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Celebrating Elizabeth Siddal

This post was originally published by Stephanie Graham Pina  at Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood.

On this day in 1829, Elizabeth Eleanor Siddall was born (she dropped a letter L from her name when she became an artist).  I write about her frequently on this site; she’s a woman I admire immensely.  You can visit my other site, to see a timeline of her life, view her paintings, and read her poems.  I recently wrote about her powerful yet bitter poem, Love and Hate.

She wasn’t famous in her own lifetime. Although she did sell a few pieces of art and secured the patronage of critic John Ruskin, she was unable to meet her full potential.  Her poems were never published while she was alive.  As a result, she is overshadowed both by the ghostly legend that surrounds her and by the reputation of her husband. What we know about her is only in relation to him. The picture is not a full one and the gaps only add to her mystery.

Pippa Passes drawn by Elizabeth Siddal

Pippa Passes, Elizabeth Siddal

She didn’t produce a large body of work and what survives shows a raw, unfinished talent.  Her paintings and drawing are simple in execution and, at times, they show a distinct Medieval influence.  As an artist, she is often dismissed and her work is assumed to be heavily influenced by her mentor and husband Dante Gabriel Rossetti.  Is this completely fair, though?  To be sure, they probably influenced each other a great deal.  As her tutor, Rossetti helped shape her artistic eye. Yet it doesn’t escape my notice that all too often with women artists, people can be quick to assume that their work was largely helped by some man in their life. When I see an image by, say, Joanna Boyce Wells  posted on Facebook,   I always see a comment asking “how much did her brother have to do with this?” Yet when work is posted by a male artist, no one seems to question that the work is not solely his own.

'Lady Clare', painted by Elizabeth Siddal

Lady Clare, Elizabeth Siddal

The Pre-Raphaelites are known for several depictions of the Lady of Shalott.  But did you know that one of the earliest Pre-Raphaelite depictions of the Lady of Shalott was a drawing by Elizabeth Siddal?

The Lady of Shalott, Elizabeth Siddal

The Lady of Shalott, Elizabeth Siddal

lizziebooksThe story of Elizabeth Siddal is a compelling and sad one that lends itself well to fictional retellings. In 1990 Mollie Hardwick wrote The Dreaming Damozel, a mystery that has main character Doran Fairweather, an antique dealer, drawn deeper and deeper into an obsession with both Rossetti and Siddal.  Fiona Mountain inventively used Siddal’s life as the catalyst for a modern day mystery in her 2002 book Pale as the Dead, featuring her protagonist Natasha Blake as a detective with a twist.  She’s a genealogist who can solve both the mysteries of your ancestors and any crime that crosses her path (I highly recommend both Pale as the Dead and the sequel Bloodlines).  Audrey Niffenegger gave Siddal a brief cameo appearance in Her Fearful Symmetry, a tale that revolves around Highgate Cemetery, Siddal’s final resting place.  Siddal and the entire Rossetti clan get the vampire treatment in Tim Powers’ book Hide Me Among the Graves.  Author Rita Cameron recently wrote Ophelia’s Muse, a novelized version of the relationship between Siddal and Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

Siddal has even received the comic book treatment thanks to a particularly well-done comic story by Neil Gaiman, How They Met Themselves. The title is drawn from the Rossetti painting of the same name (pun totally intended).  My friend Ben Perkins recently blogged about Gaiman’s comic at The Talking Oak’s Popular Victoriana Compendium. 

'How They Met Themselves', Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Known as his 'bogey' drawing, this illustration of doppelgangers was begun by DGR while on his honeymoon with Lizzie.

‘How They Met Themselves’, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Known as his ‘bogey’ drawing, this illustration of doppelgangers was begun by DGR while on his honeymoon with Lizzie. I’ve written about this before in Rossetti and the Supernatural and How They Met Themselves

Actress Judith Paris portrayed Siddal in Ken Russell's 'Dante's Inferno'.

Actress Judith Paris portrayed Siddal in Ken Russell’s ‘Dante’s Inferno’.

In 1967, director Ken Russell filmed Dante’s Inferno which featured Oliver Reed as Rossetti and Judith Paris as Siddal.  It’s a quirky depiction of the Pre-Raphaelite circle, very sixties and a delight to watch.

Amy Manson as Siddal in BBC's 2009 production 'Desperate Romantics'.

Amy Manson as Siddal in BBC’s 2009 production ‘Desperate Romantics’.

Amy Manson portrayed Elizabeth Siddal in Desperate Romantics, a wildly inaccurate romp of a series that has introduced the Pre-Raphaelites to a new audience.  There were many liberties taken in this production that I can not approve of, but I will say that Manson portrays Siddal with strength and spirit. And visually, the scenes of Siddal as Millais’ Ophelia are stunning.  While I have several friends that love it, I admit that I can’t help but cringe while watching it.  Perhaps I am too much of a purist.  You’ll have to watch it and decide for yourself. 

Emma West as Lizzie Siddal in Jeremy Green's play.

Emma West as Lizzie Siddal in Jeremy Green’s play.

In the theater world, playwright Jeremy Green brought Siddal to the stage in Lizzie Siddal (2013).  Author Dinah Roe has a great interview with Jeremy Green about his work on her site Pre-Raphaelites in the City.  And I’m proud to be friends with not one but two talented actresses who staged their own productions telling Siddal’s story:  Kris Lundberg brought Siddal to life in Muse.  Valerie Meachum staged Unvarnished, a one-woman show.

Fiction, movies, plays…Siddal may not have achieved recognition in her own lifetime, but she certainly has our attention now.  As Rossetti’s muse, we can see her influence on his early Pre-Raphaelite works.  She then boldly made the move from a muse to  artist and embarked on a career that was sadly short but showed great promise.  Unfortunately, many of the sad details of her life overshadow her artistic ambitions. Even so, I still think she inspires women and has become a symbol that can motivate us; she represents a woman strong enough to create her own work in a rigid, patriarchal world.

Drawing of Siddal by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Drawing of Siddal by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

In The Legend of Elizabeth Siddal, Jan Marsh said, “in writing about Elizabeth Siddal, women are painting collective self-portraits.” I believe that is unequivocally true.  For close to twenty years I have studied her, read about her, pondered her, attempted to excavate some sort of concrete knowledge of who she truly was.  In doing so, I have explored myself.  Perhaps Elizabeth Siddal has strangely become a conduit through which we explore our own meanings and desires.  No matter how much we learn about her and discuss her, she remains unreachable.  In that enigmatic state, I think we project our own needs onto her.  She becomes a symbol of ourselves, maybe.  The part we want to rescue.  I’ve often said that when I embrace images of Ophelia, I am reaching into the past and comforting my teenage self.  Perhaps when we champion Elizabeth Siddal, we as women are cheerleaders for our own work, our own creative endeavors. Fighting against the people that disappoint us in a way she couldn’t, fighting against addiction in a way she was ill-equipped to  do.

'Ophelia' (1852) John Everett Millais. Model: Elizabeth Siddal

‘Ophelia’ (1852) John Everett Millais. Model: Elizabeth Siddal

Whatever Elizabeth Siddal means to us individually and collectively, today is the anniversary of her birth.  On such a day, I see her mentioned widely on social media.  I wonder what she would think if she knew of her influence. How would she feel if she knew she has achieved an almost cult following?

Happy Birthday, Elizabeth Eleanor Siddal Rossetti.  Thank you. Requiescat in pace

You may also enjoy these posts:

Did Elizabeth Siddal inspire Bram Stoker’s Dracula? 

Regina Cordium (Queen of Hearts)

The Blessed Damozel

The Worst Man in London (hint: who orchestrated Lizzie Siddal’s exhumation?)

What is the Pre-Raphaelite Woman?

Elizabeth Siddal:  Laying the Ghost to Rest

What shapes our perception of Elizabeth Siddal?

The Faces of Elizabeth Siddal

Show your support with this Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood T Shirt!

Show your support with this Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood T Shirt!




Help The Lady of Shalott film be released online for free

The Lady of Shalott film is one of the most beautiful projects I have ever seen.  On an aesthetic level, it encompasses everything I love:  diligence to history and craftsmanship, the poetry of Tennyson, and a lush, cinematic quality that allows you to briefly be cocooned into the medieval world of Elaine of Astolat.  On a personal level, I consider the makers of the film to be wonderful friends who were quite kind to me last year after my husband endured a horrific accident.

The Lady of Shalott film has announced that when they reach 1500 ‘likes’ on their facebook page, they will release the film online for free.  So, please, like them on facebook.  Tweet and blog their link for your friends to see.  Because if you haven’t seen it yet, you are going to love their Lady of Shalott!

The Lady of Shalott Film Facebook Page

WAG Screen, the makers of the film

The making of the costumes at Period Wardrobe by Pauline Loven

Pre-Raphaelite Reading Project: La Morte d’Arthur

I’d love for you to read along with me as I start my latest selection for the Pre-Raphaelite Reading Project.  The current book is La Morte d’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory.  Read along at your own pace and feel free to participate by commenting at Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood or at the Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood Facebook page.  You can also post on Twitter using the #preraphaelitereading hastag. (I’m on Twitter as @beguilingmerlin.)

William Morris's painting of Guenevere (titled La Belle Iseult). Model Jane Morris.

We all know the Arthurian tales, they are embedded in our culture.  Every few years it seems as if Hollywood gives us a slick new version of Camelot.  Authors return to the legends for inspiration.  Musicians lyrically recant their interpretations of the saga.  It goes on and on.

So, while the stories of King Arthur and his knights are familiar, I propose that we revisit them, study them, and ponder the works that they inspired.  Try to see them with new eyes, from a different perspective.  The Pre-Raphaelites were living on the dawn of a new era, the Industrial Revolution.  They were surrounded by modern advances and yet they hearkened back to the age of chivalry and yearned for the medieval.  Let’s immerse ourselves in La Morte d’Arthur and discuss the Pre-Raphaelite works that stem from it.  Many of those works are already on Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood  in previous posts, but this will give me a chance to perhaps add new depth and understanding through my reading project.

Artist paints Ophelia using bacteria

In a highly original and unique project, artist Jo Wonder recreates Ophelia by Sir John Everett Millais using bacteria as a medium.  The video is incredibly moving and includes voice mails and messages left for Ophelia. “I like the idea of Ophelia being a beauty but made up of something that we think is disgusting. But we shouldn’t really be thinking it’s disgusting because in fact, roughly nine out of 10 cells in our body are actually bacteria and our bodies are also made up of roughly 60% water, as Ophelia lies in the lake dying she may be feeling fantastic as her body rejoins the earth.”

The section enclosed includes poems submitted by children, strangers and Kim Morrissey whose works often examine the role of women in nineteenth century culture.Bacillus Mycoides and other bacteria were used to depict Ophelia’s soul and breath in the animated painting.

Submit your own poetry/dedications to Ophelia by voice mail to complete this art installation.

Please participate in this project by leaving a poem to Ophelia on her voice mail at +44 (0) 2071839366 (standard land line Uk rates in the UK).

Related links:  Under the Microscope

6 Days goodbye poems for Ophelia

Retired teacher pinpoints where Millais painted Ophelia

Image via

Barbara Webb has narrowed down the location where Millais sat to paint the background to Ophelia.    Ophelia is not only one of the artist’s most famous works, it is also one of the most recognizable images of Elizabeth Siddal.  Read the entire article at

For more on Elizabeth Siddal as Ophelia, visit the Ophelia page.

W.M. Rossetti article from The Guardian Archives:

Thank you to Cathy Baker of Gather Ye Rosebuds while ye may for bringing this to my attention.

Originally published in Manchester Guardian on 29 March 1904.   William Michael Rossetti starts off with the intention of setting the record straight that John Ruskin did not “set Pre-Raphaelitism going”.   Excerpt below, click here to read the entire article.

It is quite a mistake to suppose that Ruskin set Pre-Raphaelitism going. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was formed in the early autumn of 1848. I need only mention three of the members – Millais, Holman Hunt, and my brother, Dante Rossetti. I am sure neither Millais nor Rossetti had in 1848 any acquaintance with Ruskin’s books. Holman Hunt may perhaps have known something, but if there was one young man in the painting profession resolutely disposed to act upon his own perceptions and views, and not upon those of other people, that man was Holman Hunt.

William Michael Rossetti

John Ruskin

New article in the Spectator on Barbara Bodichon and her circle, including Elizabeth Siddal

A new article in the Spectator explores Barbara Leigh Smith, later Bodichon.  Written by Charlotte Moore,  this charming piece introduces us to her ‘Aunt Barbara’, whose circle of friends included many famous Victorians.   I recently saw the sketch that Barbara made of Elizabeth Siddal in The Art of the Pre-Raphaelites by Elizabeth Prettejohn.  The sketch, currently owned by Mark Samuels Lasner, shows Lizzie posing with irises in her hair while Lizzie posed for Bodichon, Anna Mary Howitt, and Rossetti.

Via The Spectator, please click to read entire article:

Aunt Barbara’s fireplace:

‘Dante Rossetti is my favourite of the young men [the Pre-Raphaelites],’ Barbara told Bessie Parkes, but she was even more interested in the artistic talent of Lizzie Siddal, Rossetti’s muse and mistress, declaring her ‘a genius’. She saw that tuberculosis would soon finish Lizzie — ‘Rossetti is like a child, he cannot believe she is in danger’ — and invited the couple to Sussex, hoping that country air would help. She, Rossetti, and Anna Mary Howitt, another artist friend, sketched Lizzie with irises in her hair.

In 1870, eight years after Lizzie’s death, Rossetti exhumed the poems he had buried with her. Now in love with William Morris’s wife Janey, and hooked on chloral hydrate, Rossetti was approaching a breakdown. Barbara invited him to recuperate at Scalands. ‘Barbara does not indulge in bell-pulls, hardly in servants to summon thereby,’ he wrote to the poet William Allingham, another signatory, ‘what she does affect is any amount of through draught.’ His jaunty tone belies the tension in the house. The Morrises came to stay. Rossetti persuaded William to return to town leaving Janey behind, so Scalands became the setting for another doomed tryst.