Memories of Elizabeth Siddal from Georgiana Burne-Jones

Georgiana Burne-Jones painted by her husband, Pre-Raphaelite artist Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones. Their children Margaret and Philip appear in the background.

In Memorials of Edward Burne-Jones, Georgiana Burne-Jones writes of Elizabeth Siddal fondly. Reading contemporary accounts of Lizzie is a thrill for me and I enjoy a small glimpse into these moments.

Lizzie is first mentioned, briefly, in the chapter discussing the early days of the Rossetti/Burne-Jones friendship.  This is during the happy days of their collaborating on the Oxford murals:

p.168: “Other interruptions the workers had of a more welcome kind, when Ruskin or Madox Brown came down from London to look at what they were doing.  There is a reflection of Ruskin’s visit in a letter of mine written to Miss Charlotte Salt at the beginning of November, where it says, “Edward is still at Oxford, painting away busily,” and adds that Ruskin had been down there the week before and pronounced Rossetti’s picture to be “the finest piece of colour in the world.”  Then–under seal of secrecy–I whisper that “he chooses Edward’s next to Rossetti’s.”  About ten days later another letter breathes in awe-stricken distress the fact that Miss Siddal is “ill again”.  The news had reached me through Edward, who had never even seen her, but so lived in Gabriel’s life at that time as not only to share any trouble that Gabriel had, but also to impress real sadness for it upon another.

In Mr. Price’s diary of November 14th, there is the following entry: “Rossetti unhappily called away through Miss Siddal’s illness at Matlock”; and that was the end of the Oxford companionship, for he did not return.”

p. 178 The next mention of Lizzie is a brief sentence saying “It was a bad time for several of the little circle.  Miss Siddal continued wretchedly out of health, and a long illness of Mrs. Madox Brown’s was weighing heavily on her husband”.

In the next chapter, Gabriel and Lizzie marry:

Dante Gabriel Rossetti Sitting to Elizabeth Siddal (1853)

p. 204: “Since the time that Rossetti was called away from Oxford, in October, 1857, by the illness of Miss Siddal, he and Edward had been less together, but there had been no decrease of affection between them, and so it was of the most vital interest to us when we learnt that Gabriel was to be married about the same time as ourselves.  He and Edward at once built up a plan for our all four meeting in Paris as soon as possible afterwards; I went home to Manchester to make my preparations, and it was decided that the fourth anniversary of our engagement, the 9th of June, should be our wedding day.”

Shortly after his wedding to Georgie, Burne-Jones fell ill.  Due to the illness, the foursome had to change their plans:

p. 204-205 “It was quite clear that we must give up Paris and get to our own home as soon as the doctor gave Edward leave to travel; so ruefully enough I wrote to Gabriel and told him how things were; and his answer was a comfort to us, for he reported that they were both tired of “dragging about,” and looked forward with pleasure to sitting down again with their friends in London as soon as possible. “Lizzie and I are likely to come back with two dogs,” he continues,”a big one and a little one.  We have called the latter Punch in memory partly of a passage in Pepys’s Diary, ‘But in the street, Lord, how I did laugh to hear poor common persons call their fat child Punch, which name I do perceive to be good for all that is short and thick.’  We have got the book from Mudie’s, and meant to have yelled over it in company if you had come to Paris.  We are now reading Boswell’s Johnson, which is almost as rich in some parts.”  This reading of Boswell resulted in the water-colour drawing of “Dr. Johnson at the Mitre” which Rossetti brought back with him from Paris. “

p.208 “Rossetti and his wife, after their return from Paris, took a lodging at Hampstead, but she was so ill at first that we never saw her till the end of July, when to our great delight a day was fixed for the deferred meeting, and Gabriel suggested that it should take place at the Zoological Gardens. “The Wombat’s Lair” was the assignation that he gave to the Madox Browns and to us.  A mention of this meeting in a letter that I wrote next day gives the impression of the actual time: “She was well enough to see us, and I find her as beautiful as imagination, poor thing.”

Regina Cordium by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. DGR began this portrait of Lizzie shortly after their marriage.

“I wish I could recall more details of that day — of the wombat’s reception of us, and of the other beasts we visited–but can only remember a passing call on the owls, between one of whom and Gabriel there was a feud.  The moment their eyes met they seemed to rush at each other, Gabriel rattling his stick between the cage bars furiously and the owl almost barking with rage.  Lizzie’s slender, elegant figure — tall for those days, but I never knew her actual height–comes back to me, in a graceful and simple dress, the incarnate opposite of the “tailor-made” young lady.  We went home with them to their rooms at Hampstead, and I know that I then received an impression which never wore away, of romance and tragedy between her and her husband.  I see her in the little upstairs bedroom with its lattice window, to which she carried me when we arrived, and the mass of her beautiful deep-red hair as she took off her bonnet: she wore her hair very loosely fastened up, so that it fell in soft, heavy wings.  Her complexion looked as if a rose tint lay beneath the white skin, producing a most soft and delicate pink for the darkest flesh-tone.  Her eyes were of a kind of golden brown–agate colour is the only word I can think of to describe them– and wonderfully luminous:  in all of Gabriel’s drawings of her and in the type she created in his mind this is to be seen.  The eyelids were deep, but without any languor or drowsiness, and had the peculiarity of seeming scarcely to veil the light in her eyes when she was looking down.”

“Whilst we were in her room she shewed me a design she had just made, called “The Woeful Victory” –then the vision passes.”

Portrait of Algernon Charles Swinburne by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

p. 216: “Dear Lizzie Rossetti laughed to find that she and Swinburne had such locks of the same coloured hair, and one night when we went in our thousands to see “Colleen Bawn”, she declared that as she sat at one end of the row we filled and he at another, a boy who was selling books of the play looked at Swinburne and took fright, and then, when he came round to where she was, started again with terror, muttering to himself “There’s another of ’em!”  Gabriel commemorated one view of her appearance in his rhyme beginning “There is a poor creature named Lizzie, Whose aspect is meagre and frizzy,” and there, so far as I remember, his muse halted; but he completed another verse on her to her great satisfaction, thus:

“There is a poor creature named Lizzie

Whose  pictures are dear at a tizzy;

And of this great proof

Is that all stand aloof

From paying that sum unto Lizzie”

p. 218:  “Morris was a pleased man when he found that his wife could embroider any design that he made, and did not allow her talent to remain idle.  With Mrs. Rossetti it was a different matter, for I think she had original power, but with her, too, art was a plant that grew in the garden of love, and strong personal feeling was at the root of it; one sees in her black-and-white designs and beautiful little water-colours Gabriel always looking over her shoulder, and sometimes taking pencil or brush from her hand to complete the thing she had begun.

The Lady of Shalott by Elizabeth Siddal (1854)

“The question of her long years of ill-health has often puzzled me; as to how it was possible for her to suffer so much without ever developing a specific disease; and after putting together what I knew of her and what I have learnt in passing through life, it seems to me that Dr. Acland’s diagnosis of her condition in 1855 must have been shrewed, sympathetic, and true.  He is reported by Gabriel as saying, after careful examination and many professional visits, that her lungs, if at all affected, were only slightly so, and that he thought the leading cause of her illness lay in “mental power long pent up and lately overtaxed”; which words seem to me a clue to the whole matter.  This delicately organized creature, who had spent the first sixteen years of her life in circumstances that practically forbade the unfolding of her powers, had been suddenly brought into the warmth and light of Gabriel’s genius and love, under which her whole inner nature had quickened and expanded until her bodily strength gave way; but Rossetti himself did not realize this so as to spare her the forcing influence, or restrict his demands upon her imagination and sympathy.  It is a tragic enough thought that, but one is driven to believe that if such a simple remedy as what is now called a “rest-cure” had been known of and sought for her then, her life might have been preserved.  However, let us follow what we know.”

“Gabriel dreaded bringing her to live in  London, where she was so often ill, but after vainly seeking for a house that would suit them at Hampstead or Highgate they resolved, as she seemed to have gained a little strength since her marriage, to try the experiment of wintering at Blackfriars.  The landlord of Chatham Place offered them the second floor of the next house in addition to the one that Rossetti already had, and by making a communication between the two houses they gained an excellent set of rooms.  All seemed to promise well, and for a brief time I think it was so.  We received a note from Gabriel telling us they had “hung up their Japanese brooms,” — a kind of yard-long whisk of peacock’s feathers–and made a home for themselves.  He was happy and proud in putting his wife’s drawings round one of the rooms, and in a letter to Allingham says: “Her last designs would I am sure surprise and delight you, and I hope she is going to do better now–if she can only add a little more of the precision in carrying out which it so much needs health and strength to attain, she will, I am sure, paint such pictures as no woman has painted yet.”

Elizabeth Siddal drawn by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

“We used to go and see them occasionally in the evenings, when the two men would spend much of the time in Gabriel’s studio, and Lizzie and I began to make friends.  She did not talk happily when we were alone, but was excited and melancholy, though with much humour and tenderness as well; and Gabriel’s presence seemed needed to set her jarring nerves straight, for her whole manner changed when he came into the room.  I see them now as he took his place by her on the sofa and her excitement sank back into peace.”

“One evening our errand to Chatham Place was to borrow a lay-figure, and we gaily carried it off without any wrapper in a four-wheeled cab, whose driver soon drew up a a brilliantly lighted public-house, saying that he could go no further, and under the glare of the gas lamps we had to decant our strange companion into a fresh cab.”

“I never had but one note from Lizzie, and I kept it for love of her even then.  Let it stand here in its whole short length as a memento of the Blackfriars evenings, and in the hope that some one beside myself may feel the pathos of its tender playfulness:

“My Dear Little Georgie,

I hope you intend coming over with Ned tomorrow evening like a sweetmeat, it seems so long since I saw you dear.  Janey will be here I hope to meet you.

“With a willow-pattern dish full of love to you and Ned,


Elizabeth Siddal

p. 222:  ‘Hostages to Fortune: 1861-1862’  “This was a year of wonders quite different from those of 1856, for all its marvels were visible to others beside ourselves.  Let who will smile, but to most people the sight of a first child is one of the miracles of life, and it is noteworthy that Morris, Rossetti, and Edward now went through this experience within a few months of each other.  First came the owner of the little garment that was being fashioned for her when we were at Red House the summer before, and then, just as we were taking it for granted that all would go as well in one household as another, there was illness and anxiety and suspense at Chatham Place, and poor Lizzie was only given back to us with empty arms.  This was not a light thing to Gabriel, and though he wrote about it, “She herself is so far the most important that I can feel nothing but thankfulness,” the dead child certainly lived in its father’s heart. “I ought to have had a little girl older than she is,” he once said wistfully as he looked at a friend’s young daughter of seven years.”

“When we went to see Lizzie for the first time after her recovery, we found her sitting in a low chair with the child-less cradle on the floor beside her, and she looked like Gabriel’s “Ophelia” when she cried with a kind of soft wildness as we came in, “Hush, Ned, you’ll waken it!”  How often it seemed to us that if the little baby had lived she, too, might have done so, and Gabriel’s terrible melancholy would never have mastered him.”

“Lizzie’s nurse was a delightful old country woman, whose words and ways we quoted for years afterwards; her native wit and simple wisdom endeared her to both Gabriel and Lizzie, and were the best possible medicine for their over-strained feelings.  Naturally, after meeting her at Blackfriars, we invited her to come to us.”

p. 228: Rossetti sends GBJ a note after the birth of her child  “To these early days in Great Russell Street belongs a note I received from Gabriel, one part of which I can never read unmoved:  “By the bye, Lizzie has been talking to me of parting with a certain small wardrobe to you.  But don’t let her, please.  It looks such a bad omen for us.”  Seldom did I come so near the real Gabriel as this.

Jane Morris, photographed by John Robert Parsons, posed by Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

p. 231: Together, Lizzie and Jane Morris visit GBJ and her new baby “To this time belongs a clear recollection of the appearance of Janey and Lizzie as they sat side by side one day when in a good hour it had occurred to them to come together to see the mother and child.  They were as unlike as possible and quite perfect as a contrast to each other; also, at the moment neither of them was under the cloud of ill-health, so that, as an Oriental might say, the purpose of the Creator was manifest in them.  The difference between the two women may be typified broadly as that between sculpture and painting, Mrs. Morris being the statue and Mrs. Rossetti the picture:  the grave nobility and colourless perfection of feature in the one was made human by kindness that looked from “her great eyes standing far apart,” while a wistfulness that often accompanied the brilliant loveliness and grace of the other gave an unearthly character to her beauty. “Was there ever two such ladies!” said dame Wheeler, with a distinct sense of ownership in one of them, as soon as they were gone.” (Wheeler had been Lizzie’s nurse.)

p. 237:  Death of Elizabeth Siddal: “One morning in February — a dark and cold one — Edward had settled as usual to such work as the light permitted, when there came a tap at the door, and to our surprise Red Lion Mary entered.  How she told her tale I do not know, but first we heard the words “Mrs. Rossetti”, and then we found that she had come to bring us the dreadful news that our poor, lovely Lizzie was dead, from an overdose of Laudanum.  There was nothing we could do–all was over–so, begging Edward not to risk going out on such a day, I hastened to Blackfriars to bring him any word I could learn about the unhappy Gabriel.”

“The story can never lose its sadness.  To try to tell it afresh now, with a knowledge of its disastrous effect upon one of the greatest of men, would be for me impossible.  I will simply transcribe something I wrote about it the next day to one of my sisters: “I am sure you will feel for Gabriel and all of us when I tell you poor Lizzie died yesterday morning.  I scarcely believe the words as I write them, but yesterday I saw her dead.  The evening before she was in good health (for her) and very good spirits–she dined with her husband and Swinburne and made very merry with them–Gabriel took her home, saw her prepare for bed, went out to the Working Men’s College, and on his return found her insensible from the effects of an overdose of laudanum which she was used to take medicinally.  She never knew him or anyone else for a second–four physicians and a surgeon did everything human skill could devise, but in spite of them all she died, poor darling, soon after seven in the morning.  The shock was so great and sudden that we are only beginning to believe it today–I wonder at myself for writing about it so coolly.  I went down directly I heard it and saw her poor body laid in the very bed where I have seen her lie and laugh in the midst of illness, but even though I did this I keep thinking it is all a dreadful dream,  Brown was with Gabriel and is exactly the man to see to all the sad business arrangements, for of course under such circumstances an inquest has to be held.  Of course I did not see Gabriel.  Edward is greatly troubled as you will believe, and all the men.  I leave you to imagine the awful feeling there is upon us all.  Pray God to Comfort Gabriel.”

“The Chatham Place days were ended now, and Rossetti in his sorrow turned to his mother, whose grave tenderness must have been a refuge for his wounded heart, and went for a time to live in Albany Street with her and his sisters and brother.  Poor Lizzie’s bullfinch went there too, and sang as sweetly and looked as sleek and cheerful as ever.”

p.281:  “When Gabriel heard that Mrs. Wheeler was in Great Russell Street, he wrote asking me to tell her that she would soon receive from him a photograph of his wife which he had long intended her to have.  Naturally I enquired at once what photograph he meant, for I did not know there were any and was eager to have one; but he answered, “The photographs of Lizzie are only from two of my sketches.  On several occasions when attempts were made to photograph her from life, they were all so bad that none have been retained.” He said also that he would send them both for me to see and choose whichever I preferred.  The one I kept was from a drawing made shortly after their marriage, when Lizzie was ill, but it is extremely like her and gives the peculiar lustre of her downcast eyes.”

‘D.G. Rossetti and Theodore Watts-Dunton in the sitting room at Cheyne Walk. Watercolour by Henry Treffry Dunn.

p. 292: This is the final mention of Lizzie. GBJ writes of a party given by Rossetti at Cheyne Walk “No Thames Embankment had reached Chelsea then, and only a narrow road lay between the tall iron gates of the forecourt of 16, Cheyne Walk, and the wide river which was lit up that evening by a full moon.  Gabriel had hung Lizzie’s beautiful pen-and-ink and water-colour designs in the long drawing-room with its seven windows looking south, where if ever a ghost returned to earth hers must have come to seek him: but we did not sit in that room, the studio was the centre of the house.”

Self-Portrait of Elizabeth Siddal