Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Elizabeth Siddal
Elizabeth Eleanor Siddal (1829-62 ) is perhaps best known as the model for Millais’ Ophelia. She was almost as well-known, though, by her anguished relationship with Dante Gabriel Rossetti, one of the founder members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.
Siddal was born in Hatton Gardens, London, on the fringe of the City, the daughter of a Sheffield cutler and ironmonger. Her working class father had aspirations towards gentility, convinced he had been unjustly disinherited from property and an aristocratic title, but Lizzie herself was destined to work in a milliner’s shop. It was at the shop in Cranborne Alley off Leceister Square that the Pre-Raphaelite artist, Walter Deverell, discovered her. Deverell had been searching for a red-haired girl to model as Viola in his painting of Twelfth Night. Lizzie wasn’t conventionally beautiful by Victorian standards, but Deverell was immediately taken with her, boasting she was a stupendously beautiful creature… magnificently tall with a lovely figure and a face of the most delicate and finished modelling.
Though unchaperoned, Lizzie was reassured by the presence of Deverell’s mother, and as a model earned a shilling an hour, considerably more than the nine shillings a week she earned as a milliner’s assistant. Deverell was wildly enthusiastic about her suitability, but found himself unable to paint the exact shade of her hair and asked Rossetti for assistance. According to his brother, Rossetti fell deeply and profusely in love with Lizzie from the moment he saw her. She was, he said, a stunner. He began making excuses to see her, bringing her small gifts and treating her with gentlemanly courtesy. He was twenty years old and she was nineteen.
Within two years of sitting for Deverell, Lizzie became the star of the most iconic of all Pre-Raphaelite paintings, Ophelia, exhibited at the Royal Academy to great critical acclaim. In depicting Ophelia near to suicide, Lizzie was required to spend hours in a heavy brocade dress in a bath full of water, and when on one occasion the candles keeping the water warm went out, she became seriously ill. She recovered, but it is possible that her health was affected for the rest of her life. After 1852, at Rossetti’s request, Lizzie became his principal model and modelled exclusively for him.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti was born in London on 12 May, 1828. He was the son of a celebrated Italian scholar and came from a gifted family — his sister was the poet, Christina Rossetti. With William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais, he was a founder member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a group espousing the ideals of early Renaissance art and dedicated to reforming contemporary practice. Rossetti was described by his fellows as charismatic and impetuous, capable of great charm and wit, but with a reputation for being provocative and hurtful.
The young couple became engaged in 1851, although it was not a formal arrangement. After Lizzie agreed to model for him exclusively, she moved into Rossetti’s Blackfriars studio. At the same time, she became his pupil, providing a convenient excuse for them to be together.
His sketches and drawings, depicting Lizzie as pensive and introspective, are numbered in the thousands. In 1854, his sister, Christina, wrote:
One face looks out from all his canvases,
One selfsame figure sits or walks or leans
Under Rossetti’s tutelage, Lizzie developed skills in art and poetry, even collaborating with him on occasions. He was extremely proud of her and introduced her to his friend, the eminent Victorian art critic, John Ruskin. Ruskin bought her entire collection for £30, and in 1855 offered her £150 a year on the basis that he could have first refusal of her paintings. Her work was exhibited in the Pre-Raphaelite exhibition of 1857.
From 1853, though, Lizzie began to suffer from recurrent bouts of ill-health that left her bedridden and unable to eat. In response, she took considerable amounts of laudanum, an opiate, and in doing so built up an addiction that added to her problems. There is no agreement on exactly what ailed Lizzie, suggestions ranging from anorexia, a type of tuberculosis, and recently Fowler’s Solution (a diluted arsenic compound) at the time taken to improve one’s complexion. Whatever the reason, using laudanum worsened her mental and physical condition.
The couple’s relationship suffered from Lizzie’s increasing ill-health and Rossetti’s philandering. He was a notorious womaniser, his most significant affair at this time being with Annie Miller, a model and fiancée of Rossetti’s close friend and fellow Pre-Raphaelite artist, William Holman Hunt. Lizzie’s unhappiness was compounded by Rossetti’s continued reluctance to marry — by 1856 they had been together for five years. John Ruskin urged Rossetti to act: it would be best for you to marry, for the sake of giving Miss Siddal complete protection and care, and putting an end to the peculiar sadness, and want of you hardly know what, that there is in both of you. (30 April, 1855).
Seeing her distress, Rossetti must have felt honour bound to marry, but he was conflicted and ended making rash promises that he then postponed, leaving Lizzie mortified and furious. In 1857, for instance, after one such promise, he borrowed ten pounds from Ford Madox Brown to buy the marriage licence, only to spend it on something else. His friend Brown noted: he does not know his own mind for one day.
Numerous reasons have been cited for Rossetti’s reluctance to commit: Lizzie’s ill-health, her class and status, his family’s disapproval (Lizzie only met his mother once during their supposed engagement), lack of money and his own disinclination. Gradually, the relationship disintegrated and Lizzie left London in 1857 to convalesce in Derbyshire. Though Rossetti visited her several times when she was ill, their engagement by this stage was effectively over. Rossetti was busy in Oxford painting murals for the Oxford Union with his colleague William Morris, and it was here he encountered another ‘stunner’, seventeen year old Jane Burden, an ostler’s daughter at the theatre.
Both he and Morris fell in love with Jane, but she accepted Morris’s proposal and they married in 1859. Rossetti never lost or hid his love for Jane during the years that followed, and went on to immortalise her in his work.
Rossetti went on to seal his rejection of Lizzie Siddal by embarking on a long-term relationship with Fanny Cornforth, who was reputed to be a former prostitute. His liaison with her triggered a dramatic change in his art and poetry. Bocca Baciata, for which Fanny modelled , was the first of his overtly sensuous depictions of beautiful women. Fanny was to remain with him for the rest of his life as mistress or friend.
Very little is known about Lizzie or her whereabouts during these years. In 1858 she was aged twenty-nine and continually unwell. But after a two year estrangement, she re-entered Rossetti’s life in dramatic fashion. In 1860 John Ruskin received a letter from Lizzie’s family telling him she was in Hastings and desperately ill. He alerted Rossetti, who was appalled to find her bedridden, vomiting, and seemingly near death. He decided to make good his earlier promises and, to everyone’s surprise, suddenly announced his forthcoming marriage.
Writing to his brother, Rossetti confessed his feelings of guilt: the ordinary licence we already have, and I still trust to God we may be enabled to use it. If not, I should have so much to grieve for, and (what is worse) so much to reproach myself with, that I do not know how it might end for me. The wedding had to be postponed because Lizzie was too ill to walk down the aisle, but they married on 23 May, 1860 in St Clement’s Church, Hastings. No family members or wedding guests were present.
After the wedding, the couple honeymooned in Paris but returning to London, Lizzie continued frail and ill, constantly taking laudanum and other stimulants. Shortly after their marriage, she was overjoyed to find she was pregnant. However, still taking laudanum for morning sickness, she gave birth to a stillborn baby girl in May, 1861, and was left suffering from severe post natal depression — tragically she was to die herself within several months.
On the evening of 10th February, 1862, Rossetti returned home late and was unable to rouse her, finding a phial of laudanum by her bedside. He summoned a doctor immediately, but although a stomach pump was used, the doctor was unable to save her. She died early the next morning. Rossetti could not accept what had happened; he was convinced she was still in a coma and summoned four doctors to verify her death. The coroner ruled the death as accidental, despite rumours of a suicide note that had been destroyed. Suicide would have prevented a Christian burial. The existence of a suicide note, pinned to her nightdress, did eventually emerge and Rossetti himself admitted later that there had been one.
Guilt-ridden, Rossetti placed the only manuscript copy of his poems, that were awaiting publication, in the coffin with Lizzie between her cheek and hair, stating, I have often been writing at those poems when Lizzie was ill and suffering, and I might have been attending to her, and now they shall go. She was buried in the Rossetti family plot in Highgate Cemetery, London, on 17th February, 1862.
By 1863 Rossetti’s mistress, Fanny Cornforth, had taken up residence with him, but Lizzie remained a presence. In the decade following her death, he suffered increasing bouts of melancholia and depression and told friends that he saw her ghost. He even held seances trying to contact her to check if she was happy. Working from his sketches and memories, he painted a haunting poetic memorial, Beata Beatrix. The painting shows the moment when Beatrice, the lover of the Italian poet, Dante, becomes divine after death.
Perhaps the saddest and most eerie result of Lizzie’s death was her exhumation. Rossetti became concerned about his ability to paint (he suffered from eyesight problems) and wanted to secure his reputation by publishing the poems he had buried with Lizzie. On 5th October, 1869, in Highgate Cemetery, the disinterment from the family plot was carried out late at night to avoid publicity. Rossetti did not attend personally. Against a backdrop of lanterns, Lizzie’s coffin was exhumed and a worm-ridden manuscript retrieved. An onlooker reported later that Lizzie’s beauty had been preserved through the effects of laudanum, and that her red-gold hair had continued to grow and now filled the coffin.
The poems were published in 1870, but the incident caused Rossetti considerable guilt. He tried justifying the desecration by insisting that Lizzie would have approved: could she have opened the grave, no other hand would have been needed. During his final ten years, he became increasingly reclusive and dependent on the drug, chloral. His physical and emotional decline saw ever greater bouts of paranoia and delusion — on one occasion he was convinced that a chaffinch was Lizzie’s spirit come to warn him. Haunted to the last, he specifically requested, let me not on any account be buried at Highgate. He was buried at Birchington-on-Sea, on the north-east Kent coast, on 9th April, 1882.
This article is based on research undertaken for my novel, House of Lies.