Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Rossetti's Muse...The Tragedy of Elizabeth Siddal

She nearly died of hypothermia while posing as Ophelia in a bath of cold water, and she is famous for the mass of flaming red hair that so captivated the entire Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood and made her their favourite model. But it was to one of them, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, that she gave her heart as well as her body.

From the moment he laid eyes on her, Rossetti was captivated by the former milliner's assistant. He sketched her, painted her, bedded her and betrayed her constantly with a never-ending stream of lovers. But he kept coming back to her. There was just something about Lizzie.

She was born in 1829, of a working class background, and was first discovered and painted by a student of Rossetti's called Walter Deverell. He painted her as Viola from Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. 

Ophelia - John Everett Millais
Other members of the Brotherhood also retained her modelling services. William Holman Hunt used her for Valentine Rescuing Sylvia from Proteus and, most famously, John Everett Millais laid her in her icy bath for his Ophelia. But it was as Rossetti's model that Lizzie became most prolific. She appeared in Ecce Ancilla Domini, The Wedding of Prince George and Princess Sabra, How They Met Themselves, The Tune of the Seven Towers, and Dantis Amor.

Ecce Ancilla Domini - Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Rossetti and Lizzie were a toxic combination. In their tumultuous personal relationship, their rows were white hot - the reconciliation passionate. They lived together, unmarried, in an age where society shunned such behaviour. Not that conforming to any social norm had ever been part of Rossetti's make up.

Rossetti's sister, the poet, Christina Rossetti, wrote a poem about her brother's unconventional relationship;

In an Artist's Studio

One face looks out from all his canvases,
One selfsame figure sits or walks or leans:
We found her hidden just behind those screens,
That mirror gave back all her loveliness.
A queen in opal or in ruby dress,
A nameless girl in freshest summer-green,
A saint, an angel --every canvas means
The same one meaning, neither more nor less.
He feeds upon her face by day and night,
And she with true kind eyes looks back on him,
Fair as the moon and joyful as the light:
Not wan with waiting, not with sorrow dim;
Not as she is, but was when hope shone bright;
Not as she is, but as she fills his dream.

In reality, Christina Rossetti was not particularly taken with her brother's choice of life partner.
The Quest of a Holy Grail - Elizabeth Siddal
But Lizzie was far more than just an artist's model. She possessed her own artistic talent - as a painter and poet - and Rossetti encouraged this, as did his friend, the poet, artist, author and critic, John Ruskin.
Proserpine - Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Rossetti and Lizzie remained loosely engaged to be married for ten years, during which his roving eye became fixed on a new model, the dark-haired Jane Burden who, many years later when she was married to his friend, William Morris, would pose for him as Proserpine. Destined to be the next great love of his life, Rossetti let her slip through his fingers when, either through genuine love, pity or a sense of guilty duty, he finally married Lizzie in 1860.

By now, Lizzie was an increasingly sick and frail woman, addicted to laudanum. Her moods were erratic as was her temper. In 1861 she gave birth to a stillborn daughter and never recovered either physically or mentally. A few months later, her husband came home to find her dead of an overdose of laudanum, either accidental or deliberate. She was 32 years old.
Beata Beatrix - Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Rossetti blamed himself for her death and plunged into an abyss of grief. He thrust a book of poems he was working on into her coffin. He painted the Beata Beatrix as a memorial to her and, as he sank further and further into depression, his career started to slide. 

By now, in dire need of finance, he was persuaded to retrieve the book of poems and ordered her coffin to be exhumed. He wasn't present when they opened it at dead of night, and a legend spread that those who were there witnessed a phenomenon. They said that, after death, her flaming red hair had continued to grow and now filled the coffin. Her body was reported to be perfectly preserved. She was reburied and the poems were published. They were not a success.
The Queen of Hearts - Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Rossetti had even more guilt to heap on himself now. He couldn't forgive himself for exhuming her body, certain that had been a grievous sin. He turned to laudanum and became an addict, attempting suicide by taking an overdose in 1872, but he survived another twenty years. While he carried on a long term affair with Jane, it would seem he could never forget, nor forgive himself for his treatment of, his muse - Lizzie Siddal.

History has placed Lizzie as an example of a woman swimming against the morals and dictates of the male dominated society in which she lived. She forged her own artistic career, which gave her financial independence in an age when women were expected to be dependent on men. Even if her paintings weren't in the same league as the Brotherhood, they have their own artistic merit and, in their other-worldliness and simple style, seem strangely modern. Her poems were dark and melancholic, brooding on her own emotional turmoil.
Rossetti in 1863, photographed by Lewis Carroll
A Silent Wood

O silent wood, I enter thee
With a heart so full of misery
For all the voices from the tree
And the ferns that cling about my knees.
In thy darkest shadow let me sit
When the grey owls about thee flit;
There will I ask of thee a boon,
That I may not faint or die or swoon.
Gazing through the gloom like one
Whose life and hopes are also done,
Frozen like a thing of stone
I sit in thy shadow – but not alone.
Can God bring back the day when we two stood
Beneath the clinging trees in that dark wood?

(Elizabeth Eleanor Siddal)

Lizzie is often portrayed as a victim. Used and abused during her lifetime and then not even permitted the dignity of resting in peace. In promoting this view, none can have felt it more forcibly than the man who believed himself to be the main offender. Dante Gabriel Rossetti went to his grave believing himself guilty on all counts.


  1. Antonia, this was very interesting. I've always loved the pre-Raphaelites!

  2. OMG ...Lizzie Sidall. and, at the end of his -- nicely without her life, or was it really -- Porkpie Rosettti? So some folks said. Probably they were both born in the wrong time frame but
    they collided. And what is the biz of time frame really?
    Bottom line? What a pair. What a post. Got some of me walls plastered in paintings of Liz too xx

    1. Hi Shey. Thanks. Yes, I'm always fascinated by people who buck the trend of the time and place they lived in.

    2. They are the most interesting

    3. They are, indeed and, rest assured, I shall continue to search them out!