Named for her mother, “Lizzie” Siddal was born in the summer of 1829, in the family home at Hatton Gardens, in London. The family owned a cutlery-making business, and whilst not entirely financially comfortable, could survive. Lizzie did not attend school but was taught to read and write by her parents. She developed a love of poetry at a young age, after discovering a poem by Tennyson on a scrap of newspaper that had been used to wrap a pat of butter.
Lizzie had the sort of interesting, unconventional beauty often found today in catwalk models. Her future brother-in-law was to describe her thusly: “a most beautiful creature with an air between dignity and sweetness with something that exceeded modest self-respect and partook of disdainful reserve; tall, finely-formed with a lofty neck and regular yet somewhat uncommon features, greenish-blue unsparkling eyes, large perfect eyelids, brilliant complexion and a lavish heavy wealth of coppery golden hair.”
In her late teens Lizzie found employment as an assistant to a milliner. In 1849, a young artist named Walter Deverell visited the shop and was amazed by the striking assistant; he asked the milliner if she would let her assistant do a spot of modelling.
Walter Deverell was a student of a prominent artist called Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Rossetti – along with fellow artists John Everett Millais and William Holman Hunt – had formed what they termed the “Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood” in 1848. This was as a reaction to the restrictive and formulaic approach to painting championed by the Royal Academy, where the idea of artistic perfection was typified by Raphael and the Renaissance masters. Rossetti and his colleagues aimed to return art to a more medieval sensibility. They tended to stay away from landscapes and portraits and paint what they considered more worthy subjects, such as scenes from Shakespeare, romantic poetry, medieval legends such as King Arthur, and the Bible.
Lizzie swiftly became a favourite model for the Pre-Raphaelities. Perhaps her most famous ‘portrait’ is in Millais’ Ophelia. While posing for it, she represented Ophelia’s drowning in the lake by floating in a bathtub full of water. Millais painted all day long, all winter, putting lamps under the tub to keep the water at a temperate temperature. On one occasion the lamps went out and the water soon became icy cold. Millais, absorbed by his painting, did not notice and Lizzie did not utter one murmur of complaint. Not surprisingly she became very ill with what was probably pneumonia. You will be happy to hear that Millais paid her doctor’s bills.
Lizzie was – throughout her life – generally a rather unwell woman, some think due to respiratory problems resulting from the painting of Ophelia. She was also most likely anorexic and addicted to laudanum. She was probably also poisoning herself with her regular intake of Fowler’s Solution, a so-called complexion improver made from dilute arsenic.
By 1851, Lizzie had fallen into a relationship with Rossetti; he was obsessed with her, painting her exclusively and refusing to allow his brother artists to use her. It is estimated that the number of portraits and sketches of Lizzie done by Rossetti could number in the thousands. He encouraged her to take up painting herself, and to hone her skills in poetry. The two became increasingly anti-social, entirely wrapped up in one another. Rossetti’s sister, Christina, wrote the following poem about her brother’s obsession with Lizzie, entitled “In The Artist’s Studio”:
One face looks out from all his canvases,
One selfsame figure sits or walks or leans:
We found her hidden just behind those screens,
That mirror gave back all her loveliness.
A queen in opal or in ruby dress,
A nameless girl in freshest summer-green,
A saint, an angel –every canvas means
The same one meaning, neither more nor less.
He feeds upon her face by day and night,
And she with true kind eyes looks back on him,
Fair as the moon and joyful as the light:
Not wan with waiting, not with sorrow dim;
Not as she is, but was when hope shone bright;
Not as she is, but as she fills his dream.
The years passed and Lizzie approached thirty – veritably middle-aged for the time. She started to feel her lack of respectability keenly and began to harass Rossetti for marriage, something he was unprepared to offer due to her working-class background and – ironically – that same lack of respectability that he himself had fostered by taking her on as his muse and living with her whilst they were unmarried. Her health was worsening year on year. Rossetti was no longer as enamored as he once was; he had had a string of affairs with other artists’ models and was now heavily preoccupied with his latest ‘muse’, the classically dark and gorgeous Jane Burden. Still, affection must have lingered for poor Lizzie, as he agreed to marry her in 1860. Apparently, she was so weak from illness at the time of the ceremony she had to be carried the five minute walk to the church.
Having been melancholic all her life, Lizzie’s depression showed no signs of abating. Even after marriage she lived in fear (not entirely unfounded) that Rossetti was going to leave her for a younger, more beautiful model. Things looked up the following year when Lizzie became pregnant and was truly happy for possibly the first time in her life.
Cruelly, the pregnancy resulted in the birth of a still-born daughter, and Lizzie slipped even further into depression and despair. On a winter’s evening in early 1962, Rossetti returned to their home to find Lizzie dying in bed from an overdose of laudanum. The death was ruled as accidental, but the rumours that have come down to us suggest that there was a suicide note. Rossetti burnt it to protect his wife, as suicide was considered illegal and shameful and would have barred her from a Christian burial. Hauntingly, this was the situation that befell Ophelia in Shakespeare’s Hamlet – the subject of Lizzie’s most famous sitting; Ophelia drowns herself due to the pain of her unrequited love for Hamlet, forcing those around her to create a story where she falls from a branch whilst picking flowers to allow her to be formally buried within the Christian faith.
Rossetti was destroyed by his wife’s death. Overcome with grief, he placed his one and only copy of the opus of poetry he had been working on into Lizzie’s coffin. He then painted the beautiful Beata Beatrix, which was completed a year after Lizzie’s death.
A few years later, Rossetti was on the decline. Addicted to alcohol and drugs, he had convinced himself that his eyesight was shot and he could no longer paint. He turned his attention to poetry full time and became preoccupied with the manuscript that lay in Highgate Cemetary, rotting alongside his wife. He petitioned to have her exhumed, which was eventually done in the dead of night, to lessen public notice and interest; Rossetti himself did not attend. It was reported that the corpse was in remarkably good shape and was still identifiable as Lizzie Siddal, the famous beauty. Her already long hair had continued to grow after death, and the coffin was said to be filled with coils and coils of her glorious, red hair. Gruesomely, however, Rossetti noted in his later writing that it was hard to use his reclaimed manuscript, as there were holes eaten through the pages by worms.
Rossetti published his poetry, but it was not well received. He hated himself that he had disturbed his dead wife’s rest for greed – and that it hadn’t even paid off! Now addicted to laudanum himself, he attempted an overdose in 1872, but survived it. He went on to live another twenty years, albeit as an addict, a recluse and shadow of his former self.
by Elizabeth Siddal
Thy strong arms are around me, love
My head is on thy breast;
Low words of comfort come from thee
Yet my soul has no rest.
For I am but a startled thing
Nor can I ever be
Aught save a bird whose broken wing
Must fly away from thee.
I cannot give to thee the love
I gave so long ago,
The love that turned and struck me down
Amid the blinding snow.
I can but give a failing heart
And weary eyes of pain,
A faded mouth that cannot smile
And may not laugh again.
Yet keep thine arms around me, love,
Until I fall to sleep;
Then leave me, saying no goodbye
Lest I may wake, and weep.