A Tale of Two Trees: Sycamore or Willow?

When choosing the catalogue cover for the Ashmolean’s major exhibition The Pre-Raphaelites: Drawings and Watercolours (spring 2021), curator Christiana Payne selected the exquisite drawing that inspired one of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s final masterpieces, The Day Dream (1879-80).  

This remarkably enigmatic pastel and black chalk drawing shows Jane Morris seated, a book of plain pages open on her knees. Her left hand is slightly raised from the book so that a single flower stem and its broad leaf can be draped across her palm and obliquely presented to the viewer.  Her right hand is elevated and contorted around the bough of a tree.  Her highly-finished head is slightly tilted, her eyes distant. 

Although John B. Bullen asserts that:

The Day Dream forms one part of a cluster of highly personal, final paintings that celebrate Rossetti’s many-sided relationship with Jane extending from loving intimacy, to awe in the presence of her sexual power, and from physical desire to emotional dependency,[1]

Rossetti himself is frustratingly taciturn.  If The Day Dream means anything at all, Rossetti chooses not to elucidate, at least, not at this early stage, and in the drawing the identity of the tree remains a mystery.  In the absence of any definitive identification, expert opinion is divided.  Virginia Surtees, author of Rossetti’s Catalogue Raisonné, declares that the drawing shows:

Mrs Morris sitting in a tree (to below the knees); head and hands are highly finished; the sycamore buds and leaves are roughly indicated.  In her left hand she holds a convolvulus flower laid on an open book.[2]

Whereas, Christiana Payne, professor emerita of History of Art, Oxford Brookes University, suggests that, instead:

… the tree is a willow and the flower a convolvulus or bindweed flower, a symbol of affection.

Willow trees are common in the watery meadows around Kelmscott, where Rossetti and Jane Morris went for walks during the summer of 1871, when William Morris had left them to be alone together.  In that year Rossetti painted a portrait of Jane holding willow branches, entitled Water Willow.  Willows are traditionally a symbol of sorrow and longing, and Rossetti’s poem ‘Willowwood’ (1868) describes a place where lovers pine for those they have lost.  In this drawing Jane’s sad expression and ghostly figure reflect the doomed nature of the couple’s relationship.[3]

As the Ashmolean prepares to share its internationally-renowned collection of Pre-Raphaelite drawings and watercolours, this article reflects on whether there is sufficient evidence to identify the tree in The Day Dream drawing, and concludes by thinking about why a positive identification matters.

This evaluation commences where both eminent art historians concur: the flower. 

Study for The Day Dream (1872-1878) detail
Pastel and black chalk, 104.8 x 76.8 cm
Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.

The argument immediately appears to favour the willow when we learn that convolvulus ‘loves to haunt humid spots, and may often be seen elegantly festooning a row of drooping willows with its light fetters’.[4] However, this prolific weed grows ‘very plentifully in most parts of England’, flowering from May to the end of August.[5] Its ephemeral flowers expire at the end of each day, rendering the bindweed ‘a very appropriate emblem of fleeting joys’ according to John Henry Ingram in Flora Symbolica; one of the most widely-referenced floriography texts of the period.[6] Confusingly, he also lists the convolvulus as representing ‘bonds’, or ‘repose and night’, or ‘extinguished hope’, or ‘worth sustained by judicious and tender affection’, depending on the specimen, of which there are approximately two hundred (although he lists just three).[7] It is not uncommon for flowers to have several, and as in this case, contradictory meanings according to the Victorian language of flowers, depending on the text consulted.  Payne’s reference to the convolvulus as ‘a sign of affection’, therefore, is totally consistent with the inconsistency of this spurious idiom.

While the Victorian language of flowers can sometimes lead us down the garden path, flower-lore often provides more reliable insight.  According to Hilderic Friend, author of one of the most scholarly flower-lore texts of the period, the convolvulus was associated with the devil and specifically with ‘the lower regions’ on account of its creeping roots and climbing habit.[8]  Indeed, the ‘destructive and tiresome’ bindweed was adopted by clergy as a metaphor for carnal desire, entwining ‘itself about the hearts and souls of people’ preventing them ‘from coming to perfection’.[9] Could it be that Rossetti is alluding to this ‘fleshly’ vice in his drawing?  Is it coincidental that the only other occasion he introduces a convolvulus into his work is in the oil painting The Blue Bower (1865)?

The Blue Bower (1865)
Oil on canvas, 84 x 70.9 cm
Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham.

Here another single flower peeps over Fanny Cornforth’s right shoulder.  Its relationship with Rossetti’s chosen passionflowers in the background may provide context?  It is certainly compelling that in the oil painting, The Day Dream,  Rossetti eventually substitutes the convolvulus (flowering May-August) for a more season-specific sprig of flowering honeysuckle (flowering May-June); a flower he used extensively in his sexually-emboldened Venus Verticordia (1868).

Venus Verticordia (1864-68)
Oil on canvas, 98.1 x 69.8 cm
Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum, Bournemouth

While these allusions might synaesthetically flavour Rossetti’s vision, a detailed review of his correspondence demonstrates that by September 1872, ‘the last drawing I was making of Janey,’ is only ‘very slightly sketched in’.[10]

Sketch of The Day Dream Composition
Within a letter to
William Michael Rossetti
25 September 1872 (letter 72.79)

From this hastily-drawn tiny picture, we can discern that Jane appears to be sitting in a chair in front of a tree trunk which is split into two boughs. Branches and foliage are indicated by a few incidental pen marks. He tells Ford Madox Brown that it is his intention to develop studies for the tree during his second visit to Kelmscott:

I trust when at Kelmscott to do a good stroke of work, & purpose [sic] carrying on 2 pictures from Janey if she is well enough to sit as I hope.  One to be the lady seated in a tree with a book in her lap , and the other a full length Pandora … For both these I have drawn heads which I am now having sent from London to Kelmscott, & studies are making here [sic] for the background of the tree picture.[11]

This suggests that Rossetti views the drawing not as an intimate portrait of Jane in her natural environment as in Water Willow, but more generically as ‘the lady seated in a tree’.  The drawing further demonstrates that Jane is not sitting in a tree, but rather in front of a tree, and the foreground is still elusive at this stage.

Earlier during his first stay when corresponding with his uncle, Henry Francis Polydore, Rossetti tells him that:

When I came here some weeks ago, I knew exactly the task I had to do & surrounded myself with the means of doing it; & when it is done, it will be high time for me to return to other work in London.[12]  

Specifically, he notes that he had been painting pretty steadily

& getting through a duplicate of that Beatrice picture – dreary work enough.  I am also beginning a little picture of Janey with a river background which will come nicely I think, and am drawing the children too, who are dear little things, particularly the younger one.[13]

Rossetti compartmentalised activity into ‘task-work to do’ (Beata Beatrix replica), ‘a little not task-work’ (Water Willow and drawings of the Morris children) and poetry which he considered to be his ‘true mistress’.[14]

Study for Water Willow (1871) 
Coloured chalk on pale green paper, 33.9 x 27.3 cm
Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery

Water Willow, the small oil he painted for pleasure, began life as a chalk study of yet another beautifully-detailed head and neck on a sketchy body.  There is not a tree of any description.

In the resulting oil the manor is on the left with its ancient mulberry tree leading down to the river. On the right is Kelmscott church with its ‘wild-looking apple-trees’, and a boathouse with the fishing punt moored below. [15] All of these component parts have been brought together as a montage of personal memories, purposely to capture Jane in this medieval-inspired setting for his personal collection (until 1877 when he is forced to sell it to raise much-needed cash).  Jane’s head dominates the scene, and is framed by a willow branch in her hands.  The long lance-shaped leaves on the graceful arching branch have become emblematic of Jane and Kelmscott over the years, and it is clearly a tree which resonates strongly with Rossetti.

 Water Willow (1871)
Oil on canvas, 33 x 26.7 cm
Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington, Delaware

Certainly Rossetti and Jane Morris would enjoy walks together and some of these would take them past the willow trees in the watery meadow, from which this branch may have been severed.  Sadly, those opportunities were curtailed at the beginning of his first stay because the surrounding fields were flooded.[16]  When the floods eventually subsided, they were replaced by a heat wave, encouraging Rossetti to stay close to the house:

The heat is now excessive – so great indeed that walking even at the close of day is no pleasure, & one is tempted to keep indoors altogether.  However, I yesterday evening strolled out after dinner when the sun was quite gone & found it cool and delightful, so I think I shall time my walks chiefly so at present, only the twilights are very short & there is no moon now, and walking in pitch darkness is not pleasant.[17]

While only venturing forth when the sun had gone down during the hot summer days, he described the house as  the ‘loveliest “haunt of ancient peace” that can well be imagined’, and the ‘perfect paradise’ of a garden may well have provided the perfect backdrop for his sketches.[18] He explained that as the house and garden made up such ‘a delicious picture to the eye & mind & afford so much home variety’ that there was ‘no need of seeking further’.[19] It can be inferred, therefore, that if Rossetti persuaded Jane to model for an outline composition during his first visit it is more likely to have been within the immediate environs of the house and garden rather than in the watery meadows.


[1] John B. Bullen, Rossetti: Painter and Poet (London: Frances Lincoln, 2011), 254.

[2] Virginia Surtees, Dante Gabriel Rossetti 1828-1882: The Paintings and Drawings: A Catalogue Raisonné, 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971), 154.

[3] Christiana Payne, Pre-Raphaelite Drawings and Watercolours Catalogue (Oxford: Ashmolean Museum, 2021), entry 40.

[4] John H. Ingram, Flora Symbolica: Or the Language and Sentiment of Flowers (London: Frederick Warne, 1869), 319.

[5] John Gerard, Herball or Generale Historie of Plantes (London: Adam Islip, Joice Norton, and Richard Whitakers, 1636), 863.

[6] Ingram, Flora Symbolica, 319

[7] Ibid, 356

[8] Hilderic Friend, Flowers and Flower Lore, 2 vols. (London: W. Swan Sonnenschein, 1883), 68.

[9] Rev. John Bruster, A Children’s Flower Sermon: The Beautiful Valley and The Lilies (London; Liverpool: Houston and Sons; Gibbs & Co., 1888).

[10] DGR to WMR, 25 September 1872. In William E. Fredeman ed., The Correspondence of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 10 vols. (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2002-2015) vol. 5, 284 (letter 72.79).

[11] DGR to Ford Madox Brown, 22 September 1872. Ibid, 276 (letter 72.73).

[12] DGR to Henry Francis Polydore, 27 August 1871. Ibid, 125-126 (letter 71.130).

[13] DGR to Frances Mary Lavinia Rossetti, 11 August 1871. Ibid, 108 (letter 71.120).

[14] DGR to William Bell Scott, 25 August 1871.  Ibid, 123 (letter 71.129).

[15] DGR to Frances Mary Lavinia Rossetti, 18 August 1871.  Ibid, 117 (letter 72.79).

[16] DGR to Frances Mary Lavinia Rossetti, 17 July 1871. Ibid, 79-80 ( letter 71.99).

[17] DGR to Frances Mary Lavinia Rossetti, 11 August 1871. Ibid, 108 (letter 71.125).