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.
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.
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"”
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 () [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Ruskin: By William Downey (1829-1915) () [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Millais: By Lewis Carroll [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Lizzie Painting: Dante Gabriel Rossetti [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons