Elizabeth Siddal (July 25, 1829 – February 11, 1862)

Photograph of Elizabeth Siddal

This site is a journey.

These humble smatterings of html, css, and pixels exist for those of us who have been captivated by Elizabeth Siddal –delighted zealots compelled to search, to read, to follow paths in the hopes that we will get a truer sense of her.

I started this journey alone, but over the past fifteen years of this online project,  I am grateful to have discovered fellow travelers.

Through her art, poetry, and the Pre-Raphaelite works she appears in, Elizabeth Siddal still has the power to captivate. The story of her life and struggles beckons to us across time, pulling us into her thrall.

Elizabeth Who? Lizzie was discovered in millinery shop, a simple girl who was tall for the time and had a mass of red-gold hair. Her first sitting was for Walter Deverell’s Twelfth NightAs an artist’s model, she appears in several early works of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

Ophelia, Sir John Everett Millais

She is widely recognized from the painting Ophelia by Sir John Everett Millais; the story of her posing as Ophelia is as famous as the work itself. Floating in a bath warmed with oil lamps underneath, the lamps burned out over the course of the long session. Lizzie grew ill from laying in the freezing water for hours as a cold, silent Ophelia. Her father threatened to sue Millais.

Eventually, she would pose only for Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who encouraged her pursuit of art. He became her mentor and art tutor, he drew her obsessively, and he loved her. In a stifling and patriarchal age, Lizzie boldly became a painter and poet in her own right.

In many accounts of her, you will see her death described as suicide. I am of the belief that her dosage that night was unintentional, a tragic end similar to that of many addicts. I will never attempt to sway you, though. Whether intentional or not, she sadly lost her life due to a fatal overdose of laudanum. You can read a transcript of the inquest here.

Shortly after her death, her husband, Dante Gabriel Rossetti enclosed his manuscript of poetry in her coffin.

He had her exhumed seven years later in order to publish them.

Drawing of Elizabeth Siddal by Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

Like many, I first discovered her through the tale of her exhumation and my reaction was a mixture of outrage and fascination.

When I read this fragment of one of her poems, my curiosity became something else entirely. Something deeper.

Dim phantoms of an unknown ill
Float through my tired brain;
The unformed visions of my life
Pass by in ghostly train;

A Year and A Day, Elizabeth Siddal

The imagery of dim phantoms, the idea of this woman’s struggle and her ‘tired brain’ reached across a century and gripped my heart.  I don’t know if I had ever felt such compassion before for someone so long dead.

All these years of compiling information about her life and I am just now realizing that she has become, to use her words, my own dim phantom.

Describing the writing of her book Possession, A.S. Byatt said “I had been thinking about such a novel for at least 15 years, and it had changed a great deal in my head during that time. Unlike anything else I have written, it began with the title. I was sitting in the old round reading room in the British Museum, watching the great Coleridge scholar Kathleen Coburn pacing round and round the circular catalogue, and I realised that she had dedicated all her life to this dead man. And then I thought “Does he possess her, or does she possess him?” And then I thought there could be a novel, Possession, about the relations between the living and the dead. It would be a kind of daemonic tale of haunting.” (via the Guardian, here)

My pursuit of Lizzie Siddal happily and unequivocally possesses me. That, in turn, has led me down an endless rabbit hole of all Pre-Raphaelite art and artists.  

For that, I am grateful.

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