Friday, 10 October 2014

Giants of Academia & the Arts

… but, then again, nobody is perfect

Elizabeth Eleanor Siddal (25 July 1829 – 11 February 1862)

Elizabeth Siddal, or Lizzie, was a poet and an artist mainly remembered as a muse and a model, and as the wife of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Which is a bit unfair really, seeing that, in her own way, she made a huge contribution to the world of Art. The name might not be instantly recognisable to you, but her face most surely must, being one that you will almost certainly have encountered at one stage or another, assuming, of course, that you haven’t spent your entire life buried away in some remote rainforest. In which case, you won’t be reading this, now will you?

Lizzie was born at 7 Charles (now Greville) Street, Hatton Garden but, unlike many of our other Giants, she could hardly be named after her dad, Charles Crooke Siddall, so instead they named her after her mum, Eleanor Evans, who was of Welsh descent, the likely source of Lizzie’s flaming Celtic hair. And equally fiery temperament. The dad may have been Crooke by name but he was cutler by trade, originally from Sheffield before bringing his business south and then relocating it again, around 1831, this time to the Old Kent Road. Like other Sires of Greatness, he fostered delusions of grandeur, claiming to have been the disinherited owner of an aristocratic title and of Hope Hall at Hope up there in the North but, having left Hope behind, he didn’t abandon it altogether, taking his case to court. And, as tradition demands, lost. So it was back to making spoons for him. Lizzie developed a love of poetry at an early age, having come across a poem by Tennyson on a piece of newspaper that had been used to wrap up some butter. It is not recorded what became of the butter but the incident inspired her to start penning verses of her own.

Lizzie took employment at Mrs Tozer’s millinery shop off Leicester Square, where she put in long hours of tedious work that demanded attention but no imagination (she hated it). Then, around 1849-50 she was “discovered by chance” by the Pre-Raphaelite artist Walter Deverell, though it could also have been by the poet, William Allingham, who then told Deverell. The fact is that Mrs Tozer was much in the habit of introducing the girls who worked for her to “gentlemen” (millinery shop, you say?), these “gentlemen” gathering round the shop window to wait for whatever treasure might be brought outside for their approval. Not really a “chance discovery,” then, if you happen to be hanging around the hatshop anyway for that specific purpose, now is it? Lizzie may not have been “conventionally beautiful by Victorian standards” – whatever that might mean – but the drooling Deverell boasted that she was “a stupendously beautiful creature, magnificently tall with a lovely figure and a face of the most delicate and finished modelling."

Not that there was anything at all seamy about Deverell, mind you, because he went about the thing properly. By getting his mum to call round at the Siddall’s place to assure them that it was all above board and, having obtained the parental assent, he then embarked upon painting her as Viola in a scene from Twelfth Night. Only to find himself struggling to reproduce the exact shade of her hair, so he decides to consult his friend, who just happens to be posing as the Jester for the same work. It is Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

Rossetti was born as Gabriel Charles Dante Rossetti but always signed himself with the Dante first, thanks to his passion for the poet, Dante Alighieira. While he was at it, he also changed her name, lopping the last L off her surname to leave her Elizabeth Siddal. It is said that he was charismatic, gregarious and impetuous, provocative and deliberately hurtful, as well as being charming and witty. Not to mention feckless, unreliable and a dreadful womaniser – well, actually, quite a good one, judged simply on numbers. As soon as he met Lizzie, not only did he come up with the phrase “a stunner” but fell “deeply and profusely” in love with her, claiming that he had “found his destiny.” By 1851 they would be engaged. Though not formally, you understand. More in a We Can Still Keep Seeing Other People sort of a way, that is. Mind you, he would take a rather different line with her, eventually putting a stop to her modelling for any of the other Pre-Raphaelites. No wonder, really: if they were at all like him, then heaven alone knows what they might be getting up to with her. For the time being, though, she carried on working part-time at Mrs Tozer’s and modelling in the afternoons, ensuring her a regular income and making her an independent woman, highly unusual for the times.
Then along came 1852 and Lizzie’s own great Moment of Destiny, though it probably felt a lot longer than that while she was lying in the bathtub making it happen. Getting together with John Everett Millais, they were about to create the superb and iconic image of Ophelia – there you are, you see: you did know who she was all the time, didn’t you? What Millais set out to produce was a scene from Hamlet, never actually played out onstage but only ever described by Queen Gertrude, who tells how Ophelia is out picking flowers when she falls from a tree into the river (and which of us hasn’t done that whilst picking flowers?), where the air trapped in her clothing keeps her afloat, so she stays there singing songs, not realising that she’s slowly getting waterlogged, which will eventually drag her down to “muddy death.” And John Everett thought that’d make a good picture. He wasn’t wrong, was he?

By the time he’d done the background (which he did first, from nature), it was bleak midwinter (incidentally, Rossetti’s sister, Christina, wrote the words to that carol) and a touch on the nippy side in Millais’ studio at 7 Gower Street for lying in a bath of water to be painted. Millais got around this by lighting lamps underneath to keep the water warm, but then neglected to make sure they stayed alight. Which is the very moment at which Elizabeth Siddal becomes a Giant of the Arts, for if there had been no Elizabeth Siddal there would have been no Ophelia. No point in your arguing that, Oh, Millais could’ve just got some other model instead. The fact is that Lizzie said not a thing but let the great work continue to progress on into completion. With the result that she became severely ill, requiring her parents to call in medical care, telling the now (and rather belatedly) concerned Millais that their Lizzie’d tecken raight badly and that, if he didn’t cough up, they’d sue him for £50. All of which means that she suffered for Art, whereas Millais was merely somewhat scatterbrained over it.

Looking at the picture closely now – there’s a larger version here – said to be the truest likeness of Lizzie ever produced, and neglecting the rumours about the alleged skull tucked in the undergrowth near her feet, the most likely thing you’ll be thinking right now is that the picture just lacks a little something and what it could really do with is a watervole swimming alongside her. D’y’know, that’s exactly what Millais reckoned too. Millais painted the background on location, by the Hogsmill River, Old Malden, at the same time as Holman Hunt, a brother Pre-Raphaelite, was painting his Hireling Shepherd nearby. Millais worked for up to eleven hours a day, six days a week for five months, depicting the flora in exquisite detail, which also, in the Victorian way, have a language of their own (the poppy represents sleep and death). Though he did complain that, "the flies of Surrey are more muscular, and have a still greater propensity for probing human flesh. Certainly the painting of a picture under such circumstances would be greater punishment to a murderer than hanging.” At some early stage, his assistant had fished a watervole out of the Hogsmill, so Millais thought he’d bung it in. Much later on, December in fact, he showed the incomplete painting to Holman Hunt’s uncle and aunt and was highly gratified when they easily identified every element contained within it. With the exception of the vole, which the uncle eagerly pronounced to be a hare. Do buck up, Mr Hunt, when did you ever see a hare swimming? Rabbit, then? No. Dog, perhaps? No. Cat, even? Millais decided to paint it out.

Lizzie was just nineteen when she became part of this magnificent creation. And it was just around now that Rossetti decided he didn’t want her sitting (or, indeed, lying) for any others of the PRB. Probably just incredibly miffed by the fact that he would never produce a work anywhere near as outstanding. Though he did produce literally thousands of Lizzie.

It was also around now, 1852, that Rossetti moved into 14 Chatham Place (now under Blackfriars Station) with Lizzie, the couple becoming absorbed with each other’s affections to an anti-social degree, which went as far as coining petnames for each other (you may want to have a bucket standing by) such as Guggums, Gug, Dove and Sid, those being just the ones he had for her, while she called him Gug. She became his pupil and he considered her a creative genius.

From 1853, her health really began to decline, leaving her in pain, bedridden, vomiting and unable to eat. A curvature of the spine was noted and she may have had neuralgia and phthisis (tuberculosis) or even been anorexic. Apart from that, though, right as rain. Except for the growing addiction to laudanum, and her regular swallowing of Fowler’s Solution for her complexion, which was sometimes also prescribed for melancholia and even jealousy. In other words, all those trying “female complaints,” as they were then regarded, though seeing it contained arsenic, which is both toxic and carcinogenic, causing cirrhosis of the liver, hypertension, bladder and skin cancers, the cure was probably worse than the complaint. No more spots, though. Mainly through being dead.

In 1855, art critic John Ruskin hove onto the scene, buying up all Lizzie’s work for £30 and paying her £150 a year for first refusal on anything she produced. While he was at it, he urged Rossetti to make an honest woman of her, saying, "it would be best for you to marry, for the sake of giving Miss Siddal complete protection and care.” Having Ruskin offering marriage guidance counselling is much the same as installing Guido Fawkes as your Health & Safety Officer, seeing Ruskin had married Effie Gray in 1848 and had since notoriously failed (refused) to consummate the marriage – it seems that the only naked ladies he’d ever seen were the ones in paintings, so he was somewhat put off by the fact that they appeared to have hair. Five years later Millais took her off Ruskin’s hands. They liked to keep things amongst themselves did the PRB: around this time, Rossetti was having an affair with Annie Miller, fiancée of Holman Hunt, whilst Hunt was away in Egypt. Meanwhile, Ruskin himself was attempting an engagement with Rose La Touche, supposed at the time to have been aged between fourteen and eighteen.

Lizzie’s work was exhibited in the Pre-Raphaelite exhibition of 1857 but, elsewhere, things went from bad to worse, with Rossetti constantly promising marriage but never seeing it through, even once borrowing ten pounds for the licence from Ford Madox Brown, only to spend it on something else. Other women most likely. Lizzie needed to escape (not to mention convalesce from illness and growing addiction) so she split with Ruskin and went to Matlock in Derbyshire in 1857, leaving Rossetti behind in Oxford busy with William Morris and even busier with Morris’s intended, Jane Burden. Incidentally, we tend to think of Morris, pioneer of the arts and crafts movement, as a right-on kind of Victorian geezer opposed to dark satanic mills and all that, yet he was nowhere near as green as his wallpapers, which were only that colour because they contained so much arsenic, and the man himself owned a mine that produced enough of the stuff to kill every man, woman, child and living creature on the planet. But only a So What from Morris.

Little more is known about Lizzie until 1860, when Rossetti was alerted that she was lying dangerously ill in Hastings, at which he hotfoots it straight there and amazes everyone by announcing their wedding. Which took place on 23 May that year, with no friends or family present and the bride herself needing to be carried into the church, so frail was she, even though it was only five minutes’ walk away.

Though Rossetti was said to be an “uxorious husband,” there is no happy ending. The joy of her becoming pregnant was shattered when she gave birth to a stillborn girl in May 1861. (She was taking laudanum “for morning sickness.”) Georgiana Burne-Jones, wife of PRB artist Edward, reported that whilst visiting them, "We found her sitting in a low chair with the childless cradle on the floor beside her and she cried with a kind of soft wildness as we came in, "Hush, you'll wake it"”

In 1862, once again pregnant, she overdosed on laudanum. Rossetti found her (he’d been “out”) and, unable to revive her, called for a doctor, who failed likewise. So he sent for three more, but all in vain: at 7.20am on February 11 1862, she died. As well as her, Rossetti had also found a suicide note pinned to her (possibly the classic “cry for help,” expecting her husband to save her), which Ford Madox Brown urged him to burn. Guilt-ridden, Rossetti – who had called out at her deathbed, Oh, Lizzie, come back to me” – would famously slip the journal containing the only copy of his poems into her coffin beneath her hair to be buried with her. For now. Seven years later, in 1869, the worm turned yet again and he had them (and her) dug up, by which time the Worm of Divine Retribution had eaten through his precious pages. Though it was said that she was found as lovely as ever and that her hair had even continued to grow to fill the casket. Impossible, of course, but an appealing image to remember her by …

Ophelia: John Everett Millais [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
DGR Self Portrait: Dante Gabriel Rossetti [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Twelfth Night: By Walter Deverell ([1]) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Ruskin: By William Downey (1829-1915) ([1]) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Millais: By Lewis Carroll [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Lizzie Painting: Dante Gabriel Rossetti [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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