Elizabeth Siddal was the only female artist to exhibit alongside the Pre-Raphaelites, at the summer exhibition at Russell Place in 1857. She was the wife and muse of the group’s leader, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and was one of the most famous Pre-Raphaelite ‘stunners’, painted extensively by the Brotherhood. She became one of the famous faces of the Victorian age.
But Elizabeth Eleanor Siddal was far from a passive ‘stunner’. She was an artist herself, and remarkable as a working-class woman, for her time, in her intention to become a professional painter. She shared a Pre-Raphaelite passion for literature, writing her own poetry and choosing literary subjects for her pictures.
Lizzie entered the Pre-Raphaelite circle in 1849 or 1850, having been spotted by Walter Deverell while working in a hat shop in Leicester Square in London. She initially modelled for a number of Pre-Raphaelite artists, including Holman Hunt and Millais, but from 1851 she modelled exclusively for Rossetti and began to take art lessons from him. Rossetti encouraged ‘Lizzie’ in her own artwork and poetry.
Although her striking copper-coloured hair didn’t conform to early Victorian notions of beauty, her wistful quality as a model was often observed.
Rossetti’s drawings of Lizzie were frequently made in the evening, under conditions of candle or gaslight. The drawing above, by Rossetti, is unusual in showing her full face, and the dramatic contrasts of light and shade hint at her changing moods, with an underlying theme of melancholy introspection.
From the intense closeness evident in the drawings and watercolours by Rossetti, the couple moved to a period of estrangement and then, in 1860, to marriage, but sadly, Siddal died of an overdose in 1862 after giving birth to a stillborn child. She had become addicted to laudanum which she took for frequent bouts of ill health.
One of Siddal’s most successful drawings is the illustration to Robert Browning’s poem, ‘Pippa Passes’ (below left). It was shown to John Ruskin in 1855, who offered her a quarterly allowance of £150 per annum in exchange for all that she produced.
Browning’s poem, set on a spring day in 14th-century Asolo in Italy, describes young Pippa’s experiences of the town. In his ode, prostitutes call to Pippa from the steps of a church, which Siddal has changed to a park surrounded by railings. Her picture challenges Pre-Raphaelite art convention in its suggestion that a woman can take advantage of the freedom the city offers without being compromised or corrupted.
Lizzie knew the difficulties of charting her own path in London and had to break through many Victorian stereotypes and social rules.
In another enigmatic drawing, Two Lovers Listening to Music (above right) bought from Siddal by John Ruskin in 1855, the landscape evokes the countryside around Hastings, where Siddal and Rossetti spent a summer holiday in 1854. It was to Hastings, too, that they went to get married in 1860. The subjects, however, are unidentified.
Lizzie Siddal produced over 100 works of art in her short life. She’s buried in Highgate Cemetery, London, in the Rossetti family plot.