Lizzie Siddal, Pre-Raphaelite muse and artist
Lizzie Siddal was one of the best known and short lived muses of the Pre-Raphaelite era. She inspired the artists she modelled for and influenced the early phase of Pre-Raphaelite painting.
Lizzie became prominent as the model for “Ophelia” in John Everett Millais’ acclaimed painting and was renowned for being the beloved, but tormented muse and wife of artist and poet, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, one of the founding members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.
Her life reads as a tragic story, including heartache, jealousy, illness, addiction and grief. Her life with the charismatic Rossetti, his inability to commit, bachelor lifestyle and infidelity, probably contributed towards her premature and regrettable end.
Elizabeth Siddal 1829- 1862
Lizzie was born Elizabeth Eleanor Siddall in 1829 at 7 Charles street, Hatton Gardens in London. The spelling of her surname was later changed to “Siddal” at Rossetti’s request, who considered it less working class.
Her Father was a Sheffield cutler and ironmonger, and ran a cutlery manufacture and retail business in London. He claimed his family descended from nobility and they had been unjustly disinherited from property and an aristocratic life. Fighting a stressful legal battle in court, he drained away much of the business’ profits, resulting in the family having to move to cheaper accommodation in Southwark.
In the 1840s there was a thriving working class community south of the Thames and Lizzie’s father, Charles opened another shop in the Old Kent Road. His businesses kept the family afloat, but all hope of rising up the class ranks to gentility had faded.
There is no record of Lizzie having attended school, but her father was known to have read verse and fiction to her and her five siblings so it is presumed her parents taught her to read and write. It is said that Lizzie developed a love of poetry at a young age after discovering a poem by Tennyson on a scrap of newspaper used to wrap butter.
Mr Siddall sang in the chapel choir and it is probable the Siddall family attended chapel services, church attendance expressing social cohesion as well as religious devotion. Conventional worship would have granted an element of respectability and refinement to the Siddalls.
Lizzie’s family was not wealthy enough to employ servants, therefore much of the housework would have been done by her and her three sisters. At that time society could almost be divided into those who hired and those who worked as domestic servants. Most women were expected to sew and repair their own clothes and linen. In Lizzie’s case this lead to her making very individual dresses in loose Medieval styles revived by the Pre-Raphaelites.
The Siddall boys followed their father’s trade, while the girls worked as dressmakers or as milliners. Millinery was considered the refined, upper end of the fashion trade and suitable, clean work for genteel and ambitious girls, who were expected to dress well and have polite manners.
The popular account of how Lizzie became known to the Pre-Raphaelites goes that whilst Lizzie was working at a Milliners in Cranbourne Alley, off Leicester square, she was discovered by the Pre-Raphaelite artist Walter Deverell, who was accompanying his mother while she collected her purchase.
There is however, alternative version, in which Lizzie’s interest as a dressmaker and drawing compelled her to take some of her sketches to Walter Deverell’s father, head of the Government School of Design at Somerset House on the Strand. There she met his wife Mrs Deverell, to whom she showed her drawings, with the aspiration of one day becoming an artist. After this she met Walter, who visited her at the millinery shop with his mother, to ask if Lizzie would model for him.
Lizzie did not conform to the conventional or contemporary ideal of beauty; she was striking, with huge heavy-lidded, green-blue eyes, pale complexion with fine bone structure and a “lavish wealth” of copper red hair.
Red hair was certainly not considered an attribute in the nineteenth century, popular belief among uneducated people in Britain was that red heads were unlucky and associated with witchcraft and black magic. During her childhood and adolescence Lizzie was often teased for the long red-gold hair which was destined to become her greatest feature.
Walter Deverell asked her to model as Viola in his painting “Twelfth Night”. He was not necessarily looking for a beauty, but Lizzie’s tall, slim and distinctive look suited the role. In this same painting the character of ‘Feste’ was modelled by Rossetti and Lizzie was soon being introduced to the Pre-Raphaelite Circle, who were all eager for her to sit for them.
This lead to her modelling for Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, allowing her to give up her job at the milliner’s shop.
She was now earning twice her usual hourly rate, for a lot less work, additionally she was admired, adored and doted upon. Rossetti was so taken with Lizzie on meeting her, describing her as a “stunner” and saying to his brother William that he had fallen “deeply and profusely” in love with her.
Lizzie’s new, unexpected and profitable career was set in motion and her life would never be the same again.
Rossetti’s first painting of Lizzie was as Delia in “The Return of Tibullus to Delia”, 1851 where he transformed her into looking wistful and romantically appealing. Rossetti’s vision was not as literal as Hunt’s, Millais’, or Brown’s, Hunt had a low opinion of his friend’s talent for portraiture, saying “Rossetti’s tendency in sketching a face, was to convert the features of his sitter to his favourite ideal type”, in other words he glamorized his sitters. Lizzie entered into the spirit of the pose and proved herself to be an inspired model, assisting Rossetti in his creative course and increasing his affection for her.
‘Lizzie was to be rescued from her lower-class origins and elevated into a superior world, through art and love. She was to be idealised.’ (Jan Marsh, The Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood)
Within two years Lizzie became the star face of early Pre-Raphaelite art in the iconic painting of “Ophelia” by Millais 1852. To model for this painting Lizzie was required to lie in a bath full of water for several hours, wearing a heavy antique brocade dress, portraying Ophelia near to suicide. The water in the bath was kept warm with candles placed underneath, but they went out. Absorbed in his work, this went unnoticed by Millais, and Lizzie being the polite and perfect model did not complain, floating in cold water until she was numb and pale. She became seriously ill, possibly with pneumonia, and doctors were called. Her angry parents threatened to sue Millais for £50 which he willingly paid. Lizzie recovered, but her long term health was possibly affected by this event. The incident contributed in part, to the romantic idea that Lizzie Siddal sacrificed her health for the sake of art.
After 1852 Rossetti, now devoted to Lizzie, couldn’t bear to share her anymore and implored her not to sit for anyone else, requesting his friends not to ask her to model for them, he declared “he had found his destiny”. Lizzie agreed and modelled exclusively for Rossetti for the next six years, resulting in her virtually moving in to his studio at 14 Chatham Place, Blackfriars.
Rossetti drew and painted Lizzie obsessively, producing hundreds of drawings capturing her likeness. During her time at Chatham Place Lizzie became Rossetti’s pupil, after revealing to him her interest in drawing and a wish to make art, not simply pose for it. He was happy to be her mentor, as it would enable them to spend more time together legitimately.
Under Rossetti’s instruction and with his encouragement Lizzie would become a proficient and confident artist in her own right.
From 1853 Lizzie began to suffer increasingly with recurrent episodes of ill health, leaving her in pain, unable to eat and bedridden. As was normal in those days, Lizzie took Laudanum to help ease her symptoms.
Laudanum was an opiate tranquilliser, a tincture of opium mixed with wine or water. It was known as the ‘aspirin of the nineteenth century’ and was widely used in Victorian households as a painkiller, recommended for a wide range of ailments from coughs and colds to cardiac disease and even administered to babies to settle them to sleep.
Lizzie’s illness was never accurately diagnosed; various doctors speculated, suggesting neuralgia, consumption, curvature of the spine, anorexia and the effects of ‘Fowler’s Solution’, a diluted arsenic compound, popularly taken for the complexion at that time. Taking ever larger amounts of laudanum to ease her various symptoms, Lizzie’s morale was erratic. Occasionally her old self would emerge and she would be sociable and had the energy to work, but often she was depressed, now nurturing a serious addiction.
Rossetti’s patron, John Ruskin was the Victorian era’s leading art critic, also a prominent social thinker and philanthropist, who supported the Pre-Raphaelites. He was also patron to Millais and Hunt.
In 1855, soon after the scandalous annulment to Ruskin’s marriage to Effie, (and her re-marriage to Millais) Ruskin was looking for a new protege. Rossetti showed him Lizzie’s sketches and paintings and he was so impressed by them, he offered to buy the entire collection for £30. In only one day, without effort, Lizzie had made more than her total annual wage at the hat shop ! In the same year Ruskin offered Lizzie £150 a year patronage on the basis he could have first refusal of her paintings.
Lizzie’s career as an artist was now set in motion, but she was unlikely to be allowed to succeed or make an independent reputation on equal terms with her fellow Pre-Raphaelites, given the prevailing view of women and art. Women were encouraged to draw and paint as amateurs but there was prejudice about their wish to be professional artists, it went against the grain of the feminine ideals of virtue; obedience, modesty, patience and self sacrifice.
Rossetti was generous in his altruistic praise of Lizzie, but other artists thought her style inconsistent and unworthy of such attention. There is no doubt that Ruskin was genuinely interested in her work, but his major objective was to enlist Rossetti as his advocate in his campaign against modern materialism and ugly art; and be his exponent of “ truth to nature.”
Lizzie was introduced to Ruskin at his parents house in Dulwich in April 1855. They were all very impressed with her manners and deportment, Ruskin describing her as “noble, glorious creature” and his father saying “ that by her look and manner she might have been born a countess”. The Ruskin’s accepted Lizzie wholeheartedly and with their endorsement, Rossetti felt he could finally arrange a meeting between Lizzie, his mother and his sisters.
This engagement was daunting, Gabriel’s mother, Frances Lavinia Rossetti was a formidable woman and his sisters, Christina and Maria were icy and pious. Prejudiced in their sternly religious beliefs, Lizzie seemed to them an indignity; so the tea party progressed politely and awkwardly with silent intervals. Rossetti’s mother did take an interest in Lizzie’s health however and offered an introduction to her own doctor, a kind gesture, which Lizzie did not accept.
After five years together Rossetti was still reluctant to marry Lizzie, his friends were baffled, as the pair seemed to be in love and happy together.
Ruskin believed marriage was the only way forward if Lizzie’s reputation were not to be tarnished. Reasons suggested for Rossetti’s ambivalence around commitment were: his family’s disapproval, a lack of money, her ill health, his desire for an independent artistic life and the attraction of other women.
It is possible that around this time Lizzie’s sense of independence and pride at having her own career and income allowed her, for a time to feel less urgent about marriage herself. There was early feminist disquiet in the mid 1850s and Lizzie had friends who were actively involved in campaigning against what they saw as a patriarchal institution.
However, with her love of Gabriel and of her life as an artist, Lizzie’s aspirations were social and artistic. As the daughter of cutler, marriage to Rossetti a fellow artist was effectively the only way of securing a professional artistic career.
Their relationship was at times emotionally turbulent, Lizzie would have a jealous tantrum, they quarrelled but would soon make up again.
As time went on, however, Lizzie felt hurt and frustrated by Rossetti’s lack of commitment, her health deteriorated and Ruskin insisted she needed rest, suggesting Switzerland or the South of France. She was away for 7 months accompanied by Rossetti’s cousin, a Mrs Kincaid, this all at Ruskin’s expense. In 1856 with Lizzie away in France and Holman Hunt in the Holy Land, Rossetti had an affair with Annie Miller, the young blonde “stunner” who Hunt was intending to marry. Fortunately for Lizzie the liaison came to a sudden end when Hunt returned early, but Gabriel couldn’t help himself speaking openly about this new beauty, adding jealousy and despair to Lizzie’s problems.
While Lizzie was away in Nice, Rossetti met two young artists, William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones, who very much admired Rossetti’s work. They were young bachelors just out of university and had the effect of reviving Rossetti’s old student days, encouraging social gatherings and participation in London’s nightlife. These new admiring friends offered a boost of motivation and inspiration to Rossetti, but would lead to yet more distractions and ambivalence to the question of his marriage.
Rossetti was torn, he felt honour-bound to marry Lizzie but made her several empty promises. On one occasion he borrowed money from his good friend Ford Madox Brown to buy a marriage licence, only to change his mind and buy himself a new coat. By now Lizzie was mortified and furious, they had a big row; Rossetti’s reluctance to marry her was obvious, his infatuation had cooled and she was terrified he would leave her for Annie.
Her addiction to Laudanum was now fuelled by the need to blot out his infidelity, she stopped eating for two weeks and took to her bed. This manipulation worked, as Rossetti rushed back to be by her side, frantic with worry. He was at his most endearing when he was caring for his sick ‘dove’ Lizzie.
In May 1857 the Pre-Raphaelite Exhibition opened in Russell Place, London, including several of Lizzie’s paintings. The other artists whose work was shown in the exhibition included Rossetti, Millais, Holman Hunt, Madox Brown, Arthur Hughes, John Brett and Charles Collins. Lizzie was the only female exhibitor. It is possible that she was more immune to the usual inhibitions maintained within bourgeois femininity, concerned with putting oneself forward; having had to earn her own living as a dressmaker and milliner, would have helped to make her an ambitious young woman, who felt able to show her work with confidence alongside established artists.
She sold her watercolour “Clerk Saunders” to an American collector, which was a major achievement which delighted both Ruskin and Rossetti. Later her work would be shown in an exhibition of British art in the United States.
This success may have made Lizzie feel guilty about receiving Ruskin’s annuity, or perhaps fuelled a sense of independence around her artistic earning ability, for it was at this time she decided to give up her allowance. Ruskin would have been happy for it to continue, but Lizzie refused his offer. Feeling under pressure but not always well enough to produce art, she also felt it morally wrong to receive money and not give back anything in return.
The sale did nothing to dent the despair Lizzie was feeling about her relationship with Rossetti. It was obvious to her by now he was not interested in marriage. Lizzie left London to convalesce at a spa in Matlock and spend time with her sister Lydia. After Derbyshire, in an independent move she went on to Sheffield where she stayed with her cousins. The Ibbitts were delighted and impressed by their cousin and her London connections and encouraged her to take up her art again. Her health improved dramatically for a time. This may have been in part due to the fact it was more difficult to consume the usual large doses of Laudanum, while a guest in someone else’s home.
Meanwhile Rossetti had an exciting art project of his own, in company with William Morris and Burne-Jones. They were to paint murals on the interior walls of the new Oxford Union buildings, by the architect Benjamin Woodward. Rossetti brought together a group of young Pre-Raphaelites including Arthur Hughes, Spencer Stanhope, Val Prinsep as well as Morris and Burne-Jones. The University agreed to feed them, provided the paint and gave them free lodging. Surrounded by spirited devotees, Rossetti was inspired by their vitality and felt he could be the young Dante Gabriel again; enjoying visits to theatre or a concert and looking for “stunners” with his new single friends.
On an October evening in 1857 while the painting party were at the theatre, their attention was diverted by a tall, dark haired, striking young woman. This 18 year old beauty was Jane Burden, she was out with her sister Bessie when Morris, Ned and Rossetti approached her and asked her to model for their mural; the men were besotted. After consultation with Jane’s parents there was agreement and the new model sat for Rossetti.
Jane would later be known within the Pre-Raphaelite circle as ‘Janey’ and her involvement in the Oxford Union project would mark the second stage of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.
Despite taking several trips away to various spa resorts, Lizzie’s health did not improve. Back at Matlock, Derbyshire, in November 1857, Lizzie was taken seriously ill; she was losing weight, getting weaker and very dependant on laudanum. She had by now heard about the new stunner ‘Janey’ and it had become apparent to her that Gabriel was enjoying life without her and their time apart had not had the affect of making the heart grow fonder. Added to this there was a new blonde model in London who Rossetti was planning to paint, her name was Fanny Cornforth. Fanny was a large, voluptuous working class girl with a kind heart and masses of undulating gold hair.
In desperation, Lizzie sent word to Rossetti to say that she thought she was dying. Rossetti immediately rushed to Matlock to be with her, leaving the Oxford project in the hands of his friends; who, confused at being abandoned, completed their work as best they could.
Lizzie was really ill on this occasion, her symptoms were advanced and she was in a pitiful state, unable to hold anything down without vomiting and concerned only about her next dose of laudanum. Pathetically thin and weak she was too ill to travel back to London, so she remained in Matlock for over six months, while Rossetti travelled back and forth, dividing his time between painting the vibrant and curvaceous Fanny Cornforth in London and attending to the waning Lizzie in Matlock. Lizzie’s reputation as an artist would suffer as well as her health, now she was too frail to draw or paint.
During a longer spell in Matlock, Rossetti painted two watercolours featuring likeness’ of Lizzie in “a Christmas Carol”1857 and “Before the Battle”1858; but he was yearning to be back in London.
After May 1858 the couple did not see each other again for two years, Rossetti had effectively rejected Lizzie by starting a relationship with Fanny, who would loyally remain his mistress and friend for the rest of his life.
Lizzie’s father died in July 1859 and it is believed she was back home with her family in Southwark at this period. Nearing the age of thirty and alone, Lizzie showed all the symptoms now of being a serious addict, her laudanum intake was high and there was a risk of her overdosing.
By 1860 Lizzie’s family were very worried and contacted Rossetti via Ruskin. He rushed to her at Hastings where she was gravely ill, her body in such an emaciated state. She was unable to move and only wanted to die to relieve the pain. In a dramatic move, maybe because of his guilt at having abandoned her, he proposed to Lizzie, saying if she could just get well enough they would be married at the local church. Rossetti stayed with her while she convalesced and six weeks later on May 23rd 1860 they were married at St Clements church, Hastings. No friends or family were present, only an unknown couple who acted as witnesses. After the wedding the couple travelled to Paris for their honeymoon, where Lizzie was able to spend a few days alone with Rossetti, but was not strong enough to sightsee.
On their return to London they rented a cottage near Hampstead Heath. Lizzie was too frail to receive visitors for a month, though she had her friend Emma Brown to look after her. In July she finally met with some of Rossetti’s new friends, Ned and Georgiana Burne-Jones on her first social outing since her wedding. Georgie was struck by her red hair and her elegance, but said Lizzie seemed of a nervous disposition and appeared calmer in Rossetti’s presence.
A few months after their wedding Lizzie became pregnant and she was thrilled at the prospect of having a baby, feeling more energised, sociable and inspired. The Rossettis had to accept the possibility that, due to Lizzie’s addiction and continuing poor health, the baby might not survive. At the age of thirty-one Lizzie was quite old to be having her first baby and pregnancy was a dangerous time for any mother-to-be in the 1860s, no matter how ideal the situation.
The pregnancy progressed surprisingly well right up until the end, when in April 1861 her baby daughter died inside the womb. This wasn’t immediately apparent, the baby just stopped moving and there was nothing that either the doctor or the obstetrician could do. Lizzie had to wait it out, as there were no safe caesareans at that time. Their daughter was born dead on May 2nd 1861.
The fear now was that Lizzie herself wouldn’t recover from the birth or her loss. Rossetti had the sad duty of letting family and friends know, but for him there was relief that Lizzie was still alive.
Lizzie would never be the same; with the additional pressure of postnatal depression and bereavement, combined with her usual melancholia, her dependence on laudanum increased dramatically. Her mental anguish and physical pain could only be numbed by ever larger doses of the drug. A nurse had been hired as a maternity help and was kept on to care for Lizzie, but she was too consumed by grief to be aware of anyone. When Ned and Georgiana Burne-Jones paid a visit, they found Lizzie alone seated by a cradle, staring into its’ emptiness and rocking it gently as if soothing her baby to sleep. As the door creaked open ‘she cried with a soft wildness,’ “hush, Ned, you’ll waken it!”
In July of the same sad year Lizzie was persuaded to go and stay with the Morrises at the Red house, Kent. Rossetti was desperate to work and couldn’t while he needed to take care of his wife and he thought the country air and tranquility would help her recover. Her stay passed in relative contentment, so after two months Rossetti accepted a commission in Yorkshire and arranged again for his wife to stay at The Red House.
This was too much for Lizzie to cope with as the beautiful Jane Morris was pregnant again and Lizzie was fully aware that her husband found Janey very attractive. Her sister Lydia and, it seemed, all her friends, were mothers of new babies or about to be so, Lizzie felt bereft so she ran away back to London. Rossetti, frantic with worry and unable to leave Yorkshire, sent an urgent letter to his mother asking her to send Lizzie money for food.
By December Lizzie was to be found lying languidly in a chair or in bed, reduced to a listless invalid again. The invitation to spend Christmas at Rossetti’s Mother’s was cancelled. In the New year of 1862 Lizzie was pregnant again, her health was not good, but it is thought that she had reduced her dose of laudanum, which had the effect making her more agitated.
On the evening of the 10th February 1862, after having been out to dinner with poet and friend Swinburne and leaving at 8 o’clock, taking a cab, Lizzie flitted between drowsiness and excitement. By the time they were home she was soporific with the effects of laudanum and went to bed, while Rossetti went out. It is not certain where he went, probably the Working Men’s College where he taught, but there has been speculation that he visited Fanny Cornforth.
On his return at 11.30 Lizzie was snoring but could not be awoken, there was an empty laudanum bottle by her bed and a note addressed to Rossetti pinned on her night gown, which he removed and concealed. He tried vigorously to wake her to no avail. Rossetti summoned the doctor who found his patient in a coma, every effort was made to wash her stomach out, but he had no success in reviving her. Three more doctors were called but they were not able to save her. She died at 7.20 am the following morning 11th February, aged thirty-two. The note had simply read, ‘Take care of Harry’, Lizzie’s youngest handicapped brother.
Rossetti was devastated, he had lost his wife and a second baby. He revealed the note to his trusted friend Ford Madox Brown, who threw it on the fire and said they shouldn’t mention it to anyone. Suicide was scandalous and illegal, the family name would be tarnished and Lizzie would not be able to obtain a Christian burial. The coroner ruled the death as accidental despite rumours of suicide.
Lizzie had been laid in an open coffin at their home so friends and family could pay their last respects. Inconsolable and grief or guilt ridden, Rossetti, in a moment of self sacrifice, placed his unpublished manuscript of poems next to her copper red hair, just before the coffin was closed. The funeral took place on 17th February, Lizzie was buried at Highgate in the Rossetti family grave.
Rossetti never married again, but he began a passionate affair with Jane Morris, who became his principal muse and model from 1865 onwards.
His grief over Lizzie and infatuation with Jane, brought on a mental breakdown. The poems buried with Lizzie and images of her started to haunt him and he became obsessed with reaching her, regularly inviting a medium to his home to conduct seances. Rossetti’s “Beata Beatrix” 1864-70, was his final memorial to his love, which he created from sketches and memory; it is now known as one of his masterpieces.
Seven years after Lizzie’s death Rossetti was writing poetry again and started regretting his self-sacrificing gesture of burying his poems with her. Now a drinker and addicted to chloral (a sedative, hypnotic liquid) Rossetti, with the aid of his unscrupulous agent, Charles Augustus Howell, arranged for Lizzie’s coffin to be exhumed.
On the night of 5th October 1869 Lizzie’s coffin was disinterred from the family grave, without their knowledge. Guilt ridden, the unnerved Rossetti was not present, just Howell and a lawyer witnessed the eerie scene by lamplight. The stained and worm ridden manuscript was retrieved and Howell alleged that Lizzie remained preserved and as beautiful as ever, her glinting red-gold hair having grown, filled the coffin.
Lizzie was a remarkable woman of her time, showing a belief in her creativity in a century that suffocated women’s free spirit. She was fortunate to have the support of Ruskin and encouragement from Rossetti, but tragically he broke her heart, monogamy was not in his nature. Lizzie’s cycle of illness, anguish and addiction sadly denied her motherhood and any further progress as a Pre-Raphaelite artist.
Bibliography and Acknowledgements
Jan Marsh, The Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood.
Lucinda Hawksley, Lizzie Siddal: The Tragedy of a Pre-Raphaelite Supermodel.
Pamela Geraldine Nunn, The mid Victorian Woman Artist: 1850 – 1879
Lawrence B. Siddall, The Sad Short Life of Elizabeth Siddal Pre-Raphaelite and Artist.
Stephanie Graham Pina Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood