Pre-Raphaelitism was an avant-grande movement in fine art that became the most expressive style of features of contemporary culture. It broke upon the British art world at the Royal Academy exhibitions of 1849 and 50. To rightfully describe this era, the poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti gave the name “visionary vanities of half a dozen boys,” and the impulse of Pre-Raphaelitism was even promoted by the critic John Ruskin. The period gained such popularity that soon, it had the best influential artists to promote it. The key figures were Rossetti, William Holman Hunt, and John Everett Millais. Due to their example spreading around the world among their acquaintances, recruits from around the country were attracted to the movement, while Ruskin enthusiasts needed no further encouragement to join. In Pre-Raphaelitism, this became an integral part of the work of artists such as Anna Mary Howitt, Barbara Leigh Smith, Jane Behman, Elizabeth Siddal, Joanna Boyce, Rosa Bret, and Anna Blunden. The period achieved a distinguishment in contrast with its overlapping rivals, like Aestheticism and Neo-classicism, in a way that the latter art styles soon entwined with it. There were numerous admirers of the Pre-Raphaelitism, such as Evelyn De Morgan, Kate Bunce, Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale, and Marianne, who continued bringing vitality and variety to the range of artistic styles. Now, among all of the women’s intellects, Siddal was not only a good painter but a model for many famous artworks. She sat as the model for Viola in Twelfth Night (1850), Two Gentlemen of Verona (1851), and the famous Ophelia of John Everett Millais. In the later period, she became the unofficial pupil of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who provided her funds from John Ruskin to purchase colours and even travel. As she died at just twenty-seven, her memories began fading for the people and began limit to just a few of her close friends and family. Today, with this article, I wish to revive her again, with the help of excerpts from the books of two marvelous authors, Jan Marsh and Lucinda Hawksley.
One of the best memories of the artist is remarkably portrayed by Bryond Brind, a principal dancer with Royal Ballet, who appeared as Ophelia, as in the paintings. Posing in a blue, bosom-exposing silk gown with gold embroidery and clutching a handful of herbs and flowers, she posed with an anxious expression to simulate madness. In her own words, she explained,
“My fantasy role- as a Pre-Raphaelite heroine- is an extension of my own. To me, these paintings mean romance, and beautiful, luminous color. They are full of mystery: nothing in them is what it seems. You can see from the expression in the subject’s eyes that often she is searching for something outside the canvas. The effect is bewitching, mesmerizing- like my own world in the theatre.”
With this, the story of Elizabeth Siddal lives on and on. Being one of the ancillary figures in the history of art, maybe her story has a limited intrinsic interest, but she possesses an extraordinary symbolic significance for significant people.
Beginning of the Story.
Elizabeth’s story didn’t begin with her birth, as it was long unknown, but with her death in 1862. On 14 February, under the headline of ‘Death of a Lady from an Overdose of Laudanum,’ the Daily News reported,
“Yesterday Mr Payne held an inquest at Bridewell Hospital, on the body of Eliza Eleanor Rosetti, aged 29, wife of Dante Gabriel Rosetti, artist, of no. 14 Chatham Place, Blackfriars, who came by her death under very melancholy circumstances. Mr Rosetti stated that on Monday afternoon, between 6 and 7 o’clock, he and his wife went out in the carriage for the purpose of dining with a friend, at the Sablonniere Hotel, Leicester Square. When they had got about halfway, there his wife appeared very drowsy, and he wished her to return. She objected to their doing so and they proceeded to the hotel and dined there. They returned home at 8 o’clock when she appeared somewhat excited. He left home again at 9 o’clock, his wife being then about to go to bed. On his return at half past 11 o’clock, he found his wife in bed, snoring loudly and utterly unconscious. She was in the habit of taking laudanum, and he had known her to take as much as 100 drops at a time, and he thought she had been taking it before they went out. He found a vial on a table at the bedside which had contained laudanum, but it was then empty. A doctor was sent for and promptly attended. She had expressed no wish to die, but quite the reverse. Indeed, she contemplated going out of town in a day or two and had ordered a new mantle which she intended to wear on the occasion. He believed she took the laudanum to quiet her nerves. She could not sleep or take food unless she used it. Mr Hutchinson of Bridge Street, Blackfriars, said he had attended the deceased in her confinement in April with a still-born child. He saw her on Monday night at half past 11 o’clock and found her in a comatose state. He tried to rouse her but could not, and then tried the stomach pump without avail. He injected several quarts of water into the stomach and washed it out when the smell of laudanum was very distinct. He and three other medical gentlemen stayed with her all night, and she died 20 minutes past 7 a.m. on Tuesday. The jury returned a verdict of ‘Accidental Death.’”
When Elizabeth Siddal was buried in the cemetery at Highgate, only a small group of family and friends remembered her. One of the points, or should I call spooky-story is that Gabriel, when vacated the apartment at Blackfriars, and lived in the house facing the river on Cheyne Walk in Chelsea, there was a rumor circulated,
“for two years he saw her ghost every night!”
Using a spirit medium, Gabriel inquired about her happiness on the other side. As the fashion waned, the small group of friends who participated in these seances, including Gabriel’s skeptic brother William Michael, claimed they were struck by the uncanny accuracy of some answers to his questions.
One poet, William Allingham, who knew Lizzie in the early 1850s, noted memories,
“Short, sad and strange her life; it must have seemed to her like a troubled dream,”
“She was sweet, gentle and kindly, and sympathetic to art and poetry… Her pale face, abundant red hair, and long thin limbs were strange and affecting- never beautiful in my eyes.”
Life of Elizabeth Eleanor Siddal.
Elizabeth’s early education isn’t known, but little we know is that she worked in the fashion trade as a dressmaker/milliner. One of the accounts claims that she even showed her first designs to the director of the School of Design and was then introduced to his son, Walter Howell Deverell. She spent the winter of 1855-6 in Paris and Nice, though her work shows no evidence of this. As part of Ford Madox Brown’s independent Pre-Raphaelite group shows in 1857, Elizabeth sent three watercolours, her self-portrait, and four studies to the show. During the same year, a British art exhibition toured the USA featuring the watercolor Clerk Saunders, which was purchased by Boston’s Charles Eliot Norton. During this time, Elizabeth Siddal studied at the Local School of Art under director Young Mitchell, then moved to Derbyshire. She married Rossetti in the spring of 1860 after an estrangement.
During her decade as an artist, she produced almost more than 100 paintings. Being essentially self-taught, she showed the preliminary sketches as crude, but her finished works had a great imaginative and evocative power. One of the earliest dated works is The Lady of Shalott (signed and dated 15 December 1853) and Self-Portait (inscribed EES 1853-4).
One of the famous sketches of the artist is Pippa Passes. The subjects of her paintings are imaginary and medieval in the Victorian sense, and on a small scale, reflecting a lack of resources. The figures she portrayed had a similar anatomical stiffness, combined with the Romantic intensity of expression and composition. There is little to no evidence of her customarily assisted paintings apart from the watercolour, Sir Galahad, and the Holy Grail (inscribed EES inv EES and DGR del). You must understand that before any artistic accomplishment, she was chiefly known for Ophelia and Rossetti’s muse and model. In the Tate Gallery’s Pre-Raphaelite exhibition of 1984, Lady of Shalott, Sir Galahad, and the Holy Grail and Lady Clare represented her. Of the last, Cherry wrote;
“The watercolor represents two women. They are constructed in difference from each other through the production of daughter/mother, lady/servant, and youth/age as poles of contrast. The relationship of these two, which has the potential to disrupt heterosexual romantic love and which has diverted dynastic succession, is here presented as one of conflict, difference, and divided interests. The drawing of the figures and the originality of the architectural space oppose Renaissance notions of anatomy and perspective, which were enshrined in academic tradition (and are to be) understood as calculated strategies in the production of medievalness. [Cherry in London 1984, no.222]
In 1991, Elizabeth showed the subject of the solo show at the Ruskin Gallery, Sheffield, where they exhibited her 34 works and 20 photographs.
After getting married to Gabriel in the spring of 1860, they took an elongated honeymoon in Paris. After they reached back, Lizzie got to know that she was pregnant. In Watts-Dunton’s account of Rossetti’s marriage, he wrote,
“In the spring of 1860 he married Elizabeth Eleanor Siddall, who, being very beautiful, was constantly painted and drawn by him. She had one stillborn child in 1861 and died in February 1861. He felt her death very acutely and for a time, ceased to write or take any interest in his own poetry. Like Prospero, indeed he literally buried his wand…”
Elizabeth Siddal gave birth to a stillborn daughter on 2 May 1861 but never recovered from her baby’s death. And due to this, her marriage suffered immensely.
On the evening of 10 February 1862, as the author says the Rossetti went out to dinner with the poet Algernon Charles Swinburne, and as they returned home, Rossetti went to teach night class at Working Men’s College. As he left, he saw Lizzie settle into bed and take her usual dose of laudanum. But this was not it, as the dose was so intense that she died. It was said that he hid the suicide letter on the advice of their friend, Ford Madox Brown, and then burnt it. It was because if he didn’t burn it, according to Christian burial, she might not get the grave.
“As a possession, beauty is too transitory- especially in the case of a long-dead lady- to carry much meaning beyond reaffirming the feeling of loss and sadness; indeed, one of the great poetic tropes is the decay of female beauty.”
1. The Legend of Elizabeth Siddal by Jan Marsh.
2. Lizzie Siddal, The Tragedy of a Pre-Raphaelite Supermodel by Lucinda Hawksley.