Most of us have heard Janice Dickinson nattering on and on about being called the world’s first ‘supermodel’ and how no one else deserves that title but her. But there was once another woman, during the Victorian era, which also could be said to be deserving of the title supermodel. Her name was Lizzie Siddal, and she was the face of the Pre-Raphaelite painters. You may not know her name but you know her face, floating down the river in John Everett Millais’s painting of Ophelia, or in any number of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s works.
Lizzie Siddal was born Elizabeth Eleanor Siddall on July 25, 1829. Her parents were lower middle class but with pretensions to the middle class. Like Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Lizzie’s father believed that he was the rightful owner of a successful couching inn called Crossdaggers in Derbyshire. Unfortunately he spent a fortune trying to unsuccessfully prove it. Like something out of a Dickens novel, the case dragged on for years. Finally, Lizzie’s sister Clara threw all the relevant documents on the fire one night to finally end the disasterous lawsuit. Still Lizzie and her brothers and sisters were raised with the knowledge that they were somebody, despite the fact that their father made his living making and running a cutlery business.
When Lizzie was old enough, she went to work for a milliner named Mrs. Tozer. It was there that her life changed. Lizzie was striking, tall and thin with luxuriant red hair and pale, pale skin. She was the opposite of what was accepted as the ideal of Victorian beauty at the time but she was just the thing an aspiring painter found attractive. It was 1849 and Lizzie was 20 years old, and wondering if anything was going to happen in her life when she met a poet named William Allingham, who had come to pick up a fellow co-worker named Jeannette. Although Allingham wasn’t impressed with Lizzie, he thought she might make a good model for his friend Walter Deverell who was attempting to paint a scene from the play Twelfth Night and needed a Viola. When Deverell went to see Lizzie at Mrs. Tozer’s shop he knew that he’d found the model he was looking for, but being a gentleman and realizing that Lizzie was not a working class girl, he used his mother to convince her that he was making a legitimate offer. Mrs. Deverell went one step further and agreed to talk to Lizzie’s mother.
Modeling for an artist at that time was considered akin to prostitution, so while Lizzie was understandably flattered, she was also wary of what exactly it would mean. Lizzie’s mother didn’t take much convincing. She knew that her daughter’s life was a hard one and that for someone of Lizzie’s delicate constitution, modeling would be easier work and it paid better than she was making at Mrs. Tozer. She was making 24 pounds a year working in the milliner’s shop.
It was through Deverell that Lizzie became acquainted with the other artists associated with the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood including Millais, and the one who would become the center of her life, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood was a group of artists, who like the Impressionists after them, were rebelling against the prevailing art of the time, the grand old masters such as Reynolds and Gainsborough. They were interested in medieval art, the rich colors of the art before Raphael hence their names. Rossetti who was one of the leaders of the movement came from a family of Italian ex-patriots who moved to London. He was actually born Charles Gabriel Dante Rossetti on May 12, 1828, but changed his name to reflect his lifelong obsession with the Italian poet Dante Alighieri dropping the Charles completely. From the moment that Rossetti saw Lizzie sometime in the winter of 1849/1850, he felt that he had found his destiny, his Beatrice.
At the time they met, Rossetti was quite attractive with long flowing dark hair and intense brown eyes. He and Lizzie were about the same height, 5 foot 7. Georgiana Burne-Jones, the wife of the painter, Edward Burne-Jones said of him, “no one could produce the peculiar charm of his voice with its sonorous roll and beautiful cadences.” Rossetti was also didn’t drink nor did he smoke. They also had similar temperaments, both were high-strung and intense. They were also depressive and prone to wild mood-swings, and inclined to jealous fits, needing to be the most important person to the other. More than likely they were both bi-polar. When they were happy, they didn’t need anyone else for company, preferring to spend days just the two of them. When either one of them was unhappy or depressed, they would make life a living hell for the other one.
Lizzie was unlike any of the other women of Dante’s acquaintance. There were her striking looks for one thing. While Dante adored his mother and sisters, they were already showing the sourness and bitterness at the lot life had handed them. She also dressed very differently from other Victorian women, preferring to wear loose clothing resembling the dresses worn in medieval times, generally without a corset. Dante was also aware that Lizzie was from a different social class than he was. He didn’t introduce her to his family until after his father’s death in 1854. Lizzie, for her part, wouldn’t have dreamed of bringing home an artist to her family knowing that they wouldn’t have approved. Despite these obstacles, they couldn’t help falling in love.
After posing for Deverell, Lizzie posed other painters such as William Holman Hunt. She was still continuing to work at Mrs. Tozer part time, giving her a regular salary to supplement her modeling. The painting that brought her a certain amount of fame was Millais’ portrait of her as Ophelia. This required her to spend hours immersed in water in a bathtub. Although Millais came up with an ingenious way to heat the bathtub so that Lizzie wouldn’t be cold, during one session the lamps underneath went out and Lizzie spent several hours floating in cold water. The effect of the painting was stunning but Lizzie ended up with a severe cold. Soon afterwards, Rossetti asked Lizzie to stop posing for other painters and to pose only for him. Although this meant that she had less of an income, Lizzie agreed. She had also begun showing an interest in painting and poetry herself, and Rossetti encouraged her in her endeavors. Lizzie’s poetry contained dark themes about lost love or the impossibility of true love, and her paintings reflect the Pre-Raphaelite preoccupation with the Arthurian legends and other medieval themes. She illustrated scenes from Sir Walter Scott and poems by Tennyson.
The relationship between Rossetti and Lizzie would be fraught over the next 9 years as Lizzie waited impatiently for him to make up his mind to marry her. Unfortunately for Lizzie, she had fallen in love with a commitment-phobe. It wasn’t that Dante didn’t want to marry her; he didn’t want to marry anyone. In fact after Lizzie’s death, although he had several passionate relationships, he never remarried. However, Dante’s indecisiveness about their relationship put Lizzie in a tenuous position. Everyone they knew knew that they were a couple. While they didn’t live together, Lizzie spent considerable time at his place while still keeping her own rooms. No respectable man would marry her since she had a reputation as being Dante’s mistress. What made matters even worse was that Dante knew what he was doing to Lizzie and suffered enormous amounts of guilt about it. Still he ping-ponged back and forth on the subject, holding out the hope of marriage and then taking it back, usually after about of one of Lizzie’s ‘illnesses.’
This indecisiveness led Lizzie to extended periods of ill-health that were psychosomatic in nature for the first part. In other words, she would use emotional manipulation to keep him by her side, whenever she felt him straying, which he did several times during their relationship. Rossetti seemed to have had a thing for his friends’ models. He fell first for Annie Miller, a jolly working class girl who was the favorite model of William Holman Hunt. In fact, Holman Hunt hoped to marry her, as soon as he played Henry Higgins to her Eliza Doolittle. That didn’t stop Rossetti for making a play for her that was accepted when Holman Hunt went abroad to paint. Lizzie was in agony over the relationship, she’d also begun taking laudanum, an addictive mixture of opium and alcohol that was prescribed for everything from toothache to cramps during the 19th century. Before too long, Lizzie had become addicted. Her addiction caused her appetite to disappear, and she grew thinner. This was another way for Lizzie to manipulate Rossetti by refusing to eat. Several times, he was called to her side, when he thought she was dying only to have her miraculously recover.
When Lizzie and Rossetti’s family finally met, it wasn’t a match made in heaven. While Lizzie could be charming and fun with people that she liked, with people that she knew resented her, she could be sullen and wary. Lizzie was quite aware that Rossetti’s family had reservations about her, not the least being that she was socially beneath him. They had wanted him to marry either an Italian or someone of a higher social standing. They were also concerned about his obsession with her. They weren’t the only ones. The eminent critic John Ruskin had taken an interest in Rossetti’s work, and Rossetti in turn showed him Lizzie’s sketches and art work. Ruskin was convinced enough by her talent to offer to pay her an annuity of 150 pounds a year. This made her an independent woman. Around this time Lizzie left Rossetti for the second time after he dangled the promise of marriage before her only to renege. She had already left him once to travel around Europe for several weeks. Now she took herself off to Sheffield to live with some distant relatives. For the first time in years, Lizzie was taking less laudanum that usual and was making a real effort with her art. However the idyll was not to last, she came back to London and Rossetti’s arms. It seems that they couldn’t live with or without each other.
Dante painted Lizzie many times over the course of their relationship, the most painting being Beata Beatrix (the painting in the upper left hand corner) which he painted as a memorial after her death. She was also his muse for his poetry as well as his painting. In his art he idealized. In one of his poems “The Blessed Damozel,” he writes.
The blessed damozel leaned out
From the gold bar of Heaven;
Her eyes were deeper than the depth
Of waters stilled at even;
She had three lilies in her hand,
And the stars in her hair were seven.
Her robe, ungirt from clasp to hem,
No wrought flowers did adorn,
But a white rose of Mary's gift,
For service meetly worn;
Her hair that lay along her back
Was yellow like ripe corn.
Herseemed she scarce had been a day
One of God's choristers;
-- From The Blessed Damozel
Lizzie worried as the years went by and Rossetti still hadn’t married her, that he would replace her with a younger, prettier muse. Her fears were not unfounded because Rossetti fell for Jane Burden, who met while working in Oxford along with several other friends including William Morris. Jane was 18, pretty with dark hair and sensuous features. Although Morris laid claim to the stunner first, and eventually married her, Rossetti also fell hard for her. There was also Fanny Conforth, another model, who was voluptuous and full of fun. She eventually went to work for Rossetti as his housekeeper after Lizzie’s death.
Finally in 1860, after ten years together, Rossetti made an honest woman of Lizzie. They were married in the seaside town of Hastings on May 23. Lizzie was so frail that she had to be carried to the church. Soon after their marriage, Lizzie discovered that she was pregnant although she feared for the baby’s life due to her addiction. Her prediction proved correct because the baby was born stillborn in 1861. Both Rossetti and Lizzie were devastated. A few months later, Lizzie became pregnant again for the second time. Still suffering from post-partum depression, she committed suicide by taking an overdose of laudanum in February 1862. Rossetti discovered her in bed unconscious and clutching a note asking him to provide for her youngest brother Henry who was mentally handicapped. Rossetti called four doctors to try and revive her but to no avail.
Rossetti burned the note and her death was ruled an accident by the coroner. It wasn’t until years after Rossetti’s death that the truth about Lizzie’s death was revealed when his niece published a biography. In Lizzie’s coffin, Rossetti placed the only copies of many of his poems, sliding the book under her hair. She was buried in the Rossetti plot along with his father at Highgate cemetery. Years later, he had her grave opened and the poems removed. This was done in the dead of night in order to avoid public curiosity. Charles Augustus Howell, who was with Rossetti at the time, later spread the story that when the coffin was opened; Lizzie’s corpse was perfectly preserved, her hair continuing to grow after her death. The poems were not a success after they were published and it was said this act haunted Rossetti for the rest of his life.
The years after Lizzie’s death were not easy for Rossetti. He started an affair with Jane Morris in 1869 that Morris willingly turned a blind eye to, but after years of abstaining from alcohol, he began to drink. He also became addicted to chloral. Convinced that he was going blind and couldn’t paint, in his later years he became a virtual recluse. He died on April 9, 1882 at the age of 53. Even in death, Rossetti and Lizzie are not together, while she is buried at Highgate, Rossetti is buried at All Saints Cemetery in Kent.
The love story of Lizzie and Rossetti was plagued by unhappiness. Despite their great love, they brought out the best and the worst in each other. But their love also gave the world some of the greatest art ever created.
Lucinda Hawkslay - Lizzie Siddal: The Tragedy of a Pre-Raphaelite Supermodel