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Lizzie Siddal – A Mysterious Muse

25 Jul

“All changes pass me like a dream,
I neither sing nor pray;
And thou art like the poisonous tree
That stole my life away.

(Elizabeth Siddal, “Love and Hate”)

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, A Portrait Sketch of Elizabeth Siddal, c. 1850s

Elizabeth Siddal, a famous and doomed Pre-Raphaelite muse and a lover of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, was born on 25th July 1829 in London. She died in February 1862 at the age of 32, but had she been a vampire, which I suspect she might as well be, she would have been 190 years old today, a fairly young age for a vampire. I am thinking about her these days; about her beauty, her poems and paintings, and also about the exhumation of her body led by Dante Gabriel Rossetti who wanted to get back the poems he had buried with her. An image of her coffin being opened, and her long red hair revealed by the moonlight, silence of the graveyard, the eeriness…. It is easy to imagine why this event inspired young Bram Stoker for his character Lucy in “Dracula”.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti; Elizabeth Siddal, study for ‘Delia’ in the ‘Return of Tibullus’, 1853

Nonetheless, the main thing on my mind these days is how mysterious the person of Elizabeth Siddal actually is. Who was she really? How little we know of her and how the rest is painted in our imaginations. When I first read about her years ago, I was met with a very idealised image of a beautiful, quiet and melancholy young woman who modeled for the Pre-Raphaelites, used laudanum and was plagued with sadness and Rossetti’s infidelities; she seemed almost like a martyr, the one who suffered, the one who was tormented. I think part of it was true, she was a struggling working class girl who wanted more from life, materially and spiritually; she wanted to rise above the circumstance that she was born into, she wanted to learn and grow intellectually, but also she wanted a finer, more comfortable life; “a servant to lay the fire in the morning, theater tickets, a paisley shawl.” (Gay Daly, Pre-Raphaelites in Love)

The promises that Rossetti gave, he did not fulfill; he was impulsive, careless with money, had a wandering eye and was strangely very hesitant to marry her, and it is easy to understand why it brought her so much anguish, especially in the Victorian era when her status of artist’s model and a lover closed many doors for her and gave her an unenviable place in society. Artistically, she was always in Rossetti’s shadow and she could never have dreamed that her paintings of her poems would be as appreciated as his were. All these things indeed make her a sufferer, but I feel like there is another side of her that no one tends to talk about, for it would ruin her untainted image of a martyr and an angel. She may be a mysterious muse, but she is not a perfect one for sure.

Regina Cordium – Rossetti’s Marriage portrait of Elizabeth Siddal, 1860

Blinded by her beauty; her long coppery red hair, pale complexion, fragile frame, and eyes that changed colour from green to grey, Rossetti was bewitched at first sight by this strange girl who worked in a hat shop. She was equally charmed, but as ideal the start of their relationship was, its course was a turbulent one with lots of drama, anger, tears and manipulation. Lizzie was known for her frail health, but it is very interesting how her health changed according to the occasion. She could feel perfectly well in the morning, but as soon as Rossetti was getting ready to head into town, hang out with other people, she would suddenly feel unwell and if she would get him to stay at home that day, her health was fine.

She was emotionally manipulative without a doubt and, to me, she seems like a very moody and miserable woman and I am not surprised that Rossetti would want to go out and spend time with merrier, more carefree women. In her book “Lizzie Siddal: The Tragedy of a Pre-Raphaelite Supermodel” Lucinda Hawksley writes that “both shared a destructively jealous need to be the most important figure in their – or, indeed, any relationship.” And also: “When one – or both – of them was unhappy, ill, depressed or jealous, they made one another’s lives hellish. (…) Self-destructive and self-loathing at times, as well as being arrogant about their abilities, both must have been extremely difficult to live with.” She was happy at the beginning of their relationship, in times when Ophelia was painted but as their life went on, she started using her frail health as a way of getting things she wanted, mostly from Rossetti but also from other people. Again, here is an interesting passage from Lucinda Hawksley’s book: “It is interesting to see how often Lizzie’s health coincided with Rossetti’s affections being taken up by other woman. By his refusal to marry her, Rossetti had forced her to blackmail him emotionally and she used every opportunity to do so. At the start of their relationship it seems the balance of power was very much in his favour as she struggled to prevent him from tiring of her, but by the end of her life she had become overtly manipulative and controlling, to the point that his friends claimed he shrank when she spoke to him, always expecting a rebuke or for her to sink dangerously into illness, blaming him wordlessly for its onslaught.

As if her “illnesses” weren’t enough, Lizzie would stop eating to get her point across, or sink into periods of depression and self-loathing. Mrs Siddal was also known for being aloof and quiet when in company with other people, and I can well understand that because I am somewhat similar, but I think it was just a means for her to show her disdain and disinterest, and to emphasise the mysteriousness about her that she loved nurturing. She was known for petty jealousies and acted as if she were better than other working class models who might have been prostitutes also, for example Hunt’s model Annie Miller.

John Everett Millias, Ophelia, 1852

With all that said, I will also add that I love Lizzie and I am not being hateful here, I am in fact endlessly captivated by her short tragical life, her mysteriousness, and her connection to the Pre-Raphaelites. I love her poetry and empathise with her verses. But I have to say that she is no angel and I hate people idealising her while at the same time bashing on Rossetti for being this or that. She was manipulative, jealous, strategically ill when necessary, miserable, depressed, perhaps impossible to satisfy at times, and I don’t see why that is not mentioned so often. She was an artist’s muse and a model, that position alone ought to have made her feel like she were the luckiest girl in the world. Just think of Poe’s submissive little wife Virginia and her perfect adoration for the doomed poet. I think Lizzie didn’t need an ancient curse like the Lady of Shalott to bring her death because Lizzie seems capable enough of bringing her own doom.

Now, I don’t want to judge her harshly because I have not met her, but no matter how much I read about her, I am still left with a feeling of mysteriousness. All the words said are not her own, comments from observers are still not her own. We can never know what was truly in her heart, though maybe her poems are a good clue, being so direct and so melancholy. I wonder, were her manipulative ways a character trait or just a way of getting even with Rossetti. Why was she so miserable and what could have stopped that? I honestly can’t imagine her ever being perfectly happy. I think of her often, and yet she is still mysterious to me. Maybe one night, in a dream, I will meet her and find out all that I was curious about.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Portrait of Elizabeth Siddal, c. 1860

And for the end, here is one of her poems which I love:

Worn Out

Thy strong arms are around me, love

My head is on thy breast;

Low words of comfort come from thee

Yet my soul has no rest.

 

For I am but a startled thing

Nor can I ever be

Aught save a bird whose broken wing

Must fly away from thee.

 

I cannot give to thee the love

I gave so long ago,

The love that turned and struck me down

Amid the blinding snow.

 

I can but give a failing heart

And weary eyes of pain,

A faded mouth that cannot smile

And may not laugh again.

 

Yet keep thine arms around me, love,

Until I fall to sleep;

Then leave me, saying no goodbye

Lest I might wake, and weep.

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Sad veiled bride, please be happy…

23 May

“Sad veiled bride, please be happy
Handsome groom, give her room
Loud, loutish lover, treat her kindly
(Though she needs you
More than she loves you)”

(The Smiths, I know it’s over)

George Theodore Berthon, Portrait of Mrs. William Henry Boulton (Harriette), 1846

I can remember how good I felt inside
When the preacher said “Son, you may kiss the bride”
But as I leaned over to touch her pretty lips
I felt it all slip away through my fingertips

(Bruce Springsteen – Stolen Car)

The wedding day can be the happiest day of your life – or the most tragical one. That depends on many factors; whether a girl is marrying a prince or an ogre (no offense Shrek), whether her husband to be has a mad wife in the attic or not, whether his marriage is just a devise to rob you of your family inheritance. Nontheless, the image of a bride, let’s imagine a Victorian era bride, is always a charming one; dressed in white and covered with a veil, she might as well be a ghostly creature from another realm. So ethereal and eerie is the figure in white. Walking down the isle, veil covering her blushing cheeks, dressed in a white gown and looking splendid in all her virginal glory, sweetness, hopes, anticipation, all fill her fast beating heart. In a step or two, her destiny will be decided, her life changed forever… is she walking towards the altar or being led to the dungeons where her execution is to be held.

Queen Victoria set the standard for white wedding gowns in 1840 when she married Prince Albert, but that is not to say that white wedding dresses were not worn before; they were, but from that point on they became the statement. Her wedding day was an intensely happy event and she loved being married to Albert, but not every woman in Victorian era felt quite the same way, despite the idealisations we nowadays may have of their time and their lives, doting wife and angel in the house was often a bored and lonely woman. Let’s take Toulmouche’s painting “The Reluctant Bride” (below) as an example; just look at her face expression, she is absolutely not thrilled about it. Or Sophie of Württemberg (1818-1877), the Queen of Netherlands, who was buried in her wedding dress because she said that her life ended the day she got married.

Let’s take a look at Jane Eyre’s state of soul in chapter 36 after the secret was revealed:

Jane Eyre, who had been an ardent, expectant woman–almost a bride, was a cold, solitary girl again: her life was pale; her prospects were desolate. A Christmas frost had come at midsummer; a white December storm had whirled over June; ice glazed the ripe apples, drifts crushed the blowing roses; on hayfield and cornfield lay a frozen shroud:lanes which last night blushed full of flowers, today were pathless with untrodden snow; and the woods, which twelve hours since waved leafy and flagrant as groves between the tropics, now spread, waste, wild, and white as pine-forests in wintry Norway. I looked on my cherished wishes, yesterday so blooming and glowing…

Jane Eyre’s wedding was so short and hasty that she must have been thinking, again quoting The Smiths:

I know it’s over
And it never really began
But in my heart it was so real

Apart from the obvious contrast between joy and disappointment that a bride inevitably faces, the figure of a bride in white, an innocent pure maiden, can serve as a visual contrast to something darker in the story, for example: Jane Eyre meets her husband to be Mr Rochester’s real mad violent wife in the attic, or the young naive bride of Bluebeard, when left alone in his castle, discovered his dark, bloody and blood-chilling secrets; also Elizabeth in Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” who is strangled on her wedding night by the Monster that Doctor Frankenstein had created as a revenge to the Doctor who refused to make him a female companion.

And to end, here is perhaps the most eerie bride out of them all: Miss Havisham from Charles Dickens’s novel “Great Expectations”, a bride who is decaying and rotting under her silk and lace garments:

In an arm-chair, with an elbow resting on the table and her head leaning on that hand, sat the strangest lady I have ever seen, or shall ever see.

She was dressed in rich materials – satins, and lace, and silks – all of white. Her shoes were white. And she had a long white veil dependent from her hair, and she had bridal flowers in her hair, but her hair was white. Some bright jewels sparkled on her neck and on her hands, and some other jewels lay sparkling on the table. Dresses, less splendid than the dress she wore, and half-packed trunks, were scattered about. She had not quite finished dressing, for she had but one shoe on – the other was on the table near her hand – her veil was but half arranged, her watch and chain were not put on, and some lace for her bosom lay with those trinkets, and with her handkerchief, and gloves, and some flowers, and a prayer-book, all confusedly heaped about the looking-glass.

It was not in the first few moments that I saw all these things, though I saw more of them in the first moments than might be supposed. But, I saw that everything within my view which ought to be white, had been white long ago, and had lost its lustre, and was faded and yellow. I saw that the bride within the bridal dress had withered like the dress, and like the flowers, and had no brightness left but the brightness of her sunken eyes. I saw that the dress had been put upon the rounded figure of a young woman, and that the figure upon which it now hung loose, had shrunk to skin and bone. Once, I had been taken to see some ghastly waxwork at the Fair, representing I know not what impossible personage lying in state. Once, I had been taken to one of our old marsh churches to see a skeleton in the ashes of a rich dress, that had been dug out of a vault under the church pavement. Now, waxwork and skeleton seemed to have dark eyes that moved and looked at me. I should have cried out, if I could.

Auguste Toulmouche, The Reluctant Bride, 1866

Firs Zhuravlev, Before the wedding, 1874

Dante Gabriel Rossetti – Alas, So long!

12 May

Half-Italian and half-mad, the Pre-Rapahelite poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti was born on this day in 1828 in London, and here is one of his poems called “Alas, So Long!”. I felt the mood of John William Waterhouse’s painting “Miranda” carries the same melancholy mood of longing and hope.

John William Waterhouse, Miranda, 1875

Alas, So Long!

AH! dear one, we were young so long,
It seemed that youth would never go,
For skies and trees were ever in song
And water in singing flow
In the days we never again shall know.
Alas, so long!
Ah! then was it all Spring weather?
Nay, but we were young and together.
Ah! dear one, I’ve been old so long,
It seems that age is loth to part,
Though days and years have never a song,
And oh! have they still the art
That warmed the pulses of heart to heart?
Alas, so long!
Ah! then was it all Spring weather?
Nay, but we were young and together.
Ah! dear one, you’ve been dead so long,—
How long until we meet again,
Where hours may never lose their song
Nor flowers forget the rain
In glad noonlight that never shall wane?
Alas, so long!
Ah! shall it be then Spring weather,
And ah! shall we be young together?

William James Grant – The Bridge of Sighs

28 Apr

Mad from life’s history,
Glad to death’s mystery,
Swift to be hurl’d—
Anywhere, anywhere
Out of the world!

William James Grant, The Bridge of Sighs, mid 1850s, oil on panel, 5 inches in Diameter

If a woman succumbs to society’s condemnation and feels that she cannot live with herself and her shame any longer… then drowning in the Thames is the only option. This is exactly what is portrayed in Grant’s painting “The Bridge of Sighs”. Pale young woman was found drowned, washed on the shores of the Thames, just near the bridge but moments ago. And now the man who found her is holding her frail pale body in his arm and taking her out of the water. Colourful shawl and the white dress are heavy and wet, but not heavier then her heart must have been before she made this decision. Look how lifelessly her arm, head and hair are hanging. The sad heart beats no more. Here is what the same-named poem says of the moment:

Ere her limbs frigidly
Stiffen too rigidly,
Decently, kindly,
Smooth and compose them;
And her eyes, close them,
Staring so blindly!

The theme of a fallen woman was very popular in the Victorian era, especially in the 1850s and 1860s. All members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhod; Rossetti, Millais and Hunt explored the theme, each in his own way, and many other artists followed their example and painted a theme which included exposing the hypocrisy of the Victorian society. It was very easy to be a fallen woman in Victorian era: “Fallen” was therefore an umbrella term that was applied to a variety of women in a variety of settings: she may have been a woman who had had sex once or habitually outside the confines of marriage; a woman of a lower socio-economic class; a woman who had been raped or seduced by a male aggressor; a woman with a shady reputation; or a prostitute. Furthermore, prostitution was defined in a range of ways and the “reality was that hard economic times meant that for many women, prostitution was the only way to make ends meet. Many … were only transient fallen women, moving in and out of the profession (of prostitution) as family finances dictated.’(*)

So this woman wasn’t necessarily a prostitute, she could have also been a working class girl whose lover abandoned her. Or, she could have been a shop worker whose destitute situation compelled her, maybe even once, to prostitution. Once or ten times, she is fallen nonetheless and tainted in the eyes of the respectable world. This painting is the most recent example of this theme that I stumbled upon, and it instantly appealed to me. It’s apparently very small, just little less than 13 cm in diameter. The round shaped canvas with closely cropped figures of the woman’s poignantly painted dead body, two men, and the sinister bridge in the background, along with the frame inscribed with a stanza from Thomas Hood’s poem “The Bridge of Sighs” is just striking. All these artworks are poetic and empathetic views of a bleak theme, and that brings to my mind the kitchen sink drama films which I love so much. In such films, the protagonist is faced with a huge life dilemma. The theme was equally explored in Victorian era literature; we have Charles Dickens’s kind-hearted prostitutes and most importantly Thomas Hood’s poem “The Bridge of Sighs”, published in 1844. The poem tells a story of an anonymous young woman, desperate and abandoned by her lover, pregnant and thrown out of her home, who committed suicide by jumping of off a bridge. Here is the whole poem:

One more Unfortunate,
Weary of breath,
Rashly importunate,
Gone to her death!

Take her up tenderly,
Lift her with care;
Fashion’d so slenderly
Young, and so fair!

Look at her garments
Clinging like cerements;
Whilst the wave constantly
Drips from her clothing;
Take her up instantly,
Loving, not loathing.

Touch her not scornfully;
Think of her mournfully,
Gently and humanly;
Not of the stains of her,
All that remains of her
Now is pure womanly.

Make no deep scrutiny
Into her mutiny
Rash and undutiful:
Past all dishonour,
Death has left on her
Only the beautiful.

Still, for all slips of hers,
One of Eve’s family—
Wipe those poor lips of hers
Oozing so clammily.

Loop up her tresses
Escaped from the comb,
Her fair auburn tresses;
Whilst wonderment guesses
Where was her home?

Who was her father?
Who was her mother?
Had she a sister?
Had she a brother?
Or was there a dearer one
Still, and a nearer one
Yet, than all other?

Alas! for the rarity
Of Christian charity
Under the sun!
O, it was pitiful!
Near a whole city full,
Home she had none.

Sisterly, brotherly,
Fatherly, motherly
Feelings had changed:
Love, by harsh evidence,
Thrown from its eminence;
Even God’s providence
Seeming estranged.

Where the lamps quiver
So far in the river,
With many a light
From window and casement,
From garret to basement,
She stood, with amazement,
Houseless by night.

The bleak wind of March
Made her tremble and shiver;
But not the dark arch,
Or the black flowing river:
Mad from life’s history,
Glad to death’s mystery,
Swift to be hurl’d—
Anywhere, anywhere
Out of the world!

In she plunged boldly—
No matter how coldly
The rough river ran—
Over the brink of it,
Picture it—think of it,
Dissolute Man!
Lave in it, drink of it,
Then, if you can!

Take her up tenderly,
Lift her with care;
Fashion’d so slenderly,
Young, and so fair!

Ere her limbs frigidly
Stiffen too rigidly,
Decently, kindly,
Smooth and compose them;
And her eyes, close them,
Staring so blindly!

Dreadfully staring
Thro’ muddy impurity,
As when with the daring
Last look of despairing
Fix’d on futurity.

Perishing gloomily,
Spurr’d by contumely,
Cold inhumanity,
Burning insanity,
Into her rest.—
Cross her hands humbly
As if praying dumbly,
Over her breast!

Owning her weakness,
Her evil behaviour,
And leaving, with meekness,
Her sins to her Saviour!

John Roddam Spencer Stanhope: Thoughts of the Past

24 Apr

“Roxanne, you don’t have to wear that dress tonight, walk the streets for money, you don’t care if it’s wrong or if it’s right…” (The Police)

John Roddam Spencer Stanhope, Thoughts of the Past, 1859

A sad-eyed red haired young woman is standing by the window in her shabby room overlooking the harbour and the grey waters of the Thames. Space around her is dark and cluttered, and it’s hard to distinguish all the details. The window to her right is overlooking the dark murky waters of the Thames, but the colours and style of the painting might lead us to assume the window is overlooking the gloomy canals of Bruges; it has a touch of Northern Renaissance and especially Van Eyck’s tall lean figures in strange cluttered spaces. Stanhope actually painted this in the studio at Chatham Place by the Thames just bellow the studio where Rossetti and Elizabeth Siddal spent many happy hours in love. The woman’s face with those large very sad eyes and ruby red lips pressed together reveals her inner drama and tells us into her story. She is holding her long hair with her right hand, and she’s holding the brush in the left, but it’s looks more like she is clutching them both. There’s uneasiness about her gestures and face expression; one can sense something isn’t quite right. A cloud of heavy silence and the anticipation of the inevitable downfall hangs above the room.

This is Stanhope’s first exhibited painting and he is considered the second generation Pre-Raphaelite. The style, the theme and the mood of the painting are indeed very Pre-Raphaelite. Also, a typical Pre-Rapahelite painting with all its details and layers of symbolism allows us to read it almost like we would a book; gazing, investigating, and interpreting. A motif of a sad woman deep in her thoughts reminds of Millais’ Mariana although in that painting the inspiration was taken from Shakespeare’s work and in this painting by Stanhope the motif is taken directly from their day to day Victorian reality. This red-haired woman in the painting is a prostitute contemplating her life so far; reeking of sin and immorality, and feeling turmoil that seemingly has no answer. She is dressed in an informal clothes, there’s money and jewellery on her dressing table and in the lower left corner we see a man’s glove and a stick, part of it. The curtains are torn in one place, and the plant under the window looks sickly, striving for light and fresh air but never reaching it. The view from her window, looking on the dirty waters of the Thames indicate the only destiny suitable for a fallen woman such as herself: suicide by drowning. Living is no option because in the eyes of the respectable Victorian society, she is already tainted, and suicide would be the only path to redemption.

As you can see in the study bellow, Stanhope originally intended to paint the woman with eyes looking upwards, just like in Baroque painting of female saints. The model was Fanny Corthforth who was also Rossetti’s lover and, in 1858, also posed for his painting “Found”, another fallen-woman theme painting. As effective as that face expression is in some paintings, I am glad Stanhope discarded the idea because it can seem overly sentimental, even pathetic. Instead, he portrayed her gazing straight at us and by doing that he involved us, the viewer, and drew us into her world of indecision, moral quandary and despair. I think it also brought the fallen woman and her problem down to an earthly realm; her gaze condemns society she lives in here on earth, instead of seeking help from the heavens above. It isn’t God who judges her, it’s society. Her struggles are much more than sugary sentimentalism that Victorians loved.

A study for the painting

Lord Tennyson: February fair-maid – The Snowdrop

27 Feb

A little poem by the Victorian poet Lord Tennyson about a snowdrop, one of the first spring flowers. He called this delicate white flower “a February fair-maid” and I thought it was unbelievably romantic and sweet to think of her in that way. A silent and fair maid dressed in white whose arrival in the gardens, woods and meadows signifies the end of winter and the warmer, brighter days, as Tennyson put it “May time and time of roses”. Truly, when I see snowdrops, and I saw some last week for the first time this season, it fills my heart with mad blind hope. I know that spring will come and that soon I will see the cherry blossoms in bloom and thread my way through the meadows while the sweet gentle sun of March kisses my face. Let us not forget the Snowdrop’s dear friends, shout out to yellow primroses and crocuses whose silken gowns come in all three colours; purple, yellow and white.

Photo by Michelle De Rose, Waiting.

The Snowdrop

Many, many welcomes,
February fair-maid!
Ever as of old time,
Solitary firstling,
Coming in the cold time,
Prophet of the gay time,
Prophet of the May time,
Prophet of the roses,
Many, many welcomes,
February fair-maid!

If I might see another spring… by Christina Rossetti

19 Feb

A poem by Christina Rossetti called “Another Spring”.

John Everett Millais, Spring (Apple Blossoms), 1859

Another Spring

If I might see another Spring

I’d not plant summer flowers and wait:

I’d have my crocuses at once,

My leafless pink mezereons,

My chill-veined snowdrops, choicer yet

My white or azure violet,

Leaf-nested primrose; anything

To blow at once, not late.

William Henry Hunt, Primroses and Bird’s Nest

If I might see another Spring

I’d listen to the daylight birds

That build their nests and pair and sing,

Nor wait for mateless nightingale;

I’d listen to the lusty herds,

The ewes with lambs as white as snow,

I’d find out music in the hail

And all the winds that blow.

Shadow from tree on grass with crocus in spring by Radius Images

If I might see another Spring —

Oh stinging comment on my past

That all my past results in ‘if’ —

If I might see another Spring

I’d laugh today, today is brief;

I would not wait for anything:

I’d use today that cannot last,

Be glad today and sing.