Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Lizzie Siddal - The Tragedy of a Pre-Raphaelite Supermodel by Lucinda Hawksley


Lizzie Siddal was one of the models used by the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. The group were always looking for "Stunners" as Dante Gabriel Rosetti called them. That meant, someone with a personality that could shine through their paintings. In Lizzie they found one of the most charismatic ones. Unfortunately for her, she had a weak constitution and when falling in love with Rosetti, her life seemed a constant worry to keep him, since he had an eye for beautiful women.

Lucinda Hawksley has written a fascinating and respectful biography of Lizzie Siddal's sad life. Here some of the more breathtaking turns of her life.

It was Walter Howell Deverell who found her in a milliner's shop. At the time, 1849, she was twenty years old and lived with her family. The family had been rich, but lost their fortune and their estate. The father fought his whole life in courts to retrieve the inheritance, but in vain. Lizzie therefore grew up with a notion that they came from a background better than the present living conditions suggested.

So why was Lizzie considered to be a 'stunner'? Why did she stand out of the rest of the young ladies? She stood out because of her red hair, which seems to have been 'stunning'!


"She was tall and slender with large eyes and long hair the colour of pale copper. Striking, rather than beautiful, especially with those huge, heavy-lidded eyes in such a small face, Lizzie did not conform to the contemporary ideal of beauty. Her greatest considered attributes at this date were that she had perfect deportment, fine facial bone structure and was unusual looking. A woman one would look at and remember."


Ann Manson as Lizzie Siddal in
BBC's 'Desperate Romantics'
The making of Ophelia 
After having the agreement from her parents she became a model. It had many advantages; better pay and less hard work than in the milliner's shop. Deverell was the first one to paint her, but it went without saying, that she should also sit for the other pre-Raphaelites.  She sat for Howard Hunt, before Rosetti took hold of her. He had already had his eye on her and she gave him the inspiration he needed to pull his art together. However, in between she posed for the painting above, Ophelia by John Everett Millais. It almost turned out to be the last act of her life. To get the perfect painting, the pre-Raphaelites demanded a lot from their models. It should be as real as possible. For this picture, Lizzie had to lie in a bath in the studio. They made an arrangement with candles under the bath tub so that the water should be kept warm, and an alarm of some kind should notify when the water became to cold. However, Millais, so engaged in his painting, totally forgot about the model. It was just when she was so cold, that she actually sunk, that he noticed the situation and saved her. She went down with pneumonia, and almost perished. Her father threatened to sue Millais, but refrained when he paid the medical bills. Lizzie recovered and went once again into the bath, but now for just a limited time.

Personally, I think this is one of the most beautiful paintings there is. It is also one of Millais' best and most famous.

From now on Lizzie only sat for Rosetti. For him this was the real start of his painting carrier and he painted her, long after she was gone. Their relationship was not an easy one. Lizzie was often ill and used it to control Rosetti. She was jealous of other women and always thought he was with someone else when he was not with her. They became lovers after some time and it was widely know that she was his mistress. Everyone waited for him to marry her, not least herself. She was in a precarious situation, living with a man she was not married to. If he left her she would be an outcast.

Lizzie Siddal ca 1860

She also had ambitions to paint and write poetry herself. Rosetti gave her painting lessons. Her paintings are not bad and she became the protegĂ© of John Ruskin who helped her with money and exhibitions. The poetry is very sad, about love, or non-returned love and the search for it.  Her mental health got worse and worse and if it had been today, she could easily have got help by any doctor. Like so many others in those days, she helped herself with laudanum, which turned into an addiction. Many of her problems, probably arose from this addiction.

Finally, when so ill she could hardly make it to church, Rosetti proposed. They married all alone, in St Clemence Church in Hastings in 1860. She became pregnant, but the child was dead-born. This made her depression and mental health deteriorate further and in February 1862 she died by an overdose of laudanum.




Lizzie's life and life style was very much part of the overall lives of the pre-Raphaelites and their surroundings. It was maybe as we always have considered an artist's life to be; conviction, obsession with the arts, a free life style and half madness. Once drawn into the circles, she could not get out of it. Maybe she could have, had she not loved Rosetti as much as she did, and had she not got addicted to laudanum, which took her energy away.

After her death Rosetti went on with his life, but it seems Lizzie was always with him. He, together with other people whom she had known, became obsessed with the ideas of sĂ©ances where they tried to reach the other side. This was very much something of the day, but maybe seemed like an option when the one you love is on the 'other side'.  Drawing from his memory, and from all the sketches he had done of Lizzie, after her death he painted his masterpiece of her, Beata Beatrix. It took him six years.


Beata Beatrix
(in Tate Britain)

A quite morbid thing, is, that when Lizzie was buried, Rosetti buried a book of his poems with her. Many of them were written in her honour. Some years later, when he realised he could print them and make some money, he asked for an exhumation of her grave. Somehow he got it, and the book of poems was retrieved. Seven years after her death he published a collection of sonnets, The House of Life.  Without Her is one of the poems:

What of her glass without her? The blank grey
There where the pool is blind of the moon's face
Her dress without her? The tossed empty space
Of cloud-rack whence the moon has passed away.
Her paths without her? Day's appointed sway
Usurped by desolate night. her pillowed place
Without her? Tears, ah me! For love's good grace,
And cold forgetfulness of night or day.

What of the heart without her? Nay, poor heart,
Of thee what word remains ere speech be still?
A wayfarer by barren ways and chill,
Steep ways and weary, without her thou art,
Where the long cloud, the long wood's counterpart,
Sheds doubled darkness up the labouring hill.

Lucinda Hawksley has managed to capture the soul of Lizzie Siddal in this book. It is very well researched and written. It is a glimpse into the life of a young girl whose path in life change drastically, because she had stunning red hair and a personality to attract the painters of the time.  We also  get a glimpse into the life of the pre-Raphaelites and the group of people and families surrounding them. 

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