Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Victorian Fairy Painting

The often grim reality of Victorian life induced in many the desire for escapism.

Whereas wealthy industrialists who made their money in the exploitation of children in the cotton mills of the North-West sought to escape the harsh environment of their own making in portraits of a past rural idyll which likely never existed, middle class professionals drew comfort from the death that pervaded every household and the poverty that lay beyond their doorstep in fairies.

Artists such as John Anster Fitzgerald, Joseph Noel Paxton, and Richard Dadd who was at his most creative whilst an inmate at the Bethlehem Psychiatric Hospital where he had been ever since slitting his own father’s throat.

The Victorians lived in an era when triumph existed in equal measure alongside tragedy and disaster, and as such they had a corresponding fascination with the ethereal whether it was in the mythologizing of the past, the strange miasmas of disease, or spiritualism and the afterlife.

Fairy painting captured all three in a blaze of colour and dreamlike fantasy that provided solace to the often tortured Victorian soul.

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Mary Shelley: The Night She Wrote Frankenstein

Can a corpse be reanimated? Can life be made from death? What if monsters roamed the earth and man could be God? Mary Shelley imagined such things both in her dreams and in her nightmares.

Mary Shelley was born Mary Godwin on 30 August 1797, the daughter of the radical philosopher William Godwin and the proto-feminist writer Mary Wollestonecraft.

Mary never knew her mother who had died from infection in the days following her birth as the result of a botched delivery but she was aware of her work, her significance, and of her own role in her mother’s death that had caused her father such pain.

In 1792, Mary Wollestonecraft had written the Vindication of the Rights of Women now considered the first feminist treatise in which she stated that women were inferior to men in no other way than in the education that was denied them. She also insisted that women maintain control over their own bodies and use them as they wish to satisfy their own desires.

Such radical ideas and the fact that as a woman she willing to express them not just verbally but in writing led her to being described by the author and Whig politician Horace Walpole as that “Hyena in Skirts.”

Her marriage to William Godwin the author of Political Justice which is often seen as an early anarchist tract with its insistence upon the governance of reason over the government of people whether consensual or otherwise was unexpected in that both were vocal advocates of free love even though Mary had been married once before.

It was to be a working partnership with the few years they were together being the most productive of their lives and when Mary died Godwin was devastated. He told a friend:

“I firmly believe there does not exist her equal in the world. I know we were formed to make each other happy. I have not the least expectation that I can ever know happiness again.

Four years after Mary’s death he married Mary Jane Clairmont, a woman with limited intellectual horizons and no literary ambition.

The young Mary was to have a fractious relationship with her step-mother who she was later to blame for turning her father against her, though his own behaviour towards her indicates that perhaps he too in part held Mary to blame for his wife’s death.

For despite having a liberal upbringing and being encouraged to think free of restraint and social convention he denied her the formal education that her mother had believed essential if women were ever to be considered the equal of men.

But then there is no better education than imagination and with access to her father’s vast library, his manuscripts and papers, she had that in abundance and was an avid reader.       

Uncomfortable in the presence of her step-mother and her daughters, Mary was an introverted child who spent much of her time on her own and could often be found sitting at her mother’s graveside reading.

As one of the leading radical thinkers of his day the Godwin family home became a halfway house for London’s liberal elite and was frequented by the likes of William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and the members of the Corresponding Societies.

In 1814 when she was aged seventeen she met and fell hopelessly in love with the poet Percy Byssche Shelley, five years her senior. He was already married to Harriet Westbrook but on 24 June abandoned his wife to be with Mary.

Upon discovering that his daughter was having an affair with Shelley, Godwin was furious. Not only was he a married man but he had come to believe that Shelley was governed not by reason but by the indulgence of the senses and that no good could come from a relationship with a man who had no moral compass.

Mary was surprised and upset by her father’s reaction for he had written in Political Justice that marriage was a repressive monopoly and had been an advocate of free love, but he had since retracted his words and changed his views.

Godwin’s antagonism towards Shelley may have had more prosaic reasons, however. Shelley who was a devoted follower had introduced himself to Godwin as the son of a family of great wealth, which he was, and Godwin believing that Shelley might be able to alleviate some of his own financial difficulties devoted a great deal of time nurturing the young man.

He was later to discover that Shelley had no real income of his own and had been effectively disinherited by his father.              

Despite her father’s disapproval, Mary who had been taught to think for herself would make her own decisions in this world.

On 28 July, she and Shelley eloped to France. They were to return to England six weeks later penniless and with Mary pregnant. Her father would have nothing to do with them and they were forced to live off the charity of friends.

It was a difficult time for Mary who already haunted by the fact that she may have been responsible for her mother’s death now had to cope with the rejection of the father she adored and the loss of her baby which was stillborn.

Also, unlike her father Shelley remained a devotee of free love and continued to have affairs which Mary was made to endorse.

He had also let it be known that he intended to share Mary’s body with his friends.

This Mary agreed to though she never acted on it.

She wanted to be Shelley’s woman not his plaything.

The year 1816 was a turbulent one both in a wider social sense and for Mary personally. Both significant and sad in equal measure it was to prove a turning point in Mary’s life. 

In April Mount Tambora in the Dutch East Indies erupted.

It was the greatest volcanic eruption known in history up to that point and it deposited huge amounts of dense, black, volcanic ash into the atmosphere that blotted out the sun. As a result the Continent of Europe and elsewhere was plunged into semi-darkness and cursed with freak weather conditions for months.

There was frost in August as temperatures fell below freezing, the rain was incessant, rivers flooded and red snow was seen to fall in Italy. Across the Continent crops failed, and there was widespread famine during what was to become known as The Year Without Summer. 

In May of that year Mary and Percy travelled to Switzerland along with Mary’s step-sister Clara, also known as Clair, Clairmont to stay with Lord Byron.

Distant as children Mary and Claire had become close as they grew into adulthood. Claire, who was as tempestuous and argumentative as her mother, was pregnant with Lord Byron’s child at the time and she was also the on-off lover of Shelley. Indeed, his friends often used to joke about his two wives.

By June of that year, Mary who was by now using the surname Shelley, Percy, Claire, and Lord Byron along with his personal physician the twenty one year old Dr John Polidori were living together at the Villa Diodati on the shores of Lake Geneva in Switzerland.

Because of the extreme weather conditions and Mary was often to complain of the incessant rain, they had been unable to leave the villa for some time. To relieve the boredom of their enforced incarceration they would often read poetry and stories to each other.

On the night of 16 June as a storm raged outside Lord Byron was reading The Phantasmagoria, a book of German ghost stories. As the rain fell, the wind howled, the villa shook with thunder and bolts of lightning lit up the darkened sky, Lord Byron spoke in menacing tones as the others listened in rapt silence.

Then in fading light, as the candles flickered, and the fire blazed, he slammed shut the book startling his friends. He would read no more stories he said, and demanded instead that they all write their own.

Mary was the only one among them who took the suggestion seriously. She saw this as the opportunity to emerge from the shadow of her more exalted friends and prove herself worthy of their company.

Mary who had long been tormented by the death of the mother and had since endured a stillbirth had a fascination with death and the possibility of resurrection.

Following the night of 16 June life in the Villa Diodati carried on much as before but one subject in particular became a frequent topic of conversation: could the principles of life and the secrets of death ever truly be communicated?

The night of 22 June was a restless one for Mary, she could not sleep and her consciousness was tormented by waking nightmares. She wrote later:

"My imagination, unbidden, possessed and guided me, gifting the successive images that arose in my mind with a vividness far beyond the usual bounds of reverie. I saw the vivid phantom of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half-vital motion."

Frankenstein had been born.

It took a year for Mary to complete her manuscript for Frankenstein. In the meantime there was to be more tragedy.

In September they returned to England where instead of residing in London they travelled to Bath in the hope of at least for the time being maintaining the secrecy of Claire’s pregnancy to the notorious Lord Byron.

During their stay in Bath, Mary received a number of letters from her half-sister Frances Imlay. They had been close as children but had grown apart as Mary’s attentions were deflected elsewhere. In her letters Fanny, as she was known, wrote of her intense sadness:

“This dreadful state of mind that I labour under and which I endeavour in vain to get rid of.”

Fanny may well have suffered from the same depression that had so often afflicted their mother. She wrote in her journal words distressing in their clarity:

“I have long determined that the best thing I could do was put an end to the existence of a being whose birth was unfortunate, and whose life has only been a series of pain to those persons who have hurt their health in endeavouring to promote her welfare. Perhaps to hear of my death will give you pain, but you will soon have the blessing of forgetting that such a creature ever existed.”

Mary had been too absorbed with Shelley to take the time to respond to her sister’s missives but on 9 October a letter was received so alarming that Shelley departed in haste to find Fanny, but it was too late. On 10 October, alone in a Tavern in Swansea she took her own life with an overdose of laudanum.

There is no mention of Fanny’s death in the written correspondence between Mary and Shelley but it is perhaps little wonder that Mary had a morbid obsession with resurrection and cruel redemption.

Fanny’s sad suicide was followed two months later by the news that Shelley’s wife Harriet Westbrook’s heavily pregnant body had been discovered floating in the Serpentine. She had apparently drowned herself.

Following his wife’s death Shelley was now free to remarry and on 30 December at St Mildred’s Church in Bread Street, London, he and Mary were wed. The marriage at last brought reconciliation for both parties with their respective father’s and restored Shelley to the Baronetcy he would receive upon his father’s death but this still did not make him a man of means. Not long after the marriage Mary was once more pregnant.

The novel Frankenstein, subtitled Prometheus Unbound, was published in January, 1818 and it was a success if not exactly a publishing sensation. This was partly because many people believed it had been authored by Percy Shelley and only published in his wife's name to enhance her reputation.

It did not help that Mary had permitted Percy to write the foreword to the first edition. She had also given him free-licence to edit the book as he wished.

This has caused some to question exactly how much of the book was actually written by Mary at all. Shelley insisted that it was all his wife’s work but Mary’s own words many years later did little to clear the matter up:

“I certainly did not owe the suggestion of one incident, nor scarcely one train of feeling to my husband, and yet but for his incitement it would never have taken the form in which it was presented to the world.”

To conjecture so is perhaps a little unfair, it was certainly Mary's ideas that propelled the work and it is written in a style not consummate with Shelley's. She also understood its meaning in a manner he never did:

"For supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator.”

She wished to communicate "the mysterious fears of our nature," those things that would curdle the blood and quicken the beating heart. This she achieved down the centuries and through the ages.

Following the publication of the book Mary and Percy returned to the Continent in an effort to escape Percy's many creditors. They lived mostly in Italy, constantly on the move, living with friends and relying upon admirers for their upkeep and more tragedy was soon to follow. 

On 24 September, 1818, their one year old daughter Clara died to be followed on 2 June the following year by three year old William.

It was a particularly difficult time for Mary. The loss of her children hurt deeply but so too did Shelley’s continuing commitment to and pursuit of free-love and he had a string of affairs. It all plunged Mary into a state of deep depression.

Finding nothing but neglect in her marriage she sought solace elsewhere though in friendship not in empty and meaningless manifestations of the sexual act. Despite everything, she gave birth to yet another child by Shelly. It did little to lighten her mood and things were about to get much worse.

On 8 June, 1822, the famous poet, radical, and sexual libertine Percy Byssche Shelley drowned when his boat the Don Juan sank in a storm in the Bay of Lerica.

The precise circumstances surrounding his death and that of his two companions remain unanswered. As also does the question of why a man who could not swim would take his boat out in the midst of a violent storm.

Some believe his death was a political assassination. Considered a dangerous radical in England he had earlier been attacked by an unknown assailant in his home. The fact also that the boat did not capsize in the heavy seas but quickly sank with the lifeboat still on board has led some to believe it was deliberately rammed by a larger vessel.

Shelley’s body later washed ashore and was cremated on the beach at Viareggia by Lord Byron and some of his friends. Mary, the grieving widow, did not attend the ceremony as was the custom at the time.

Mary was devastated by her husband's death for despite everything he had put her, through she had never ceased to adore him.

She returned to England where reconciled with her father she remained in his house. She rarely socialised and when it was suggested to her that she should remarry she replied that she had been married to a genius and that it was only possible to marry one.

She never did remarry but she did continue to write with varying degrees of success. She died on 1 February, 1851, at the age of fifty three in great pain from a brain tumour.

Only one of Mary’s four children by Shelley, Percy Florence, ever lived into adulthood.

Of the others that were there on that momentous stormy night in the Villa Diodati, Lord Byron died of a fever on the Island of Messalonghi where he had gone to fight in the Greek War of Independence against Ottoman rule.

Dr John Polidori, who is credited with writing The Vampyre, a short story and possibly the first mention of a vampire in literature and one that pre-dated Bram Stoker's more famous Dracula by many decades, was heavily in debt from gambling and suffering from depression.

He died on 21 August, 1821, according to the Coroner from natural causes though the likelihood is that he committed suicide by drinking prussic acid.

Only Clara Clairmont, Byron's former mistress, lived to a ripe old age.

She was to die quietly in her bed in Florence in 1879, aged 80, having regularly communicated with Mary over many years in ever increasingly bitter tones but rarely commenting upon her relationship with her more illustrious friends or indeed their notorious residence in the Villa Diodati.  

Monday, 9 June 2014

George IV and Caroline of Brunswick: The Royal Marriage from Hell


George IV and Caroline of Brunswick:

The Royal Marriage from Hell 

George Augustus Frederick, Prince of Wales, was heir to the throne of Great Britain but this was no guarantee of respect. He was widely loathed for his indulgent, dissolute and spendthrift ways, so different to his more down-to-earth, austere, and hard working father, King George III.

His life was to be mired in scandal, his marriage a public fiasco and he was to become one of the most mocked, lampooned and unpopular Monarchs in British history.

As a young man he had been noted for his intelligence and razor-sharp wit. His repartee, it was said, was something to behold whether drunk or sober.  Unfortunately by the time he was in his early twenties he was more often the former than the latter but even so he still retained his admirers, if only for his good taste and love of fine things.

He was also physically attractive though more pretty and feminine in his features than handsome, but his dissolute lifestyle was to take a rapid and heavy toll.

George lived extravagantly and considered himself to be what we would know now as a style icon. One of his closest companions was the famous dandy Beau Brummel.

Upon turning the age of twenty one he received an annual income from his father of £50,000, or the equivalent of £4,786,000 in today’s money and a further £60,000 grant from Parliament, or (£5,744,000).

Such awards of money were was barely ever enough to cover his outgoings as he commissioned the building of Brighton Pavilion, reconstructed Windsor Castle, purchased Carlton House, held lavish parties, and lived in magnificent splendour.

To the people he was a lazy, self-indulgent spendthrift who squandered the nation's money.

This was not how he perceived himself, as far as he was concerned he was a Prince of Europe, the height of fashion, and one of the leading men of his age. Yet he would be regularly jeered and verbally abused as he rode in his carriage through the streets of London.

If he was a man worthy of respect then he failed to convey these qualities to his people. He was a figure of ridicule and hate and he struggled to understand why.

In 1783, he met and became besotted with Maria Fitzherbert, a twice married Roman Catholic six years his senior. They very quickly became lovers and on 15 December 1786 in a private ceremony they were married.

As the heir to the throne he was barred from marrying a Roman Catholic by the Act of Settlement of 1701 and so the marriage was illegal He was also obliged by the Royal Marriages Act of 1772, to obtain his father's permission to wed and he was not even on speaking terms with his father.

By 1787, the Prince's debts were such that he was forced to go cap-in-hand to Parliament. But despite being bailed out on this occasion it wasn't long before he once again found himself in similar trouble.

His father, despairing of his son's indolence refused to help him unless he agreed to make a royal marriage.

The Prince, who had only been kept solvent by the financial machinations of the master politician Charles James Fox who had since told him that he could do no more, was forced to reluctantly agree.

The woman chosen to be his bride was Caroline of Brunswick.

Caroline's mother was the Princess Augustus, the sister of George III, so Caroline and the Prince were first cousins but despite this they had never previously met. She had been chosen because, although Brunswick was only a small German principality because Britain needed allies in her on-going rivalry with France.

Prince George had only agreed because he needed the money.

On 20 November 1794, Lord Malmesbury arrived in Brunswick to escort the future Queen to England. He was not impressed by what he saw and noted in his diary that she lacked judgement, decorum, and tact; spoke her mind too readily, acted indiscreetly, and often neglected to wash or change her dirty clothes.

Her father had earlier informed him that her education had been sorely neglected.

Malmesbury's attitude toward Caroline was always ambivalent. He admired her courage and agreed that she had a natural if not an acquired morality.

Even so, he did not think she was suitable to marry the Prince.

George was not one to hear home truths instead he thrived on flattery - he was the most handsome man in England, he was the best dressed man in England.

This coarse, tactless, and plain speaking young German woman was unlikely to flatter his ego.

Caroline arrived in England on 5 April 1795, and was placed with Frances Villiers, Countess of Jersey, who had been appointed Her Lady of the Bedchamber. She was at the time one of George's many mistresses.
The Duke of Wellington was later to suggest that she had personally brought pressure to bear to ensure that Caroline was selected to be George's prospective bride to be - a woman of such:

"Indelicate manners, indifferent character and not very inviting performance, from a hope that disgust with a wife would secure constancy to a mistress". 

Upon meeting Caroline for the first time, George was clearly disappointed and immediately ordered a large brandy.

Caroline was likewise disappointed and was to tell Lord Malmesbury that the Prince was very fat and nothing like as handsome as his portrait.

Once the formal introductions were over and it became clear they had nothing in common they both studiously avoided each other.

Prince George and Caroline of Brunswick were married in the Chapel Royal of St James Palace on 8 April, 1795.

George, who had already decided that his wife was both unattractive and unhygienic, was drunk.

Indeed, Caroline was later to claim that he was so inebriated on their wedding night that he passed out in the fireplace, where she left him.

George wrote to a friend that he only ever had sexual intercourse with his wife three times, twice on the first night, and once on the second and went on:

"It required no small effort on my part to conquer my aversion to her person."

Despite their mutual loathing of one another a daughter, Princess Charlotte Augusta was born nine months later. A week after her birth George made his Will bequeathing all of his property to Maria Fitzherbert whilst making provision for his wife of just one shilling.

George and Caroline were soon living apart and only ever communicated with each other via letter. In the meantime, George tried to restrict Caroline's access to their daughter whilst desperately seeking an annulment of the marriage.

In 1802, Caroline adopted a three month old boy named William Austin but the rumour soon began to circulate that he was in fact her illegitimate son by an unknown lover.

In 1806, under pressure from the Prince a secret Commission was established to investigate her behaviour but they were unable to discover anything improper in her behaviour other than in her deportment.

In 1810, George III fell ill again with porphyria, an illness undiagnosed at the time that made him delusional and seemingly mad.

He had suffered from this illness for many years but had always previously managed to recover, but not on this occasion. The aged King was effectively retired and George was made Prince Regent. His closeness to the throne only polarised opinion even more.

Caroline, in the meantime, was becoming the focus of opposition to the Prince Regent's lavish lifestyle and unlike her husband who had to endure her name being chanted by people as his carriage passed by she was cheered wherever she went.

The people liked her lack of airs and graces, her open familiarity, and her vulgarian streak that so appalled the social elite won her an audience with the common people.

The fact that she was deprived of time with her daughter and the way the George openly flaunted his mistresses only served to reinforce her reputation as the wronged woman.

George, who had always been dismayed at his own unpopularity, was simply confounded by the love the people seemingly had for this dreadful woman and her continued presence in the country not only haunted his every waking moment but was becoming a constitutional crisis.

Eventually after torturous negotiation Caroline was persuaded to leave Britain for an annual allowance of £35,000.

On 8 August 1810, she departed for the Continent.

Caroline lived for a while in a villa near Lake Como in Italy before embarking upon a Mediterranean cruise with the man who was believed to be her lover, Bartolemeo Pergami.

This apparent affair caused a scandal and if it were true then it would be grounds for a divorce.

In her absence the villa was ransacked by the Prince’s agents but other than rumpled and dirty bedclothes they could find nothing incriminating.

In November, 1817, the Princess Charlotte Augusta died.

George neglected to tell Caroline of their daughter’s death and she only found out by chance.

She was devastated by the news and never forgave George for his callous disregard for her feelings.

This was a time when divorce by mutual consent was not permitted in law and adultery either had to be proved or one of the parties involved had to admit to it.

George through his representatives had been trying to cajole Caroline to consent to do this but there was no chance of that now.

On 29 January 1817, the aged and incapacitated George III died.

Upon the Prince Regent's Coronation as King George IV, Caroline would be Queen.

At George's behest, Parliament offered Caroline an increased allowance of £50,000 a year to simply stay away but she was determined to attend the Coronation and take up her rightful role as Queen of England.

Upon Caroline's return to England on 5 June, 1821, riots and demonstrations in her support broke out the length and breadth of the country and there were even rumours of disquiet within the army.

So unpopular was the new King that the Government feared revolution.

Even so, George remained determined to force through his demands for a divorce and the evidence as to her infidelities that had been collated over the years circumstantial though it was now brought to Westminster for further investigation.

The previous year Parliament had introduced the "Pains and Penalties Bill" which if passed would strip Caroline of her title as Queen and dissolve the marriage.

The prospective and legitimate Queen of England was to be effectively put on trial.

The details of her relationship with Pergami were revealed and made public.

Witnesses came forward to say that they had been seen kissing, that she was often in a state of undress in his presence, and that there was only one bed in the villa they shared.

But the people just saw this as rank hypocrisy.

George's affairs were common knowledge as were the sexual indiscretions of other prominent public figures.

The Pains and Penalties Bill passed comfortably through the House of Lords but it soon became apparent that it had no chance of passing through the House of Commons.

To save the Monarchy the humiliation of defeat it was withdrawn.

The Public Inquiry into Caroline's private life had been a fiasco for the Government and George's refusal to be reconciled with his wife was making a laughing stock of them all. Indeed, Caroline joked:

“I have been accused of committing adultery with the husband of Mrs Fitzherbert”.

The affair was no joke for the Monarchy as hundreds of petitions had been organised in Caroline's support which gathered over a million signatures.

She also campaigned hard on her own behalf and would address the crowds that would flock around her on every public appearance telling them:

"As Queen, you will find in me a sincere friend to your liberties, and a zealous advocate of your rights.”

Despite these fine words she had secretly agreed to accept Parliaments offer of £50,000 to return abroad but only with the proviso that she be permitted to attend the Coronation and be recognised as Queen.

Parliament refused.

On 19 July, 1821 the Prince Regent was crowned King George IV at Westminster Abbey.

Caroline turned up as she said she would but was refused entry by the soldiers guarding the Abbey at bayonet point.

The Lord Chamberlain then ordered the doors closed and bolted.

Refused entry Caroline became hysterical and began banging on the doors with her fists and screaming obscenities.

The watching crowd were shocked and appalled at her behaviour and her use of profane language on such a solemn occasion, for the first time she began to lose popular support.

Later that same night she fell seriously ill.

Over the next three weeks her condition deteriorated and on 7 August, aged 53, she died.

She was buried in Brunswick where the inscription on her tomb at her own insistence, read:

"Here lies Caroline, the Injured Queen of England”.

The exact cause of her death remains unknown but the rumour persists that she was poisoned.

Following Caroline's death, George IV's own health went into steep decline. His devotion to the table saw his weight balloon and his heavy drinking led to mental decay and premature decrepitude. He found breathing difficult and would not rise from his bed for days on end.

He was by now so obese that he rarely appeared in public unable to bear the ridicule. Instead, he lived in seclusion at Windsor Castle.

During his reign the prestige and the popularity of the Monarchy collapsed to an all-time low. The scandal of his marriage to Caroline of Brunswick was to dog him for the rest of his life and few people had a good word to say for him. Even the ultra-conservative Duke of Wellington felt moved to describe him as:

“The worst man I ever fell in with in my entire life, the most selfish, the most false, the most ill-natured, and the most entirely without one redeeming quality.”

King George IV died on 26 June, 1830, aged 67.

The Times reported:

“There never was an individual less regretted by his fellow creatures than this deceased King. What eye has wept for him? What heart has heaved one sob of un-mercenary sorrow?

Selfishness is the true repellent of human sympathy. Selfishness feels no attachment, and invites none”.

He was little mourned.                     

Sunday, 1 June 2014

Lizzie Siddal: An Artist's Obsession

“One face looks out from all his canvases
One selfsame figure sits or walks or leans:
We found her hidden between just behind those screens,
That mirror gave back all her loveliness.
A queen in opal or in ruby dress,
A nameless girl in freshest summer-greens,
A saint, an angel – every canvass means”.
Cristina Rossetti  (In an Artist’s Studio)

With her finely contoured features, her long flowing hair, and her dreamy-eyed expression she was  the most familiar image in early Victorian art.

She was also an artist’s obsession.

Elizabeth Eleanor Siddall was born on 25 July, 1829, in Hatton Garden, London, to a middle class family who contended that they were of Royal blood, though there is no evidence to suggest they were.
The young Lizzie also had pretensions but in her case it was to be an artist, or perhaps to pursue her first great love, poetry.

But she was disadvantaged twice over for not only was she a young woman with no formal education, she also had to work for a living.

So Lizzie dreamed her dreams but the prospects of ever fulfilling them seemed slim.

Still, if she could not be an artist herself then she could be the next best thing, an artist’s model, and being both physically striking with coppery red hair and milky white complexion and aloof and distant in both speech and manner she would soon find herself in demand.

But posing for struggling artists did not pay the bills and she was still working as an assistant at Mrs Tozer’s millinery shop in Soho when in 1852, aged 23, she was engaged to model for the artist John Everett Millais.

Lizzie was described around this time as being:  

“A most beautiful creature with an air between dignity and sweetness with something that exceeded modest self-respect and partook of disdainful reserve, tall, finely-formed with a lofty neck and regular yet somewhat uncommon features, greenish-blue un-sparkling eyes, large perfect eyelids, brilliant complexion, and a lavish heavy wealth of coppery golden hair”.

Unknown to Lizzie she was posing for what was to become one of the most significant paintings of its era –Millais’s Ophelia.

Millais was uncompromising in his approach to his art and it would not be a work of the imagination but one painted for real, and so Lizzie was made to lie perfectly still in a tub of water for many hours at a time.

Unnerved by Lizzie’s frequent shivering Millais tried to warm the water with candles and a lamp but to little avail and the bitterly cold water often made her appear frozen as in death.

Desperate to be taken seriously Lizzie voiced no complaint but she was to become seriously ill as a result, was forced to take to her bed for a number of weeks, and it was feared for a time that she had contracted pneumonia and might die.

It was to be the first indication of the always fragile state of Lizzie’s health.

Earlier in 1849, Lizzie was introduced to the artist Gabriele Dante Rossetti and by the time of their second meeting two years later they were lovers, though only after he had insisted she drop an ‘L’ from her surname the spelling of which he considered common.

Rossetti was a founder of the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood which looked back to a mythologized past and medieval revivalism for its inspiration and in Lizzie he had found his damsel for the ages.

To him she was more than just a woman she was his fantasy, his paradigm of perfection, the model of misty-eyed femininity, his Guinevere, and he painted her over and over again more than a thousand times and to the exclusion of almost all other models.

                                           Lizzie Siddal, a self-portrait

In 1852, they engaged to be married and encouraged by Rossetti, Lizzie was at last able to pursue the love of art and poetry that so enchanted and inspired her.

As captivated by Lizzie as he was, Rossetti was in no rush to take his wedding vows and continued to take a string of lovers something that she was certainly aware of and their relationship was to be a fraught one often played out in public.  

She would befriend other men to make him jealous and he soon convinced himself that her frequent bouts of ill-health were not genuine but instead designed to elicit his sympathy and prevent him from breaking off their engagement.

Lizzie who had long ago become addicted to the drug laudanum also fretted about her fading beauty  and regularly swallowed Fowler’s Solution, a diluted arsenic that was said to improve the complexion. 

On 23 May, 1860, they married in the small coastal resort of Hastings almost ten years after their original betrothal and even then Rossetti had only consented to do so under pressure from his friends who feared for Lizzie’s sanity.

 Indeed, she was so fragile on the day of the wedding that she had to be carried into the church. 
Taking his wedding vows did little to change Rossetti’s behaviour, however. 

In early summer of 1861, Lizzie became pregnant with their first child and her friends were to say that they had never seen her happier but her daughter was to be still-born.

It was a personal tragedy that plunged Lizzie into a state of depression from which she would never recover, even though within a few months she was once again pregnant.

On 11 February, 1862, Rossetti returned home from an evening dining with his friend the poet Algernon Charles Swinburne to find Lizzie stretched out unconscious on her bed and despite frantic efforts to do so he was unable to revive her.

He urgently sent for a doctor who with little inspection or pause rather curtly informed him that she was dying and that there was nothing he could do.

Rossetti refused to believe him and a further three doctors were sent for along with a stomach pump, but nothing could be done.

The Coroner was to rule Lizzie’s death accidental but she had in fact taken her own life.
Rossetti had earlier destroyed the suicide note she had left behind aware that knowledge of such would deny her a Christian burial.

For seven days and nights Lizzie’s body lay in an open casket with Rossetti surveying it for signs of life, he even from time to time prised open her lips to blow air into her lungs, but to no avail.

Finally, he had to bow to the inevitable and Lizzie was interred in Highgate Cemetery amid scenes of much grief.

Along with her body Rossetti also buried the only copy of his verse for she had after all been its inspiration and with her passing there could no longer be any poetry in the world.

Seven years later in the dead of night Rossetti had her body dug up so he could retrieve his poetry.

He could not bear to be present but it was reported back to him that her delicate beauty had been preserved and that her thick, coppery red hair had continued to grow and filled the coffin.

His poetry however was filthy and worm-eaten and much of it could not be saved. 

To learn that Lizzie’s beauty remained even in death did little to lighten his mood and merely filled him with dread. It was as if she was mocking him.

He had disturbed the peace and violated the corpse of the woman he loved to retrieve a book of worthless poetry and it was a deed for which he never forgave himself and moreover he feared neither did she.

In the years following the exhumation of Lizzie’s body, Rossetti became increasingly addicted to alcohol and drugs but he hoped the carefully edited and re-worked poems retrieved from her coffin and others he had written in dedication to her memory would help revive his fortunes but it was not to be.

When it was published in 1872 it was poorly received, sold few copies, and is believed to have contributed greatly to the complete mental breakdown that soon after followed.

Many believed then, and some still do now, that in this at least there was some poetic justice.