Art in August, and learning about Lizzie Siddal

**SPOILER ALERT*** I have put all of the Pre-Raphaelite works at the end of this post, after the Lizzie Siddal links, so for those who may want the same experience as I had, discovering the paintings and their size in person- don’t scroll past the links.

Oh, hello August!  What better way to start a month than staying home, knitting, and watching TV.  Am I right?  But on day 2, it was time to motivate myself and leave the flat. I went to google maps, typed in “London free museums” and just picked a place!  That place? The Tate Britain.  The entry had a cool foam art piece that is constantly changing, and a beautiful neon light installation. 

I sat on the floor in the hall for 10 minutes or so and looked at the neon piece; eventually, patterns and repeated pieces started to emerge.  The pictures, of course, don’t do it justice, though they do make it look like someone drew on a photo in white pen!  The piece is installed across 3 halls. The main piece is at the end, and the large multi-ring circle and starburst shapes are in the middle hall, then there is a much smaller, single ring where the piece begins.  I backed up until I could line up the 2 central circles- very cool to see though it may be hard to distinguish in the pictures.

But- the best part? The Pre-Raphaelites.  John William Waterhouse’s 1888 The Lady of Shalott and Sir John Everett Millais’ 1851 Ophelia stopped me in my tracks. In university, I studied Shakespeare and Tennyson’s The Lady of Shalott.  We often looked at paintings that went with the work; and there was such a connection between the art of the Pre-Raphaelites and Victorian literature; so much so that they are intertwined in my memories of university.  Seeing these paintings in front of me, mere feet away, was so moving.  I was so full of joy and surprise and feeling so connected that I almost cried in the gallery! I can’t quite describe how it felt to stand there, taking in the size and colours and extraordinary level of detail. Okay- so I could uselessly gush paragraph after paragraph but instead I’ll tell you a story.

Featured in Millais’ Ophelia and in many of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s paintings is Rossetti’s famous muse, Lizzie Siddal.  With her fiery red hair, delicate features and idyllic alabaster complexion, she is sometimes referred to as the first supermodel.  Though many art fans might recognize her, her own story can sometimes be overlooked as she was an artist in her own right.  She was a poet,  whose work was purchased by John Ruskin in 1855.  A couple of years later, some of her artwork appeared in an exhibition in Marylebone where she was reportedly the only female artist whose work was featured.

Born in July of 1829 in London, Elizabeth Eleanor Siddal and her family soon moved to Southwark (which is where I live! Love the history of my borough!). As a young woman, she worked in a hat shop and was ‘discovered’ by Twelfth Night artist Walter Deverell.  Very soon after, at the age of 19, she met Rossetti.  She became his muse, and the muse of many of the artists of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, but Rossetti didn’t like her sitting for other artists and so not long after posing for Ophelia, she agreed (willingly or not, I’ve not been able to ascertain). 

There is a persisting rumour (even told to me by a gallery volunteer) that Lizzie died as a result of posing for Millais’ Ophelia in a cold tub for several days- but although there is record of her being in ill health at that time, she lived well beyond this incident.  In fact, about 8 years later, in 1860, Siddal and Rossetti married.

I have read conflicting stories around her death: that she had a miscarriage from some sources, and from others that she gave birth to a stillborn baby girl.  Regardless, her grief, alongside coping with depression and suspecting Rossetti of having an affair with Fanny Cornforth (a prostitute, and another of Rossetti’s muses) were a recipe for disaster.  She was heavily using laudanum, and Rossetti knew it, but friends and neighbours reported that they seemed ‘comfortable’ and happy together.  Siddal overdosed on laudanum and died in February 1862. 

In the inquest following her death, Rossetti reported that “she ha[d] taken 100 drops” and that “she was in the habit of taking large doses of laudanum.”  He said that he had gone out the evening of her death, and that when he returned a couple of hours later, she was alive but unconscious with an empty vial on her bedside table. (Courtesy of, and more to be found, at LizzieSiddal.com). 

On the topic of the affair- I don’t think she was wrong: Cornforth moved in with Rossetti very soon after Lizzie’s death.  Interestingly though, despite modelling for about 5 dozen of his paintings, in at least one Cornforth is painted with deep copper hair despite her own hair being golden blonde.  When she later gained weight, he tired of her as mistress and she became his housekeeper until his death. But, I digress.

For more about Lizzie Siddal:

LizzieSiddal.com (unnamed author, edited by Stephanie Graham Pina) 2004-2015

And both her artwork and art where she featured:

Tate artists focus

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Rossetti all around me! It was heavenly!

 

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Ophelia- so much larger, brighter, and more detailed in person than I imagined!

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Even the frames are works of art!

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The Lady of Shalott! I almost cried. There are so many details that I saw that I had never noticed in print. The real painting has so much energy and emotion- there is no replacement for seeing beautiful art in person.

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