Richard Derecki: The “short, sad and strange” life of Lizzie Siddal

Richard Derecki: The “short, sad and strange” life of Lizzie Siddal

Highgate cemetery, October 1869. The workmen dig steadily through the earth. A nearby bonfire keeps away the chill and provides some light against the dark of the night. Soon their shovels scrape the top of the coffin. The coffin is raised and its lid eased off. A well-dressed man steps forward and with apprehension takes sight of the body. Romantic legend has it that despite being in her grave for more than seven years Lizzie’s body had not suffered from decomposition, that her mane of red hair had continued to grow and now filled the coffin. Wrapped in her tresses was a small book of poetry that her husband, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, had written and in a final act of sacrifice committed to the earth with her body. Now he had a new muse and he wanted to recover and publish what he believed were his finest love poems.

Born in Hatton Garden in 1829, Elizabeth “Lizzie” Siddal – her surname originally had two “l”s but she was later persuaded to drop one of them in order to appear more genteel – came from a large, downwardly mobile family. Her father was involved in a long-running and unsuccessful inheritance dispute which drained the family’s finances and absorbed his energies in fruitless legal battles.

When Lizzie was two the family was forced by circumstance to move to the Old Kent Road, a poorer, more run-down part of London, from where her father ran his ironmongery business. Like many children of the time Lizzie had no formal education but was probably taught to read and write by her parents and is said to have developed a love of poetry after reading some Tennyson she discovered on a scrap of newspaper. All the children had to find work as soon as they were old enough, with the girls employed as poorly-paid dress makers.

While working as a milliner in a shop on Cranbourne Street, off Leicester Square, Lizzie was spotted by the young artist Walter Deverell, who wanted a model for a scene he was painting from Twelfth Night. She was a “stunner”, as his friend the poet Willian Allingham wrote after her death. “She was sweet and gentle and kindly…her pale face, abundant red hair and long, thin limbs were strange and affecting.”

Lizzie was perfect for the depiction of Shakespeare’s character Viola Deverell had in mind. He asked his mother to approach the shop owner and also sought permission from Lizzie’s mother, as modelling was not something a respectable young woman would do unless she was related to the artist or sitting for her own portrait. But the money was good, the work less demanding than making bonnets hunched over a work bench for hours on end, and it opened up unheard of opportunities.

Deverell was part of a distinctive circle of young artists, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, that wanted to challenge the prevailing orthodoxy of the Royal Academy – to return to a detailed observation of nature, to experiment with new techniques, to use bright jewel-like colours, and paint subjects that would provoke the imagination and beg questions. The Pre-Raphaelites drew inspiration from Shakespeare, from the mythology of the Court of King Arthur and from religious parables. At the centre of the group was the hugely talented Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the planet around which the other artists revolved.

As Lucinda Hawksley has written in her sympathetic and affecting biography of Lizzie, The Tragedy of a Pre-Raphaelite Supermodel, “Rossetti in his youth was deeply attractive, with flowing black curls and intense seductive eyes. He breathed passion, raw vitality and excitement into every gathering. There was something mesmerising about him, a quality that attracted men and women to love, admire or want to emulate him.” But he could also be selfish, controlling and prone to jealousy. He first met Lizzie in the winter of 1849 and she soon became his main source of inspiration. He was to draw and paint her obsessively, even after her untimely death.

Lizzie still posed for other artists and the money was helpful for her family and then later to establish her own independence. She modelled most famously for John Millais’ painting of Shakespeare’s Ophelia who, distraught from Hamlet’s rejection, collects flowers in her bridal gown before drowning herself in a river. For days Lizzie lay in a bath-tub of water as the wedding dress she wore billowed around her so Millais could capture the change in the texture of her wet hair, the fading bloom of her skin, how the water dulled the silver embroidery of the dress. She became ill after laying for too long in the cold and Millais was forced by her father to pay her not insubstantial doctors’ bills. Little did Lizzie know that over time her own story would become entwined with that of Ophelia, the fragile, tragic, doomed lover.

Drawing on the themes that inspired the artists who painted her Lizzie developed her own artistic practice. She sketched, drew and painted and wrote hopelessly sad and melancholy poetry too. Though she seems to have had little formal training, Rossetti tutored her for a while and her work was widely admired. The art critic John Ruskin bought a collection of her pictures and had her on a retainer for more. Some of her art went into public exhibitions in London. This was quite a coup as female artists were rarely taken seriously.

Rossetti’s infatuation with Lizzie stalled and, despite living together for periods of time, proposals of marriage failed to be followed through. This left Lizzie in a vulnerable state. She was known as Rossetti’s mistress yet there was no engagement ring. He failed to introduce her to his family, perhaps held back by their unequal social standing, and his barely hidden affairs cut Lizzie deeply.

She began to suffer bouts of serious ill health and would journey from London to seek convalescence at seaside resorts in the south, only for Rossetti to track her down and re-start the relationship again. Lizzie self-medicated with laudanum, easily available and sold over the counter without any form of medical prescription, which further affected her physical and mental well-being and she struggled to create art.

Finally in May 1860, after coming close to death, she and Rossetti married. They could now live openly together and there were happy times as they made a home together in a little cottage close to Hampstead Heath. They spoke of plans for the work they would create together, but Lizzie was not able to stay well for long. After losing an unborn baby in May 1861, she sank into depression and despair. She would sit in her room alone, gently rocking the empty cradle. Ten months later Lizzie was dead. She overdosed on laudanum, perhaps because she realised that the new baby she was by then carrying was not moving and she could not face more misery.

Although her life was, as one of her friends wrote, “short, sad and strange” some of Lizzie Siddal’s art has survived and is being reappraised in an exhibition at Tate Britain which will celebrate her work along with that of the Rossettis – Dante, his sister the poet Christina. Lizzie’s watercolours and drawings will be shown for the first time for 30 years. It will give today’s audiences a chance to appreciate the talent and creativity of a young woman against whom the odds were so heavily stacked.

Main image is from Dante Rossetti’s painting of Lizzie Siddal, Beata Beatrix, which was completed in 1870 after her death.

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