistfully in her small chamber, her feelings for Tristram reinforced by the sprigs of rosemary, symbolising remembrance, in her crown, and the word 'DOLOURS' (grief) written down the side of her mirror.

The rich colours, the emphasis on pattern and details such as the illuminated missal reveal where Morris's true talents lay. He was less at home with figure painting than with illumination, embroidery and woodcarving, and he struggled for months on this picture. He worked for much of the time at 17 Red Lion Square, the rooms he shared with Edward Burne-Jones. Many of the furnishings such as the Turkish rug, Persian embroidered cover and whitework hangings on the bed were probably in Morris's personal collection. The background panel is close in style to the heavy tapestries designed by Morris for Red Lion Square and the table cover is of the type taken as a model by Morris and Webb for the firm's church furnishings.

In 1874 the picture was claimed as his own by Ford Madox Brown's son Oliver. Rossetti, who had a great fondness for Jane Burden, offered him £20 for it as 'an early portrait of its original, of whom I have made so many studies myself' (quoted in Parry, p.103). The picture eventually passed to Rossetti's brother, William Michael. It lay forgotten in a cupboard until Rossetti's death, when it was returned to Jane Burden.

Further reading:
Joanna Banham and Jennifer Harris (eds), William Morris and the Middle Ages, exhibition catalogue, Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester 1984, pp.114-6, reproduced pl.IV, in colour.
Leslie Parris (ed.), The Pre-Raphaelites, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1984, reprinted 1994, pp.169-70; reproduced p.169.
Linda Parry (ed.), William Morris, exhibition catalogue, Victoria & Albert Museum, London 1996, pp.102-3, reproduced p.89, in colour.

Frances Fowle
December 2000

Display caption

The inspiration for this painting was Thomas Malory's 'Morte d'Arthur' (1485), in which Guinevere's adulterous love for Sir Lancelot is one of the central themes. The model is Jane Burden who became Morris's wife in 1859, and also appears in Rossetti's 'Proserpine' displayed nearby. She was 'discovered' by Morris and Rossetti when they were working together on the Oxford Union murals, the subject matter for which was also taken from Malory. The painting is essentially a portrait of her in medieval dress. It is a splendid expresion of the intense medieval style prevailing in Rossetti's circle in the late 1850s, with its emphasis on pattern and historical detail. This is Morris's only completed oil painting.

Gallery label, September 2004