Tag Archives: Lizzie’s life

Elizabeth Siddal: Laying the ghost to rest

Previously posted at Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood.

It would have been a perfect plot for a 1960′s Hammer Horror film:  on the death of his wife, a poet places his manuscript of poems in her casket.  Years later he has a new muse and love, a woman who had been a friend to them both.  So he has his late wife exhumed to reclaim his final gift to her. Upon opening the casket, his wife is found to be in perfect condition, miraculously resisting decay for seven and a half years.  By some supernatural intervention, the hair that inspired him in life had continued to grow after death and has now become a huge, golden mass.  The poems are restored and published, yet the ghost of the wronged wife will now haunt him for the rest of his life.  I can just see Lizzie’s hair spilling out of the coffin in brilliant technicolor. It is the perfect ghost story.
Except it’s not a ghost story. It’s a (mostly) true tale that has been repeatedly told, each time adding more elements of the macabre until Lizzie has achieved all the makings of a Pre-Raphaelite phantom.

'Beata Beatrix' was painted by Dante Gabriel Rossetti after his wife's death, as a tribute.

‘Beata Beatrix’ was painted by Dante Gabriel Rossetti after his wife’s death, as a tribute.

 

A study for 'Beata Beatrix', circa 1854.  Elizabeth Siddal clearly posed for Beata Beatrix before her death, the project assumed a new meaning after her passing.

A study for ‘Beata Beatrix’, circa 1854. Elizabeth Siddal clearly posed for Beata Beatrix before her death, the project assumed a new meaning after her passing.

The morbid associations began early.  There were whispered rumors that Rossetti had started Beata Beatrix by sketching his dead wife as she lay in state.  Surgeon John Marshall, a friend of Rossetti’s,  claimed that “for two years he saw her ghost every night!”  It was the age of Spiritualism and surely Lizzie had something to say from beyond the grave.  Seances were held that included both Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his brother William Michael.  An unlikely medium, Rossetti’s model/mistress/housekeeper Fanny Cornforth served as a conduit for Lizzie’s messages.

After the exhumation, Rossetti wrote to Swinburne saying “Had it been possible to her, I should have found the book upon my pillow the night she was buried; and could she have opened the grave no other hand would have been needed.”  As if the exhumation had merely been the righting of a wrong and they had  appeased Lizzie’s spirit by doing what she was physically unable to do from the spiritual plane.

Everything about Lizzie is subject to exaggeration. Most people learn about her death and exhumation first and then have to work their way backwards.  They come to know her through her overdose, the speculations of a disappearing suicide note and her wraith-like appearance as she stared absentmindedly into a fire, rocking the ghost of her dead child. The exaggerations go back even further –her marriage is described as unhappy.  Gabriel is constantly adulterous, despite the fact that there is no evidence that he was unfaithful during marriage. Posing as Ophelia seems to foreshadow her death, when seen in hindsight.  Even her discovery has a fairy tale quality, thanks to Holman Hunt’s account where she is described breathlessly by Deverell as a queen. Lizzie has become a character, a trope.

Elizabeth Siddal wasn’t famous in her own lifetime. Although she did sell a few pieces of art and secured Ruskin’s patronage, 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 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.

Certainly, these gaps could have been filled had William Michael Rossetti bothered to talk to Lizzie’s mother and surviving siblings when he began to publish accounts of his brother’s life.  In fact, none of the authors who wrote about Rossetti soon after his death made an effort to talk to Lizzie’s family.  It seems that as the subject was mainly DGR, there was no reason to — Lizzie exists in these accounts as a prop. Her untimely death adds a certain romance, her exhumation shows the lengths he was prepared to travel for the sake of Poetry. I am reminded of the first line of Lizzie’s poem “The Lust of the Eyes”, ‘I care not for my Lady’s soul’.  We care not for Lizzie’s true self, she is seen as a Pre-Raphaelite figure of pathos. When Joseph Knight wrote of Lizzie’s death in his 1887 biography Life of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, he stated that “Regina Cordium had passed forever from his life.” Again, more prop than person.

How do we lay the ghost to rest? How do we focus on Lizzie herself and set aside the macabre trappings?  Focusing on her work is a good start.  Her art, although unpolished, can be viewed as ahead of its time. Instead of viewing her as merely Rossetti’s pupil in a one-sided exchange of teacher to student, we can view their dedication to art as flowing freely between them, that they both influenced and inspired each other’s work. Indeed, her contribution to the Red House murals show that she as accepted as an artist on equal footing.

Her letters, too, offer small glimpses into the woman she was.  Funny, friendly–far from a hovering wraith of a woman. When she writes of “Mutton-chops” in her letter from Nice, we can see past Ophelia and Beatrice and see a normal woman with an entertaining sense of humor.

To pursue knowledge of her, that is the key to seeing past the myth.  The Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood by Jan Marsh is the first book I recommend to those interested in the women of the Pre-Raphaelite circle.  Marsh explores Lizzie’s life and the lives of her contemporaries while highlighting issues of gender, work and love.  Lizzie Siddal: Face of the Pre-Raphaelites by Lucinda Hawksley is a captivating account of Lizzie’s life.  In The Legend of Elizabeth Siddal, Jan Marsh expands her work in Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood, focusing on the evolution of how we view Lizzie and how scholarship of her life has been approached in different eras.

Emma West as Lizzie Siddal

Emma West as the titular character Lizzie Siddal in the recent jeremy Green play

 

Amy Manson as Lizzie Siddal in Desperate Romantics

Amy Manson as Lizzie Siddal in Desperate Romantics

As I write this post, I realize that we have made progress. Lizzie has received renewed attention in the play Lizzie Siddal by Jeremy Green. And even though I was not completely impressed with the BBC series Desperate Romantics, I have to admit that Amy Manson portrayed Lizzie admirably. Lizzie Siddal emerges from the spectral fog and begins to shed her ghostly stigma.

We have image after image of Lizzie appearing languid and reclining.  but we also have images of her hard at work, sitting at easels and determined to hone her craft.  For the anniversary of her death tomorrow, I prefer to focus on these.

Sketch of Elizabeth Siddal at easel by  Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Sketch of Elizabeth Siddal at easel by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Elizabeth Siddal at easel, drawn by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Elizabeth Siddal at easel, drawn by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Elizabeth Siddal at easel, sketch by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Elizabeth Siddal at easel, sketch by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Dante Gabriel Rossetti sitting to Elizabeth Siddal

Dante Gabriel Rossetti sitting to Elizabeth Siddal

 

 

 

About Elizabeth Siddal

Sketch of Elizabeth Siddal drawn by Dante Gabriel RossettiWhile working in a millinery shop, Lizzie was discovered by the artist Walter Deverell who painted her as Viola in his depiction of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Lizzie went on to model for other Pre-Raphaelite artists and is most commonly recognized as Ophelia in the painting by John Everett Millais. It was the charismatic Dante Gabriel Rossetti who not only drew and painted her obsessively, but encouraged Lizzie in her own artwork and poetry. Their relationship was intense and rocky, with an informal engagement that lasted on and off for a decade. Sadly, their marriage was short. The couple suffered a stillborn daughter and Lizzie was seriously addicted to Laudanum. She died in 1862 due to an overdose. The rest of Lizzie’s tale is famous for its macabre nature: in his grief Gabriel buried his only manuscript of his poems with Lizzie. The poems, nestled in her coffin next her famous copper hair, haunted him. Seven years later, he had her coffin exhumed in order to retrieve the poems for publication. The story was spread that Lizzie was still in beautiful, pristine condition and that her flaming hair had continued to grow after death, filling the coffin. This, of course, is a biological impossibility. Cellular growth does not occur after death, but the tale has added to Lizzie’s legend and continues to capture the interest of Pre-Raphaelite and Lizzie Siddal enthusiasts.

The story of Lizzie’s life is punctuated with dramatic episodes — falling ill as a result of modeling as Ophelia, the tales of Gabriel’s dalliances and her grief at the loss of their stillborn daughter. Our modern society is more aware than the Victorians regarding mental health issues. Unfortunately for Elizabeth Siddal, she lived in a time where addiction was a taboo subject and little was known about post-partum depression. Lizzie lived within a cycle of illness, addiction and grief with no resources available to her. Although she did have a creative outlet while most women were denied modes of self expression, Lizzie was never able to move beyond the addiction that claimed her life.

© 2004 Stephanie Pina, Lizziesiddal.com

Timeline of Elizabeth Siddal’s Life

timelineJuly 25, 1829 – Birth of Elizabeth Eleanor Siddall (born at Charles Street, Hatton Garden)

1831 – Siddall family moves from Hatton Garden to Southwark (in South London)

1833 – Lizzie’s father, Charles, runs a business from his home at 8 Kent Place. This is the home they rented from James Greenacre, who would later commit murder.

1849 – Lizzie works at Mrs. Tozer’s hat shop and is “discovered” by Walter Deverell, who paints her as Viola in his painting Twelfth Night. Lizzie is propelled into the world of Pre-Raphaelite art.

1849-50 – DGR’s portrait Rossovestita (possibly of Lizzie) is exhibited.

1852 – Lizzie models for Millais’ Ophelia. Also in this year, her brother Charles dies. Lizzie models for Holman Hunt again (for the hair of Jesus in The Light of the World). It also seems that it is some time time this year that DGR decides that he does not want Lizzie to model for any other artist. Lizzie officially stops working for Mrs. Tozer.  1852 is the first recorded mention of Lizzie’s ill health.

Nov. 1852 – DGR moves to 14 Chatham Place in Blackfriars, London and takes Lizzie on as a pupil.

March 28, 1854 – DGR introduces Lizzie to his sister Christina. By this time, according to Lucinda Hawksley’s book, their friends had recognized them as a couple for two years.

1854 –  Lizzie’s poem Fragment of a Ballad possibly written (Lucinda Hawksley’s biography is my source for this date. I have never seen dates for Lizzie’s poems in any other source). Deverell dies in 1854. Anna Mary Howitt and her sister persuade Lizzie to see a doctor (Dr. Wilkinson) for her health. Also that year, Lizzie travels to Hastings for her health (encouraged by Barbara Leigh Smith). DGR’s father dies. Instead of staying with his family, he joins Lizzie in Hastings as soon as the funeral is over. Also this year, Lizzie starts her illustration of Clerk Saunders.

1854 continued – After returning to Chatham Place, Lizzie starts an illustration for DGR’s poem Sister Helen. She continues in her studies as DGR’s pupil, as well as being his muse.

1855 – Art critic John Ruskin purchases all of Lizzie’s works. DGR wrote about it in a letter to William Allingham:

About a week ago, Ruskin saw and bought on the spot every scrap of designs hitherto produced by Miss Siddal. He declared that they were far better than mine, or almost anyone’s, and seemed quite wild with delight at getting them. . . .

Ruskin later becomes her patron. Also in 1855, Lizzie finally meets DGR’s mother. Ruskin sends Lizzie to see Dr. Henry Wentworth Ackland in Oxford on May 21, 1855. Ruskin also finances a trip to France for Lizzie’s health. While in Paris, DGR joins her there against Ruskin’s wishes. DGR introduced her to Robert Browning. who was also in Paris, but the meeting did not go well, perhaps due to Lizzie’s use of Laudanum. Lizzie then travels to Nice, but had spent all of her money. She wrote to DGR, who had returned home. He quickly painted his triptych, Paolo and Francesca de Rimini, and sold it to Ruskin in order to bring Lizzie the money. It is during Lizzie’s travels that DGR, left home alone, met William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones. Also this year, Lizzie exhibited her work in Charlotte Street.

1856 – Sept. 8, 1856 Ford Madox Brown records in his diary that Rossetti has given up Annie Miller and is committed to Lizzie and “he and Guggum seem on the best of terms now.” Rossetti and Siddal are named as godparents to Madox Brown’s new baby Arthur Gabriel. In November DGR announces plans to marry Lizzie, but later changes his mind. A furious Lizzie leaves DGR, fleeing to Bath with her sister Clara. She refuses to see DGR, but he joins her there in December and they are reconciled.

1857 – Several of Lizzie’s paintings and illustrations appear in the Pre-Raphaelite Exhibition in Fitzroy Square, Marylebone. Lizzie was the only female artist. An American from Massachusetts purchased Lizzie’s painting Clerk Saunders.

Lizzie stops taking her allowance from Ruskin.

Lizzie travels to Matlock, Derbyshire and later travels to Sheffield. She attends the Sheffield School of Art. During this time DGR is in Oxford, along with William Morris , Edward Burne-Jones and others painting murals for the Oxford Union.

1857-58 (?) – DGR rushes to Matlock when he hears she is seriously ill. He continues to travel back and forth for several months.

1860 – Lizzie is extremely ill; DGR is convinced she will die soon. On May 23, 1860 Lizzie was well enough to make it to the church and she and Rossetti are married (in Hastings). They honeymoon in France.

Lizzie is pregnant. (date unknown)

October 1860 they move into Chatham Place permanently. Lizzie writes the poem “At Last” during her pregnancy.(According to Lucinda Hawksley bio. I am still trying to find other sources to validate the poem dates.)

May 2, 1861 – Lizzie delivers a stillborn daughter. Lizzie continues to suffer with laudanum addiction and now postpartum depression.

Sometime toward the end of 1861, Lizzie is pregnant again.

February 1862 – Lizzie goes out to dinner with DGR and Algernon Charles Swinburne, returning home around 8:00. DGR leaves for the Working Men’s College. He returns home at 11:30 and cannot revive Lizzie. Help is summoned. DGR, unwilling to believe that she can not be saved, has four different doctors summoned. Each of them try and fail to revive her.

Lizzie dies at 7:20 in the morning, February 11, 1862. Her funeral is held on February 17th.

You can read the transcript of the inquest here.
1869 – Rossetti has Lizzie’s grave exhumed in order to retrieve the manuscript of poems that he had buried with her.


Lizzie’s Early Years

One of the aspects of Lizzie Siddal: Tragedy of a Pre-Raphaelite Supermodel that I found compelling was the anecdotal account of Lizzie’s early years and family life. I admire Lucinda Hawksley’s work and I think she’s written a well rounded account of the life of Elizabeth Siddal.

I decided that for the purposes of this site, it might be a fun project to track down what information I could find regarding Lizzie’s early years (mentioned in Hawksley’s book) online. Sadly, it’s not very much. But here’s what little I found:

Lizzie’s red hair:

It’s well acknowledged that in Victorian ages, red hair was considered quite unlucky (see page 2 of Hawksley’s book, in the chapter entitled The Red-Haired Model.) I wanted to find any links I could regarding superstitions of red hair in both the Victorian era and before. What I found is not specific to the time period I am interested in, but is still pertinent:

Red hair folklore

Red hair was unfashionable  even considered unlucky. As Hawksley mentions, Judas Iscariot reportedly had red hair (thus representing betrayal). The belief that red hair was unlucky dates back to the Egyptians. In the twenty-first century, superstitions such as these seem like nonsense. But these beliefs where deep-seated and passed on from generation to generation. As children, we sometimes willingly believe what our parents and grandparents tell us without question, especially in a time period without extensive education or access to information. Did superstitions about redheads have an affect on Lizzie’s perception of herself?

What else shapes us in our early years? That which occupies our parents.  Lizzie’s father was obsessed with the numerous lawsuits he waged in order to prove that he was the right owner of Crossdaggers, in the Derbyshire village of Hope. Lizzie grew up with the belief that the family deserved more, had fallen from more, and would some day be restored to their former glory. Suit after suit took place until Lizzie’s sister Clara burnt her father’s papers relevant to the case in an effort to spare the family from more law suits.

So, I’d like to take a look at this family business that would have had an impact on Lizzie’s youth. But I’m not sure which one it is. I know it is in Derbyshire, in the village of Hope. What I’ve found so far is this:

Hawksley refers to it as “Crossdaggers, a family business, in the Derbyshire village of Hope.” A Google search of “Crossdaggers Hope Hall Deryshire” turns up The Cross Daggers Inn. Their main site is here

Also, in the footnote, Hawksley mentions that locals refer to the place as Old Hall…so it could be:

Old Hall Inn, Hope, Derbyshire

The Old Hall Inn (same as above but different pics and more info)

Info about Hope, Derbyshire

Old Hall, Derbyshire (found via google search “Old Hall Derbyshire”)

I don’t know if any of these are the right hall, or if the business even still exists. All I know is that, according to what I’ve read, this was important to Lizzie’s father and, I can only assume, important to her as well.

Lizzie’s father is often described as:

a cutler (defined by wikipedia as one who makes cutlery)

an optician

an ironmonger

At one point in her childhood, the Siddall family landlord was James Greenacre, who later murdered and dismembered his fiancee. Executed Newgate 1837 , Curiosities of Street Literature, James Greenacre, murderer, The Edgware Road Murderer, Lithograph of James Greenacre

 

Letters Written by Elizabeth Siddal

siddalhead.jpg

Drawing of Elizabeth Siddal by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. On a personal note, this is one of my favorite drawings of Lizzie by D.G.R.

I find that reading Lizzie’s letters, although they are brief, gives a happy glimpse into her life. She no longer seems as distant or remote. As we read her words and feel her voice, she is no longer silent on the canvas as a doomed Ophelia or an exalted Beatrice.

Some of the letters are preceded by description by the author that first published them, I have included these in green font for an easier layout, along with the date and other pertinent information.

A Letter from Lizzie to Rossetti (regarding her trip to Nice)
(Published in Ruskin, Rossetti, and‚ Pre-Raphaelitism by William Michael Rossetti (London, George Allen 1899)Except some verses, scarcely a scrap of Miss Siddal’s writing is extant in my hands. The following rather amusing account of passport experiences in Nice (which was then Piedmontese, not French) formed part of a letter addressed to Dante Rossetti; the remainder of the letter has disappeared. “Alice Gray” was a good-looking woman of swindling proclivities, who had for years victimized people in various parts of the United Kingdom, as notified in newspapers. She was more particularly addicted to bringing forward false charges of robbery committed to her detriment. [William Michael Rossetti 1899.]

[NICE, Christmas-time 1855]On your leaving the boat, your passport is taken from you to the Police Station, and there taken charge of till you leave Nice. If a letter is sent to you containing money, the letter is detained at the Post Office, and another written to you by the postmaster ordering you to present yourself and passport for his inspection. You have then to go to the Police Station and beg the loan of your passport for half-an-hour, and are again looked upon as a felon of the first order before passport is returned to you. Looking very much like a transport, you make your way to the Post Office, and there present yourself before a grating, which makes the man behind it look like an overdone mutton-chop sticking to a gridiron. On asking for a letter containing money, Mutton-chop sees at once that you are a murderer, and makes up its mind not to let you off alive; and, treating you as Cain and Alice Gray in one, demands your passport. After glaring at this and your face (which by this time becomes scarlet, and is taken at once as a token of guilt), a book is pushed through the bars of gridiron, and you are expected to sign your death-warrant by writing something which does not answer to the writing on the passport. Meanwhile Mutton-chop has been looking as much like doom as overdone mutton can look, fizzing in French, not one word of which is understood by Alice Gray. But now comes the reward of merit. Mutton sees at once that no two people living and at large could write so badly as the writing on the passport and that in the book; so takes me for Alice, but gives me the money, and wonders whether I shall be let off from hard labour the next time I am taken, on account of my thinness. When you enter the Police Station to return the passport. You are glared at through wooden bars with marked surprise at not returning in company of two cocked-hats, and your fainting look is put down to your having been found out in something. They are forced, however, to content themselves by expecting to have a job in a day or so. This is really what one has to put up with, and its not at all comic when one is ill. I will write again when boil is better, or tell you about lodgings if we are able to get any.There was an English dinner here on Christmas Day, ending with plum-pudding, which was really very good indeed, and an honour to the country. I dined up in my room, where I have dined for the last three weeks on account of bores. First class, one can get to the end of the world; but one can never be let alone or left at rest.But believe me
Yours most affectionately,Lizzy

In this next letter, Lizzie writes about her summer holiday in Clevedon, where donkey rides were an
attraction (1855)
Note that she writes in satire and makes fun of the boys speech. Reading this, you can picture the boy and his enthusiasm.

Source: Doughty, O. and Wahl, J.R. The Letters of Dante Gabriel Rossetti .

Also appears in Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood by Jan Marsh (Quartet Books, 1985)

The donkey-boy opened a conversation by asking if there was any lions in the parts she comed from. Hearing no, he seemed disappointed, and asked her if she had ever ridden on an elephant there. He had last year when the beastesses was here, and on mounting the elephant for a penny, he felt so joyful that he was obliged to give the man his other two-pence, so he couldn’t see the rest of the fair. He wished to know whether boys had to work for a living there, and said that a gentleman had told him that in his country the boys were so wicked that they had to be shut up in large prisons. He never knew hisself no boy what stole anything, but he supposed in that country there was nothing but fruit-trees. He pulled a little
blue flower growing out of a rock, and said he liked to let flowers grow in the fields, but he liked to catch one when it grew there and take it away, because it looked like such a poor little thing. He had a project for leading
donkeys without beating, which consisted of holding a grass within an inch of their noses, and inducing them to follow it. Being asked whether that would not be the crueler plan of the two, he said he had noticed that donkeys would always eat even when they were full, so he had only to fill the donkey first. All that could be got in an explanation of why he thought Lizzie some outlandish native was that he was sure that she comed very far, much farther than he could see.

A Letter from Lizzie to Georgiana Burne-Jones
(Kindly contributed to this site by Gary Attlesey)
Published in Memorials of Edward Burne-Jones by Georgiana Burne-Jones (London, Macmillan & Co. Limited 1904).

My Dear Little Georgie,
I hope you intend coming over with Ned to-morrow 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,
Lizzie

Notes:
Georgiana Burne-Jones : wife of Edward Coley Burne-Jones.
Ned : Edward Coley Burne-Jones, artist

Letter from Lizzie to Gabriel shortly after their marriage while she is visiting friends. Source: Troxell, J. C. Three Rossetti’s: Unpublished Letters to and from
Dante Gabriel, Christina, William, 1937. This letter also appears in Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood, by Jan Marsh (Quartet Books, 1985) The letter is dated by Troxell as ‘October, 1861′. Siddal was known to be a guest at Red House at that time.

My dear Gabriel,
I am sorry to think of your picture going at that low price but
of course there was nothing else to be done. I wish you would put aside or send on to me the
money for those knives, as I do not wish those people to think
I am unable to pay for them.

The price of the knives is two shillings each.
Your affectionate

Lizzie