Elizabeth Eleanor Siddall (25 July 1829 – 11 February 1862)
Famed for her remarkable and unique beauty, the face of Elizabeth Siddall is well known to many who have ever seen a Pre-Raphaelite artwork. While both her image and her private life are well documented, her artistic talent, passion and individual character are left as something of an enigma.
Victorian London in the year 1850 saw an unfulfilled 20 year old woman, working in a hat shop, dreaming of breaking away from the constraints and restrictions of both her time and her gender. Mrs Tozer’s quaint hat shop would however, prove integral to Lizzie’s story and her being thrust into the lifestyle of a muse, model and artist. Discovered there in early 1850 by Pre-Raphaelite acquaintance Walter Howell Deverell, Lizzie became increasingly sought after amongst the Brotherhood as a model. Her striking look was cause for stir among the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a group determined to break away from the claustrophobic and unchangeable style of the Academy. Lizzie’s ‘tall, finely-formed figure’, coupled with her ‘unusual features’ echoed the innovation the Brotherhood wanted to inject into the stagnant state of art at the time.
This is the Lizzie that much of art historical scholarship seem determined to focus on. The Lizzie who was beautiful, who had flowing red locks, was model for some of the most famous pieces this group of men produced, and was engaged in one of the most turbulent relationships of the Pre-Raphaelite movement. While most are aware of Lizzie’s personal background, her creativity, passion and talent for the arts has been somewhat overshadowed by her relationship with Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
Elizabeth Siddal, Self-Portrait, 1853-1854,
oil on canvas, 9″ diameter, Private collection
(image source: The Rossetti Archive)
Lizzie began to experiment with painting and drawing in 1852, after she had met Rossetti and began to sit for his paintings, and his alone. During this period, Rossetti changed Lizzie’s name from Siddall to Siddal, and took on the role of tutor to his muse, with her early works and Rossetti’s own watercolours sharing many similarities. Lizzie’s Clerk Saunders, 1857, although not as refined, clearly shows the inspiration acquired from Rossetti’s own watercolours during this period. By 1855, art critic and staple of the Victorian art gallery circuit John Ruskin, had seen Lizzie’s work and was deeply impressed, offering his patronage and financial support.
Elizabeth Siddal, Clerk Saunders, 1857,
watercolour, bodycolour, coloured chalks, on paper, laid on a stretcher,
28.4 cm x 18.1 cm, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge
(image source: Wikimedia Commons)
During the years 1852 – 1861, Lizzie truly developed her own individual technique and style, building a strong portfolio of work, and even exhibiting with the Pre-Raphaelites in 1857 at an independent exhibition at Russell Place, Central London. Lizzie’s art echoes the influence of medievalism on the art of the Pre-Raphaelites in the latter part of the 1850s, particularly in the work of Rossetti and William Morris.
The rise of feminist art history brought Lizzie only slightly into the light her raw talent deserved. In a 1984 Tate Gallery exhibition comprising of over 250 Pre-Raphaelite works, a blockbuster exhibition enabling the movement to really begin their revival in new art history, two pieces by Lizzie (one in collaboration with Rossetti) were exhibited. Although only in a minor way, this inclusion in an exhibition on such a grand scale worked towards establishing Lizzie as an artist of her own merit, able to be held in the same light as her male peers.
This passion and natural skill for the arts, was sadly, not enough to prevent Lizzie’s declining physical and mental health or her growing addiction to laudanum. Stress caused by Rossetti’s extra marital affairs and his ‘rising artist-genius’ mentality, and the subsequent strain these had on their relationship have been said to be a contributing factor to Lizzie’s spiral into a deep depression. This, coupled with postpartum depression from the birth of a stillborn daughter can only have played a significant part in her tragic demise. She died on February 11, 1862, of a laudanum overdose, aged only 32. Due to her fragile mental state, whether or not this was from Lizzie intentionally taking her own life has been the cause of much speculation. She is commemorated in one of Rossetti’s most famous pieces, Beata Beatrix, painted posthumously in the years following her death.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Beata Beatrix, c. 1864–1870,
Oil on canvas, 86.4 cm × 66 cm, Tate Britain, London
(image source: Wikimedia Commons)
Selected Recommended Reading:
Deborah Cherry, Griselda Pollock, ‘Woman as Sign in Pre-Raphaelite Literature: A Study of the Representation of Elizabeth Siddall’, Art History, Vol. 7, (1984) pp. 480-494.
Elizabeth Prettejohn (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to the Pre-Raphaelites, Cambridge University Press, (2012). pp. 183-195.
Jan Marsh, The Legend of Elizabeth Siddal, Quartet Books, (May 2010).