Elizabeth Siddal and the Pre-Raphaelites,  william michael rossetti

William Micheal Rossetti on Elizabeth Siddal

produced (May 1854) a design of Clerk Saunders, which afterwards she developed into a water-colour, about her completest thing except the portrait. It was purchased by the American scholar Professor Eliot Norton; later on in 1869 Rossetti got it back, and it is now in the fine collection of Mr. Fairfax Murray. “It even surprised me,” Rossetti wrote to Professor Norton, “by its great merit of feeling and execution.” By 1854 she had also produced designs of Rossetti’s Sister Helen, The Nativity , The Lass of Lochroyan, and The Gay Gos-hawk—the latter two for the Ballad-book. Two water-colours, La Belle Dame Sans Merci, and the old design of We are Seven, were in hand at the beginning of 1855. There was also a design, penand-ink, of Two Lovers seated al fresco, and singing to the music of two dark Malay-looking women, while a little girl listens. This properly belonged by gift to Allingham, but got sold inadvertently to Ruskin.
She made some designs to be executed in carving in Trinity College, Dublin, a building carried out by Benjamin Woodward (the architect of the Oxford Museum). One of the designs represented “an angel with some children and all manner of other things,” and it was supposed to be in situ in 1855, but I see it stated that no such work is now traceable there. She began late in 1856 an oil-picture from one of the ballad-subjects, probably The Lass of Lochroyan.  This I think is not now extant, but there is a water-colour of it.  The total of designs made by Lizzie, coloured and uncoloured, was somewhat considerable, allowing for the short duration of her artistic activity. I question whether she produced much at a date later than 1857; but she certainly produced something after as well as before her marriage—she was at work at the end of  November 1860, and probably later.

He then describes the home of Dante Gabriel and Lizzie, after their marriage.  He also discusses the quality of her work and expounds upon DGR’s method of teaching Lizzie.  I love this part:  “Have you an idea in your head? Is it an idea which canbe expressed in the shape of a design? Can you express it with refinement, and with a sentiment of nature, even if not with  searching realism?

In January 1862 the drawing-room at 14 Chatham Place was entirely hung round with her water-colours of poetic subjects; and there must at that time have been several others in the possession of Ruskin, and not of him alone. This drawing-room was papered from a design made by Rossetti; trees standing the whole height of the wall, conventionally treated, with stems and fruit of Venetian red, and leaves black, and with yellow stars within a white ring: “the effect of the whole,” he said, “will be rather sombre, but I think rich also.” As to the quality of her work, it may be admitted at once that she never attained to anything like masterliness—her portrait shows more
competence than other productions; and in the present day, when vigorous brush-work and calculated “values” are more thought of than inventiveness or sentiment, her performances would secure little beyond a sneer first, a glance afterwards, and a silent passing by. But in those early “Preraphaelite”  days, and in the Preraphaelite environment,
which was small, and ringed round by hostile forces, things were estimated differently. The first question which my brother would have put to an aspirant is, “Have you an idea in your head?” This would have been followed by other questions, such as: “Is it an idea which can be expressed in the shape of a design? Can you express it with refinement, and with a sentiment of nature, even if not with searching realism?” He must have put these queries to Miss Siddal practically, if not vivâ voce; and he found the response on her part such as to qualify her to begin, with a good prospect of her progressing. She had much facility of invention and composition, with eminent purity of feeling, dignified simplicity, and grace; little mastery of form, whether in the human figure or in drapery and other materials;
a right intention in colouring, though neither rich nor deep. Her designs resembled those of Dante Rossetti at the same date: he had his defects, and she had the deficiencies of those defects. He guided her with the utmost attention, but I doubt whether he ever required her to study drawing with rigorous patience and apply herself to the realizing of realities. It should be added that her health was so constantly shaky, and often so extremely bad, that she was really not well capable of going through the toils of a thorough artist-student.

Enter John Ruskin:

Ruskin made  himself personally known to Rossetti in  April 1854, by calling at his studio:  he

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One Comment

  • mark stevens

    Fascinating article,thanks for bringing it to our attention.Anything that adds to my knowledge of this wonderful woman is so gratefully received.

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