‘Lizzie Siddal: The Tragedy of a Pre-Raphaelite Supermodel’ by Lucinda Hawksley

You might not recognize the name, but you probably recognize the face of Lizzie Siddal. You will have seen her in John Millais’ painting Orphelia, deathly pale, her red hair flowing around her, her hands uplifted in supplication. It is the image that Lucinda Hawksley has chosen to use on the cover of her book about Lizzie’s life. In her subtitle ‘The Tragedy of a Pre-Raphaelite Supermodel’, Hawksley draws a not-completely satisfying parallel between Lizzie’s life and those of the supermodels of the 1990s. I might quibble with the supermodel concept, but certainly not with the designation of ‘tragedy’. Lizzie Siddal’s life trajectory took her far beyond her origins, but she was always insecure and wary, and eventually succumbed to addiction.

2004, 256 p.

Lizzie Siddal (originally spelled Siddall but changed on her husband’s suggestion to make it look more genteel) worked in Mrs Tozer’s hat shop in 1849 when she was approached by an artist, Walter Deverell, who was looking for an artists’ model for Viola in a painting of Twelfth Night that he was working on. Lizzie had had a ‘respectable’, religious lower class upbringing. In a scenario reminiscent of Tess of the D’Urbervilles, her father was engaged in a long and ultimately fruitless attempt to claim ownership of a convoluted family fortune. Her father worked as a cutler, and the children needed to work, but this did not mean that Lizzie leapt at the opportunity. Walter Deverell’s mother called on Lizzie’s family to assure them that Lizzie’s reputation would not be damaged by the modelling, as Mrs Deverell herself and her daughters would be present at all times. Thus Lizzie was launched into a milieu completely foreign to her.

Walter Deverell was amongst the circle (although not one of the original members) of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB), a group of seven students who criticized the teaching of art in art schools, harking back to the rich colours and animated subject matter of Botticelli and other early Italian artists. It had all gone downhill since Raphael, they said, and so they adopted the name ‘Pre-Raphaelite’. The original group of 7 included John Everett Millais (who painted ‘Ophelia’), William Holman Hunt, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his brother William, Thomas Woolner, Frederic George Stephens and James Collison. It expanded to include Ford Madox Brown, Walter Deverell, William Morris and Charles Allston Collins. They were always on the lookout for ‘stunners’ and in Lizzie Siddal they found one.

Unfortunately for Lizzie, she was not the only ‘stunner’ associated with the PRB. New women were being brought in all the time, and like Lizzie, often engaged in relationships with the artists. Lizzie fell in love with Dante Rossetti, who made moves to marry her (against his family’s wishes) but he then retreated over a number of years, embarking on relationships with other women within the circle, before returning to Lizzie. A destructive cycle was established: Dante would go off with another woman; Lizzie would increase her intake of laudanum, a commonly used drug, and refuse to eat; Dante would come rushing back to her bedside; she would improve; he would go off again.

As Hawksley points out, laudanum or ‘tincture of opium’ was a mixture of opium and alcohol that was widely available over the counter from greengrocers, barbers, ironmongers or at market stalls. Mothers spiked their babies’ bottles with in when they had to work and it was used to quell the symptoms of cholera, diarrhoea, gout, rheumatism, toothache, sprains and ulcers…and any number of other symptoms. Certainly, just do an image search on Google for Lizzie Siddal, and you’ll see her depiction in myriad paintings looking very much ‘on the nod’.

I wasn’t really aware of Lizzie Siddal’s story, and so I’m not going to divulge the ending, although you’re probably already well aware that it’s not going to end well. And, in keeping with the Victorian gothic sensibility that runs just under the surface of the whole book, just being dead wasn’t the end of the story.

Hawksley is fairly condemnatory of Lizzie Siddal, seeing her as emotionally manipulative, and using her possible eating disorder and addiction as a way of drawing Rossetti back to her. That might be true, but I think I’d cut her some slack in what I see as a mutually unhealthy relationship, where she had little other power.

Although focussing on Lizzie and Dante, this book has a wide range of supporting characters with familiar names – almost like a who’s who of the mid 19th century British artistic world. At times I feel that Hawksley pursued too many rabbits down rabbit holes for the sake of a good story, and I wished that she had indicated in the text whether the painting under discussion was included amongst the illustrations in the book. But Hawksley explains things well for a reader with only fragmentary knowledge of the PRB, and manages to keep a huge number of characters under control. I heard the author, who happens to be Charles Dickens’ great great great grand-daughter speaking in Birmingham when we were there in 2011.

Lizzie as supermodel? Certainly she was chosen because her looks – her striking (although unpopular at the time) red hair, her slim boyish figure, her languor – suited the medieval sensibility that the PRB was trying to create/recapture. Addictions and eating disorders are not unknown to supermodels. But I’m not sure that she had ‘fame’ in the sense that we granted to the supermodels of the 1990s, and certainly her respectability and reputation was compromised by mingling in ‘artistic’ circles. It’s hard to see positive agency in Lizzie’s life. So I think I’ll just leave the ‘supermodel’ aside, but I certainly acknowledge the ‘tragedy’.

My rating: 7/10

Sourced from: my own bookshelves. At last. I think we bought it in 2011 after hearing the author speak.

One response to “‘Lizzie Siddal: The Tragedy of a Pre-Raphaelite Supermodel’ by Lucinda Hawksley

  1. I rather like the sound of this one…

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