Tag Archives: Victorian era

Henry Peach Robinson – Fading Away

28 Apr

The death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world.

(Edgar Allan Poe)

Henry Peach Robinson, Fading Away, 1858

I found myself thinking about death these days, and naturally the first things that came to my mind were the poems, the paintings and this Victorian era photograph taken by Henry Peach Robinson in 1858. “Fading Away” is a very romantical and elegantly sad photograph which shows a pale and frail young girl dying from consumption, or perhaps from a broken heart. She is surrounded by her a family members, all of which play a different role in the composition of the photograph and also in expressing emotion. The male figure, presumably the father, turned his back towards the girl, unable to face the painful truth; death of his beloved daughter. Perhaps he is trying to suppress his tears, and perhaps he feels powerless because he failed to protect her from the ultimate enemy: death.  This photograph perfectly encapsulated the morbidly romantical fascination with death which came to define the Victorian era. For modern viewers the aesthetic conveyed is very Victorian, but the Victorians felt very differently about Robinson’s photograph. It received mixed reviews from the public; some found it shocking that the photographer would invade such an intimate, private moment. The Victorians knew the distinction between the private life and the outside world. And also, the photograph is actually an early example of photomontage and Robinson. was a pioneer of that. I am as shocked as the Victorians were because the final result is so realistic and I would never have assumed that these individuals weren’t in the same room at the same moment together.

Poets of Romanticism expressed an inexplicable longing for death because every day life, with its struggles and ugliness, was far from their ideal of Beauty. “Transient pleasures as a vision seem, and yet we think the greatest pain’s do die”, wrote John Keats in his poem “On Death”. Percy Bysshe Shelley was equally dramatic, utterly obsessed with death, he saw it as the state of ultimate happiness and perfection. The Victorian era romanticised death, especially the slow, staged, almost theatre-like moment of death. And what actress to play the role of a person soon to be departed than a beautiful, pale, virginal girl who had tasted none of life’s sweetness and joys and already at such a tender age death was to take her away. It’s like a rose forever preserved in its loveliest stage of bud! Never blooming fully, and thus never withering either. Poe was right: death of a young girl is indeed the most beautiful topic for art. And here is John Keats’ poem “On Death” written in 1814 in a letter to his brother Thomas who was, just like the poor girl in the photograph, suffering from consumption which would ultimately be Keats’s end as well:

On Death

Can death be sleep, when life is but a dream,
And scenes of bliss pass as a phantom by?
The transient pleasures as a vision seem,
And yet we think the greatest pain’s to die.

How strange it is that man on earth should roam,
And lead a life of woe, but not forsake
His rugged path; nor dare he view alone
His future doom which is but to awake.

Henry Peach Robinson, She Never Told Her Love, 1857

“She never told her love,

But let concealment,

like a worm i’ the bud,

Feed on her damask cheek”

(Shakespeare, Twelfth Night II,iv,111-13)

Robinson’s photograph “She Never Told Her Love”, taken in 1857, served as a study for the girl in “Fading Away”. Resting on soft big pillow, the girl truly does appear to be fading away. Her hair is spread on the pillow, her hands clasped on her lap, her lips ever so softly parted. This study’s focus is on the girl, she is alone in her pictorial space, alone with her woe, illness and that poor broken heart. In “Fading Away” she is surrounded by family, and even though the study has the intimacy of the girl alone, I feel like the characters add to the drama and the story behind the photograph.

It is interesting to think of the way poets and artists of Romanticism and the Victorians saw death, and how our culture sees it. The Victorian era attitude towards death is seen as “morbid” nowadays and I don’t quite see why. Every living thing on earth is bound to die one day, so why is death such a taboo topic, such a shocking morbid “Gothic” thing? It seems like everything is so sugarcoated nowadays; idealised, filtered, posed, set-up, and artificial and hence such a pure, dark truth such as death is hard to digest. Death comes without invitations, it cannot be ignored, postponed, sugarcoated, it changes everything, it is beyond our control. Perhaps we are too entitled today and we subconsciously feel that, along with our generally good standard of living (at least in the Western countries), immortality is also our god-given right, and it isn’t. Can’t we go back to times when death was romanticised and one could truly die of a broken heart!? I feel like I can relate to Romantic visions of the death much more, and also this beautiful poem “Goodbye, my friend, goodbye” by the Russian poet Sergei Yesenin (1895-1925) who ended his life not by consumption or broken heart, but by suicide:

Goodbye, my friend, goodbye
My love, you are in my heart.
It was preordained we should part
And be reunited by and by.

Goodbye: no handshake to endure.
Let’s have no sadness — furrowed brow.
There’s nothing new in dying now
Though living is no newer.

The poem was written in the poet’s own blood and found in the hotel room where he had committed suicide. Still, despite the tragical ending, the poem carries a seed of hope, like a silver dandelion seed floating aimlessly in the wind, because dying is nothing new and living no newer, and the sad parting brings reunion, and could there be a more hopeful thought? Death is not the end, not the end…

John William Waterhouse – The Naiad

3 Apr

Wonderful and well-loved painter of dream-like mythology scenes, John William Waterhouse was born on 6th April 1849 in Rome. So his birthday is coming up in a few days and I think his paintings with nymphs and enchanting woodlands are perfect scenes to gaze at in these times of spring’s awakening.

John William Waterhouse, The Naiad (Hylas with a Nymph), 1893

A nymph gazes wistfully at a handsome sleeping lad. “How handsome he is!”, she must be thinking, and what thoughts arise in her mischievous naiad mind as she gazes at his slumbering body covered only with a patch of animal skin… Drops of water are dripping from her long weed-like hair and rippling in the river, a twig snaps in her hand, she holds her breath, but alas the young slumbering lad awakes! Dazed and confused, he rises his body and sees the beautiful naiad, her naked body as pure, white and alluring as a lily flower in moonlight. I hear Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun coming from afar, every leaf, every moss and every blade of grass are echoing the sounds and bringing it closer, it flies through the air, the enchanting melody which sings of awakening. Two hearts beating loudly in the loneliness of the woods. Doomed is the moment when Hylas awoke and saw this naiad, this child of nature and sweet water nymph with ruby lips and wistful gaze.

Waterhouse’s depictions of mythology scenes are very dreamy and romantical, but at the same time they are incredibly realistic because they perfectly convey the mysterious and magical mood of nature. Just look at the dense row of thin trees of very soothing brown bark, grass and the billowing river, painted in soft blue zig zag brushstrokes, which gives the painting a sense of depth and seems to reflect the sky. It doesn’t look as idealised or grandiosely beautiful as J.M.W. Turner or Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s paintings do, no, the way Waterhouse paints nature as a setting for his romanticised mythological scenes is realistic enough to make you believe that when you go for a stroll in the woods or sit by a lake that you could actually encounter a nymph or step into the world of dreams. I never actually saw a satyr or a nymph in the woods, but I know that it was a case of bad timing, different schedules, you know how it is in life.

John William Waterhouse, Hylas and the Nymphs, 1896

Painting “The Naiad”, painted in 1893, is like a prelude to the more famous one “Hylas and the Nymphs” painted a few years later, in 1896. Hylas was asleep. Hylas awoke, the nymphs wanted him and the nymphs got him. How magnetically handsome he is, they sigh… Their hearts ache with a desire to draw him deep into the moist depths of their lake, deep under the water lilies and those big flat floating leaves which serve as beds to water lilies.

Nymphs are female creatures in Greek and Latin mythology. They are usually depicted as beautiful and fatal maidens who love to sing, dance and hang out with satyrs in forest groves and lakes. They are also notorious for being naughty as one can see in the story with Hylas. They represent power of nature. Name “nymph” comes from Greek word “nymphē” which means “bride” and “veiled”, referring to a marriageable young woman. One of the meaning is a “rose-bud”, perhaps indicating the beauty all the nymphs possess. By choosing nymphs as subjects and portraying this tragic story of love, seduction and doom, Waterhouse fully expressed his romantic sensibility, and revealed his fascination with strong and beautiful female figures. Nymphs are presented as sweet and alluring, and Hylas is powerless against their charms.

John Anster Fitzgerald – Fairies and Victorian Escapism

12 Mar

It turns out that escaping reality and harsh truths of it is not a new phenomenon at all; it is as old as society itself but no one escaped the grim, gruesome and gray daily life in a more imaginative, whimsical and colourful way than Victorians and they sure had a lot to escape from.

John Anster Fitzgerald, Fairy Hordes Attacking a Bat, c 1860

Fairy art in the Victorian era developed directly as a result of all the realism that was going on at the time; Industrialisation, child labour, poor living conditions, poverty and prostitution, Positivism, science and Darwinian theories, invention of photography, add to all that the climate of restrictions and (fake) morality and it was just too much for any normal individual to process. Jeremy Mass, the author of the book “Victorian Fairy Painting” (1997) recognised the genre as being reactionary rather than revolutionary. “No other type of painting concentrates so many of the opposing elements of the Victorian psyche: the desire to escape the drear hardships of daily existence; the stirrings of new attitudes toward sex, stifled by religious dogma; a passion for the unseen; the birth of psychoanalysis; the latent revulsion against the exactitude of the new invention of photography.” Dionysian energies need an outlet, and too much Apollonian clarity and ratio cripples the imagination. The sea of reason and harsh truths was overwhelming and the imagination had to find its way in the arts and in people’s life. Dreams, laudanum, local legends and mythology, Shakespeare, and Victorian fairy scenes were born.

While writers such as Charles Dickens chose to write about the horrible conditions, thieves, orphans and the poor, other artists chose to dip their quills and brushes into the colour of fairies and dreams and see where this new genre can take them. Through the fairy and fantasy genre they could express the inexpressible; a fairy isn’t a woman so a nude fairy in a painting isn’t really a nude, as is the case with Paton’s painting “The Quarrel of Titania and Oberon” (1849) that Queen Victoria loved and admired. John Anster Fitzgerald, mostly self-taught and no stranger to opium dens, was one such artist who provided an escape for Victorians through his whimsical paintings filled with strange looking and often grotesque tiny creatures, half-mythical half-imaginary, birds, bats, fairies and flowers. These paintings, full of details and painted in vibrant colours, appear very innocent and childlike at first glance, but their whimsicality was fueled by laudanum and chloral; Victorian drugs of the moment. He was also known as “Fairy Fitzgerald” to his friends because he painted the fairy world so obsessively, and in my opinion, the most beautifully. I prefer his work over the similar works made by other fairy painters who created at the same time such as Richard Dadd and Sir Joseph Noel Paton. Sometimes the titles of Fitzgerald’s paintings alone give me a thrill, “Fairy Hordes Attacking a Bat”, for example.

John Anster Fitzgerald (1819-1906), The Stuff Dreams are Made of, 1864

In Fairy Fitzgerald’s paintings, flowers, leaves and mushrooms seem large in comparison with the small fairies who bodies have luminous glow and strange attire. Dense with details and rich with colour, these paintings were really made to be gazed at for a long time, preferably right before bedtime so all these cheerful and surreal scenes can blend into ones dreams just like in the painting bellow called “The Stuff Dreams are Made of” where the sleeping girl is dreaming of her real or imagined beloved but all of a sudden these strange creatures crash the dream like uninvited party guests. The also surround her bed and play all sorts of instruments, but her rosy cheeks and closed eyes speak of undisturbed sleep.

In another painting, “Nightmare”, a similar young Victorian girl is having a nightmare, tossing and turning in her bed all because the strange beings from the fairy lands have visited her sleep, which brings to mind Fusseli’s The Nightmare painted in times when the Gothic wave swept European art in the last quarter of eighteenth century. In yet another painting, “The Artist’s Dream”, now it is the artist himself who is having strange dreams whilst dreaming about a painting a portrait. Dreams and reality mingle in these artworks and the fantasy finds a way to enter the everyday life, no matter how narrow the path for dream may be. These dream-works are often seen as portrayals of his laudanum-induced hallucinations and they just might be that, but how fun to imagine that these things go on while we are asleep.

These paintings were made to be gazed at and daydreaming over so tune in to these vibrant sparkling colours and drop out of the boring real world.

John Anster Fitzgerald (1819-1906), Nightmare, c 1860s

John Anster Christian Fitzgerald, The Intruder, 1865

John Anster Christian Fitzgerald, The Artist’s Dream, 1857

John Anster Fitzgerald, The Captive Robin, 1864

 

John Anster Fitzgerald, The Fairy’s Lake, c. 1866

John Anster Fitzgerald, The Faerie’s Funeral, 1860

John Anster Fitzgerald, In Fairy Land, date unknown

John Anster Fitzgerald, Fairy Lovers in a Bird’s Nest watching a White Mouse, 1860s

John Anster Fitzgerald, The Marriage of Oberon and Titania, unknown date

John Anster Christian Fitzgerald, The Concert, c 1860s

John Anster Fitzgerald, Fairies in a bird’s nest, 1860

Costume Sketches for The Young Victoria (2009)

26 Dec

I love period dramas and I love costumes in them! In fact, I love to gaze and admire the costumes so much that sometimes I don’t even care for the film itself; if the costumes are an eye-candy, I will probably enjoy the film as well. Aesthetic is everything. So, maybe I am not the best judge of a particular film itself, but I think it doesn’t take a genius to see that the costumes for the film “The Young Victoria” (2009) are gorgeous! The costume designer Sandy Powell won an Oscar for the costumes she designed for this film and today I wanted to share some of her, seems to be, watercolour sketches which look so vibrant and playful, and more free-flowing and sketchy than a Victorian era fashion plate would be. The film follows Victoria, played by Emily Blunt, from the times she was a Princess Victoria, through her coronation, falling in love with Albert, their marriage and ends with the birth of her first child, daughter Victoria in 1840. The time period is short, covering the 1830s and 1840, but fashion-wise subtle changes can definitely be felt, from puffy 1830s sleeves to simpler 1840s styles which I love very much.

Here is what Powell says about the process of finding inspiration and research for the costumes: “There are a lot of royal portraits of Victoria and the family, so obviously, we started with that. And written material, including her own diaries. She was very specific about her clothing and would describe in great detail what she was wearing and what she did that day, so that was very useful. And after that, I went to Kensington Palace, where there is a museum, and also some of her original pieces of clothing are archived there. We had access to look at those.” And also she emphasised the point of how simple the 1840s fashion actually is: “With the women’s clothes, I don’t think that they are complex. I think they’re quite simple for this period. The most important thing is the undergarment. A woman will have a corset and petticoats on, and that creates the silhouette — the base on top of which the dresses will go. The dresses themselves are very light. They’re made of fine fabrics– silk, mostly — and they just pop over the top of the underwear that’s already created your foundation. So in a way, once an actor has her underwear on, it becomes a question of putting another dress over it.” You can read the entire interview here. Ahhh, to be clad in those long silk gowns, with flowers in my hair, wander the lonely and cold corridors of my palace, only in a dream!

Marie Spartali Stillman – Brewing The Love Philtre

3 Nov

Marie Spartali Stillman, Pharmakeutria (Brewing The Love Philtre), 1870

Samhain may be over and we have entered the dark part of the year, but that doesn’t mean that we cannot find beauty, love and magic in the days of darkness; death of nature need not signify soul’s slumber. And do not assume that witches are on holiday now. Nay, they are as busy as ever, preparing the love potions, jotting down new magic spells, singing and selling their new books, flying on brooms, you know, the normal stuff. And here we have two witches-wanna be ladies who are brewing a love potion for some dashing haughty man out there who just refuses to return their affections. It is the dusk of the day; an owl is heard and November’s soft pinky fog is slowly descending. Tired forlorn sunflowers are blooming sweetly. The branches on the trees are bare, but there are some red leaves left, giving the tree trunk a soft autumnal embrace and shielding the bark from the cold winds of change.

Hidden behind the tree and the bushes, two ladies clad in long heavy purple and orange gowns are brewing the love potion in a little cauldron over some playful flames. Still and captured in the moment, the lady in orange had just opened the bottle of wine. The lady in purple seems to be asking “More wine? Are you sure we need more wine?” – “Why, yes, a few more drops”, the lady in orange replies. “Let me see what the book says.” An open book of magic spells lies open next to the lady in purple. The recipe says for a love potion one needs some sweet red wine, fresh basil leaves, red rose petals, cloves, apple seeds, three tears from the lovelorn maiden, a dried carnation, a dash of apple juice, some rosemary and thyme… So, why not, let us add more of this sweet red wine! Bur hurry, my dearest, for the night is approaching and soon the dusk’s pink veil will turn into the dark blue cloth of midnight and only our eyes, shining with yearning, and the flames of the fire will shine. The owl will tell us the time. The potion is brewing and the ladies are singing a soft song to pass by the time…

“Let the one who drinks this wine,
Shower me with love divine…” (*)

Marie Spartali Stillman as Memory (Mother of the Muses), by Julia Margaret Cameron, September 1868

Marie Spartali Stillman was one of the rare females in the Pre-Raphaelite circle who had established an art career for herself and who remained known as an artist in her own right, and not just a muse and a model, although she was a model as well. She was prolific and talented and, unlike Elizabeth Siddal whose art career was cut short by her laudanum overdose and we are left wondering what she could have accomplished, Marie left many beautiful vibrant and exuberant oil on canvases for posterity. This Grecian goddess in Victorian London quickly caught the eye of the writers and artists of the day, such as Swinburne, Whistler and Ford Maddox Brown, and she became Brown’s pupil in. In 1870, the year this painting was painted, Stillman exhibited in the Royal Academy in London for the first time. Becoming an artist or at least being in some way connected to the world of art almost seems like the most natural step to take for Marie because she grew up in an affluent family who praised the arts and was acquainted with people from the art world. Her father, Michael Spartali, was a wealthy merchant who moved from Greece to England in 1828, and her mother, Euphrosyne, known as Effie, was a daughter of a Greek merchant from Genoa. On one occasion, on a party of another Greek businessman, Marie met the poet and playwright Swinburne who was so overwhelmed with emotions upon meeting her, almost bewitched one might say, that he later said for Marie “She is so beautiful that I want to sit down and cry”.

Marie Spartali Stillman, by Julia Margaret Cameron, 1868

And of course, since this is the middle of the Victorian era, we are talking about the Pre-Raphaelite circles; if there is a beautiful young woman then Dante Gabriel Rossetti must also be involved in the story. And so he was. Very soon after Marie started taking drawing lessons from Ford Maddox Brown, Rossetti heard about this exotic Greek beauty and wrote to Brown on the 29th April 1867 saying: “I just hear Miss Spartali is to be your pupil. I hear too that she is one and the same with a marvellous beauty of whom I have heard much talk. So box her up and don’t let fellows see her, as I mean to have first shy at her in the way of sitting.” Marie indeed sat for Rossetti very soon but her head proved to be a hard one for portraying, as Dante had confessed later in a letter to Jane Morris. Still, the tall, melancholy, serious exotic Marie does seem to have the kind of beauty that Rossetti would appreciate; long necked, tall and regal, with a mass of long thick hair, pouting lips.

Arthur Hughes – April Love

26 Aug

Let’s take a look at some very romantical paintings by a Pre-Raphaelite painter Arthur Hughes.

Arthur Hughes, April Love, 1855-56

On 19th May 1855, Edward Burne-Jones, English painter associated with the later phase of the Pre-Raphaelite Movement, took his beloved girl Georgiana “Georgie” MacDonald to the Royal Academy Exhibition and proposed marriage to her in front of the painting “April Love” by Arthur Hughes. What a romantical gesture!? I have always been fond of this painting because of its dreamy and romantic mood and the gorgeous indigo-purple dress that the girl is wearing. Purple dresses are somewhat rare in art history, and interestingly Arthur Hughes’s canvases are full of them. Sweet and wistful coppery-haired maidens in purple gowns, against a background of lush green nature. Very romantic and very Pre-Raphaelite. Hughes is famous for making paintings of lovers, influenced by a painting that he himself admired, “The Huguenot” by John Everett Millais, but he is also somewhat ignored, perhaps because his life wasn’t rife with scandals, lovers or travels to exotic places. He led a quiet, but joyous and serene life with his wife Tryphena Foord ‘his early and only love’ and they married in 1855, so around the time “April Love” was painted.

Arthur Hughes, Study for April Love, 1855

It’s interesting to note that Arthur Hughes’ own love life was happy and seemingly ideal, and yet the romantic scenes on his canvases are tinged with melancholy and unrequited feelings; transient nature of love and life are in opposition with the lasting character of nature, old oak trees and ivy with its steady and persistent growth are in contrast with the changing nature of human feelings. Maybe in his real life, love was as strong as an oak trees and could resist winds and storms, but in the gentle, dreamy and wistful world of his paintings, love is a light pink rose whose delicate petals are easily scattered by a gentle breeze, as we can see in the bottom left part of the painting “April Love” where a girl is standing by an ivy-overgrown tree trunk and looking down in disappointment and sadness, while a gentleman whose head is hard to even notice on canvas is kissing her hand and perhaps reassuring her that she is wrong in her doubts and that he does love her. The model for the lad was the sculptor Alexander Munro who shared a studio with Hughes from 1852 to 1858, and the model for the girl was originally a girl from the countryside who refused to pose for Hughes after she saw the way he had drawn her. Hughes then used his wife as a model and it is her face that we see on the canvas, so gentle and so suitable for a romantic scene. The painting was exhibited in 1856 and accompanied with these verses from Lord Tennyson’s poem “The Miller’s Daughter”:

Love is hurt with jar and fret,
Love is made a vague regret,
Eyes with idle tears are set,
Idle habit links us yet;
What is Love? For we forget.
Ah no, no.

Arthur Hughes, Amy, 1853-59

Arthur Hughes was not an official member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, but his paintings clearly exhibit the Pre-Raphaelite style and preference of themes. Another painting, “Amy”, is also a beautiful example of Hughes’ use and choice of colours; how radiant and vivacious is the purple of her dress?! Especially in the contrast with the many shades of green of the ivy, moss and fern all around her. The rosy-cheeked Amy with a flower in her hair could be mistaken for a forest fairy. Her eyes are worryingly set on the name “Amy” freshly carved on the tree trunk. Youthful love is fragile and somewhere deep in her heart she can sense it. In a follow-up painting “Long Engagement” we see the same girl, this time with a far sadder look on her face, disappointment and pleading are in her gaze. His eyes are directed somewhere else, perhaps he doesn’t have the heart to break hers and shatter her hopes, or there is reluctance which keeps him from fulfilling his promise. Meanwhile, the carved name on the tree trunk is getting more and more overgrown with ivy. Ferns and moss have grown in abundance, and white roses with their thorny stems have started to smother the paths of the forest. The lovers’ love is lulled to everlasting sleep. Despite the sad element of Hughes’ paintings, they are still a definite proof that broodiness and melancholy are cool, and happiness is not. Also, it’s interesting to note that the couple mentioned in the beginning, Edward Burne-Jones and Georgie, also had a long engagement which made Georgie’s heart ache, but in 1860 they finally married, and luckily avoided the fate of the couple bellow.

Arthur Hughes, Long Engagement, 1859

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.