Elizabeth Siddal, a 19th century supermodel

5 September 2012

Elizabeth Siddal, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1854. Photo: Delaware Art Museum.

I’m completely fascinated by the Pre-Raphaelite artists and their ‘stunners’, particularly Elizabeth Siddal with her titian hair and delicate, sleepy eyed but rather highly strung beauty. I know that her husband Dante Gabriel Rossetti could be a bit of a rotter in real life but I’ll always be immensely grateful to him for his luscious portraits of the redheaded stunners Lizzie, Fanny Cornforth and Alexa Wilding which gave the bullied and unhappy redheaded adolescent me hope that someone out there might possibly think I was a raving beauty!

In tribute to Elizabeth, I’ve asked her biographer, Lucinda Hawksley, whose book: Lizzie Siddal: The Tragedy of a Pre-Raphaelite Supermodel came out last year, to write a special guest post…

Regina Cordium, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1860. Photo: Johannesburg Art Gallery.

As the Tate Britain prepares for its latest Pre-Raphaelites exhibition, Lizzie Siddal and her fellow models and muses are once more back in the spotlight. As Lizzie’s biographer, I often ponder over what she would make of the cult that has grown up around her image and of the legend she has become. I imagine conversations with her, in which I try to explain about the 21st-century obsession with so-called “celebrities” (most of whom will be forgotten about in a decade’s time), about the weirdness of current ideas of feminine beauty, and about why she remains such a popular figure, despite all that has changed since her lifetime.

Lizzie’s life was short and at times extremely harsh yet this strangely haunting woman has become not only the icon of an artistic movement, she also defines an era in history – unwittingly spawning what is still referred to as “the cult of the redhead”. Her looks challenged and changed the rigid codes of what was considered acceptable female beauty in mid-Victorian Britain. By doing so, she and her fellow models helped to change the very core of female history. Women began to realise that rules and laws were made to be questioned, challenged and often broken.

Beata Beatrix, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1870. Photo: Tate Britian.

Ironically, one of the images most commonly associated with Lizzie’s life is Beata Beatrix, which was painted after her death. It was Dante Rossetti’s emotional response to Lizzie’s suicide: a husband working out his grief, guilt and numerous other complex emotions – all translated onto canvas. It is the one painting that Rossetti did of Lizzie while she was not posing in front of him and yet is is the one that most people associate with the woman who took her own life 150 years ago.

I often think of Lizzie in terms of the very firmly 20th-century icon, Marilyn Monroe. Both died young, both still remain icons. If she had lived to grow old and less ethereal, if she had lived a full and happy life to a ripe old age, would Lizzie still be considered an artistic icon today? There were scores of Pre-Raphaelite models, but if you asked someone today to name one of them, they would almost invariably respond with the name “Lizzie Siddal”. Marilyn Monroe’s tragic death while still at the height of her beauty, has made her far more famous today than her French contemporary – still very much alive – Brigitte Bardot. Despite all her activism and political savvy, Bardot is far more likely to make the news because she has “lost her looks” than because of her work in the field of animal rights. Whenever I see Bardot mentioned it has nothing to do with her animal rights work, it is is because some sensationalist photographer has taken a picture of her daring to looking her age. In the eyes of the world’s media. Bardot needs to be despised because she has committed the terrible sin of growing older and no longer being “a sex kitten”. Marilyn Monroe and Lizzie Siddal remain icons precisely because they died young. They have never lost the allure of the young and beautiful – and deeply damaged.

Elizabeth Siddal, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1860. Photo: Fitzwilliam Museum.

This year, 2012, marked the 150th anniversary of Lizzie Siddal’s death. Unable to cope with the stillbirth of her daughter, and perhaps knowing she was pregnant again, Lizzie took an overdose of laudanum and died at the age of 32. Ironically, for a time when infant mortality meant that I in 3 babies died in infancy (in London), medical understanding of bereavement and grief was almost non existent. Post-natal depression, along with all other forms of depression, was censured simply as “insanity” and treated with harsh cruelty instead of understanding. The grief experienced by a bereaved mother was dismissed just as summarily, women were expected to “get over it” and have another baby as soon as possible. No effort was taken at all to understand what might be happening in the mind of a woman who had nurtured and then given birth to a dead baby. When Lizzie’s daughter was born dead, it marked the beginning of the end for the model and aspiring artist. One of the most poignant stories I discovered when researching Lizzie’s life was that related by Georgiana Burne-Jones, who recorded that when she and Ned went to visit Lizzie shortly after the tragedy, Lizzie was rocking an empty cradle as though her daughter was sleeping inside and told them not to wake the baby.

I thought of that story in February this year, as a small group of us stood in Highgate Cemetery beside the family grave of the Rossettis – in which Lizzie’s body was interred, despite the fact that none of the family ever approved of her. (Dante Rossetti, by the way, is not buried with them. He left strict instructions at the end of his life that he was not to be buried in Highgate – perhaps fearful of being placed in the grave he had desecrated in order to retrieve the manuscript of his poems, seven years after the death of his wife. So, Lizzie lies there amongst all her disapproving in-laws, without her husband.)

On the 150th anniversary of Lizzie’s death, the cemetery was fittingly beautiful in a blanket of snow under a sky so blue it looked like Botticelli could have painted it. At the side of the grave, Jan Marsh read some of Christina Rossetti’s poetry, John Waites read poems by Dante Rossetti and I read a couple of poems by Lizzie. It was very emotional and a fitting memorial for a woman whose image still remains such an important part of our cultural history. I like to think that had she been standing behind us, watching us remember her, she would have smiled in that simple way that Rossetti occasionally captured, and perhaps twirled a lock of her famous copper-coloured hair between her fingers.

Elizabeth Siddal, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1855. Photo: Ashmolean Museum.

Lucinda Hawksley is author of Lizzie Siddal: The Tragedy of a Pre-Raphaelite Supermodel, Katey: The Life and Loves of Dickens’s Artist Daughter and, most recently, Charles Dickens about her great-great-great grandpapa, Charles Dickens.

Thank you Lucinda!

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