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Jane Morris in medieval costume (1861)
William Morris (1834 - 1896)
Originally thought to depict Iseult boarding a ship from the classic chivalric romance ‘Tristan and Iseult’, this portrait of Jane Morris in medieval costume is instead most likely to be a depiction of her as Helen of Troy. Morris chose the subject of ‘Tristan and Iseult’ for the mural he painted in the Oxford Union library building from 1857-1859, he created various sketches for the scene over the summer of 1857 and began work on his only easel painting on a similar theme, ‘La Belle Iseult’, now in the Tate collection.
However, this drawing’s paper is watermarked with the date of 1861 which places it after the Oxford Union murals were completed. Instead it is more likely to be a study for a mural planned for the staircase at Red House depicting the Trojan War. In the drawing Jane is climbing a small ladder to enter a ship, a likely reference to Helen of Troy whose great beauty, according to legend, triggered the Trojan War.
Morris’s interest in pattern design is already evident in the elaborate sleeve lining shown in this piece. Jane was a talented needlewoman and may well have made this costume herself.