Aside from being my favourite art movement, I have always been fascinated by those who began the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and the muses who so inspired them. Lizzie Siddal is perhaps the most iconic of these, serving as the model for such well-known figures as Ophelia and Beatrice, with her pale skin and cascading auburn hair.
Even as a history nerd, I must admit that I’ve not picked up one of Lucinda Hawksley’s books before. This seems odd, considering that whilst looking through her oeuvre, I wrote down almost every single title on my sprawling TBR list. Hawksley’s books and areas of research really appeal to me, and after my extremely positive experience reading Lizzie Siddal: The Tragedy of a Pre-Raphaelite Supermodel, I am keen to pick up more of her work soon.
Lizzie Siddal, born Elizabeth Siddall in Southwark, London, worked first for a milliner, modelling different styles of hats for wealthy clients. She was ‘discovered’ by the Irish poet William Allingham, who found that she almost perfectly fitted the criteria for a model his friend, Walter Howell Deverell, was seeking for a painting. Deverell was ‘despairing of finding a woman without prominent curves; he had also hoped to find a red-haired model’ for his depiction of Shakespeare’s Viola.
At first, Siddal was flattered but sceptical of Deverell’s approach, and it took his kindly mother to finally convince her to accept. Her scepticism was wound up with the fact that during the 1840s, ‘modelling for an artist was perceived as being synonymous with prostitution’. Her introduction to modelling for the group of artists, however, was a pleasurable one, and throughout, she demonstrated her fervent respectability. She had a desperation to be accepted.
Siddal went on to become one of the most famous faces in Victorian Britain, sitting for the likes of John Everett Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the latter of whom she eventually married after a tumultuous relationship. As Hawksley puts it, this brought with it ‘nine years of emotional agony’. She writes of their nervous inclination, and the clash of their personalities: ‘… both were headstrong and wilful; they were also depressive; prone to wild mood swings… [They] had a tendency to addiction and shared a destructively jealous need to be the most important figure in their – or, indeed, any – relationship.’
At the point of her marriage to Rossetti, Siddal had an addiction to laudanum, and was suffering from a debilitating, and quite mysterious, illness. Her illness was misdiagnosed by specialists as consumption and curvature of the spine in her lifetime. As Hawksley notes, it ‘has long baffled medics and scholars’. It is thought that she may have suffered from an eating disorder, or that ‘she was simply “neurotic” – a vague description that can encompass myriad symptoms and mental illnesses.’ The majority of the symptoms which she manifested, including nausea, dizziness, and a constant cough, can indicate a laudanum addiction. After giving birth to a stillborn daughter, and suffering much heartache, Siddal eventually committed suicide at the age of 32.
Of course, the primary focus here is on Siddal. However, Hawksley gives a lot of valuable context about the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and its aims. They wished, she writes, ‘to paint vibrantly coloured works that would mean something to the viewer, subjects that would provoke the imagination and cause discussion.’ The Pre-Raphaelites wanted to return to the artistic ideals which existed before Italian painter and artist of the High Renaissance period, Raphael (1483-1520), the point at which they believed art had “gone wrong”.
Throughout, Hawksley gives a real flavour for the Southwark which Siddal grew up in – highly crowded, with no access to clean running water. Her family, though, was an aspirational one, and she did not grow up in poverty exactly. Siddal exaggerated about her unbringing, leading everyone around her to believe that she grew up in an impoverished slum. This, Hawskley suggests, was a ploy to ‘make Rossetti feel the need to protect her. She preferred to be known as a romantically tragic figure rather than reveal the truth about her family’s shabby working-class respectability.’ Hawksley moves through Siddal’s life with care and sensitivity, and does not simply focus upon her as a muse; she also writes of Siddal’s own artistry, as she was a painter in her own right. Indeed, John Ruskin purchased her entire portfolio of work in 1855, after he became her mentor.
Lizzie Siddal is a thorough and highly readable account of what became an incredibly sad life, marred by tragedy. The research and primary sources have been meticulously examined, and extra information – which tends to give more context, or further explain a brief point Hawksley makes – is often provided in footnotes. Hawksley’s book is relatively slim for a biography, standing at just over 200 pages, but such good use has been made of the original sources, and the whole feels intricately woven. Lizzie Siddal moves along so well, and is an excellent example of historical biography, which I would highly recommend.