Monday, 12 July 2010


Immortalised: John Everett Millais’ 1852 Ophelia made Lizzie Siddal the most famous face of her generation.

For modern muses such as Kate Moss, inspiring creative talents does not mean losing their own independence. But for Lizzie Siddal, whose ethereal looks and flaming hair shaped the pre-Raphaelites' feminine ideal, being the most famous face of her generation came at a price.

We're all familiar with those stories of the tragic muse. Beautiful, charismatic. She enchants; lures us with a glamour. Alive, she is unapproachable. Death gives her the status of a goddess.

Marilyn; Princess Diana. Remembered at the height of their beauty. But this is not a modern phenomonen. Take the case of the beautiful Lizzie Siddal.

In popular folklore, the supermodel - that heady mix of angelic beauty and diva attitude, of sex and excess - was born in the studios of 1960s Chelsea, when certain fashion photographers (David Bailey, Terence Donovan, et al) turned their backs on the arch-eye browed hauteur of the 1950s mannequin and introduced sex into the equation (and, sometimes, the studio).

In fact, she has a forerunner more than a century earlier; a few miles east, in Cranbourne Street near Leicester Square, in 1849, Lizzie Siddal, 20 years old and beautiful, was spotted in the milliner's shop where she worked by a promising young painter, Walter Howell Deverell. Lizzie went on to become, as the model for John Everett Millais’ Ophelia, the most famous face of her generation. But the limitations and frustrations of this role contributed to a deepening drug dependency which, in the tradition of iconic beauties, ended in her dramatic and early death.

In other words, Siddal was a supermodel long before the phrase was invented.

Artists had always used models, of course, but Siddal was different. As model, muse and lover, with her copper hair and flowing, uncorseted style of dress, she shaped the feminine ideal that was central to the aesthetic of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a band of painters that included Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti (with whom she had a passionate relationship for many years and eventually married) and to whom Deverell was connected.

Models - "stunners", as the artists called them - were of supreme importance. "Women were the central objects of pre-Raphaelite art," says Lucinda Hawksley, whose book, Lizzie Siddal: The Tragedy Of A Pre-Raphaelite Supermodel, examines the extraordinary role she played. "This was especially true for Rossetti. But that was the problem - they were mainly objects."

Hawksley raises perturbing questions about how a woman's status as a beauty can fail to translate into real power or control over her own life - questions that do not relate to the mid-19th century alone. Siddal had, Hawksley says, "traces of Marilyn Monroe about her".

Francine Prose, in her book The Lives Of The Muses, puts it another way: "Feminism has made us rethink musedom as a career choice." There has come to seem something subservient about it - but not in fashion where the concept survives as a relationship between equals. In recent years Sofia Coppola has been cited as a muse to Marc Jacobs, Erin O'Connor to Jean Paul Gaultier, Jade Jagger to Matthew Williamson - and Kate Moss to just about every top designer.

This idolisation of Moss is significant. She is almost unique in the world of modern celebrity in that, apart from one interview (in which she famously admitted to having been drunk for a decade), she never gives even the briefest of quotes to the press, preferring to maintain the old-fashioned silence of the traditional beauty. There are clearly stark contrasts between the life of a modern supermodel and that of Siddal - Moss and her contemporaries are able to enjoy their wealth and status as they please - yet there are parallels, too, in the way of life and, sometimes, the yen for glorified self-destruction.

In her own way, Siddal strove for independence. She did not choose to be an artists' model because she enjoyed mute posing; rather, for a working-class woman, it offered an escape from drudgery. Indeed, she soon aspired to be an artist herself - something that would have been unthinkable without the contacts she had gained through modelling - and enjoyed some success at it, winning the admiration and financial patronage of John Ruskin.

Although her time as an artist was Siddal's most lucrative period, it is as a model that she is remembered. And she was very much a supermodel in that she set, rather than followed, an ideal of beauty. According to Hawksley, "She changed the face of fashion. Her tall, boyish figure, with no breasts and no hips, was not at all the Victorian standard of beauty." And, crucially, her "coppery golden" hair (as her brother-in-law William Rossetti described it) was hugely influential. At a time when red hair was the victim of superstition and prejudice, Siddal flaunted hers, wearing it loose - an unusual style for a grown woman. She made the colour fashionable in artistic circles and a passion for it continues to this day.

Last year, the avant-garde Dutch design duo Viktor & Rolf made up each model in their catwalk show to look like their muse, the actor Tilda Swinton, spraying hair red and lightening brows and lashes; the sensation of this year's catwalks has been the long red hair of young British model Lily Cole.

Siddal was striking rather than pretty. Her friend Georgie, wife of the artist Edward Burne-Jones, recalled "the mass of her beautiful deep-red hair as she took off her bonnet ... Her complexion looked as if a rose tint lay beneath the white skin ... Her eyes were of a kind of golden brown - agate-colour is the only word I can think to describe them - and wonderfully luminous: in all Gabriel's drawings of her this is to be seen. The eyelids were deep, but without any languor or drowsiness, and had the peculiarity of seeming scarcely to veil the light in her eyes when she was looking down."

Like Moss, she had a way of dressing that was widely copied. Skilled in millinery, she made her own clothes, her particular eccentricity being a rejection of the corsets that were a staple of the Victorian woman's wardrobe, in favour of floating, unstructured dresses. This, at the time, was scandalous. However, according to Hawksley, "Her sartorial sense was as much of an influence on Rossetti as his eye for colour and fabric was on her."

Her beauty seemed to ignite the genius in Rossetti. Ruskin wrote to him in 1860 that "I think Ida [his pet name for Lizzie] should be very happy to see how much more beautifully, perfectly, and tenderly you draw when you are drawing her than when you draw anybody else. She cures you of all your worst faults when you only look at her."

Despite Rossetti's encouragement of Siddal's artistic talent, the vast majority of the energy of both parties was directed towards his art, and she was left deprived and needy. As Prose asks, "Doesn't the idea of the muse reinforce the destructive stereotype of the creative, proactive male and of the passive female, at once worshipped and degraded, agreeably disrobing to model or for inspirational sex?"

Rossetti's sister Christina, who never cared for Lizzie, none the less showed sympathy for her plight in her poem In An Artist's Studio about her brother's obsession with his model. "He feeds upon her face by day and night," she wrote.

William Rossetti said Millais’ Ophelia was the best likeness of all the paintings of Siddal. It is telling, perhaps, that Millais portrayed her more truthfully than Rossetti: their relationship had, always, an ethereal quality. And it is odd, and rather chilling, that the two most famous stories about her involve her portrayal as a dead woman.

First, there is the tale of the bath in which she lay to model for Ophelia. Midway through the painting, the lamps beneath, which had been keeping the water warm, went out. Millais, lost in his art, failed to notice; Siddal, ever the ideal model, did not move or complain, and so, despite being of weak health, lay in the freezing water until she caught a chill.

Then there is the macabre tale of her exhumation. After Siddal's death, Rossetti, who had buried the only copy of his poems with her body, in the depths of heartbreak and despair, recovered sufficiently to wish to resume his writing career and had her coffin secretly opened.

Legend had it that she was perfectly preserved, with her hair even longer and more lustrous, having continued to grow after her death. That is, she was even more perfect as a dead woman, the story implies, than as a live one.

Long before her death - which has been attributed to accident or even murder, but which Hawksley believes to be suicide - there was a wan, otherworldly quality to Siddal's appeal. She was very thin, very pale, with the huge eyes of an undernourished child. This suited the pre-Raphaelites, who did not like their beauties too earthy: as another of their favourite models once put it, "I was a holy thing to them."

The quality of stillness that is so prized in a model, and to which Siddal, in the Ophelia incident, proved herself such a heroic martyr, was echoed in her private life where, as the long-term mistress of Rossetti, she was trapped - very few options were open to her, especially in respectable society. And despite the bohemian lifestyle on which the pre-Raphaelites prided themselves, Rossetti seems to have been sufficiently hung up on class issues to feel unable to marry Siddal until he believed her to be on her deathbed. (He also persuaded her to change the spelling of her name from Siddall to Siddal because he thought it more elegant.)

Painters were expected to sleep with their models, Hawksley says, but not to marry them, and Siddal felt her compromised position bitterly. One of her earliest poems describes "her love" thus: "I felt the spell that held my breath/Bending me down to a living death." Later, more openly bitter, she writes, "I care not for my lady's soul/Though I worship before her smile."

Cornered, Siddal became adept at emotional manipulation. Anorexia has been suggested, and though Hawksley believes her thinness and lack of appetite were a by-product of her drug use, she agrees that Siddal "used not eating to get revenge on Rossetti when she needed to". Her desperation deepened because, in the modelling world, then as now, a woman was often past her peak by her mid-20s.

Even after her marriage, Siddal used guilt as leverage, writing to her husband from Brighton, where she was convalescing from one of her interminable illnesses, "I am most sorry to have worried you about coming back when you have so many things to upset you. I shall therefore say no more about it ... although I am in constant pain and cannot sleep at nights ... But do not feel anxious about it as I would not fail to let you know in time."

She also retreated further and further into dependency on laudanum, a potent mixture of alcohol and opiate, which Hawksley describes as "the alcohol of its day. One of those addictions that is not discussed, because everybody does it, and nobody notices until it becomes a problem." Siddal, like many supermodels since, seems to have had a weakness for drugs. The legend of her addiction grew with the story of her posthumous perfection, which was attributed to the preservative effects of laudanum.

Siddal's is not a straightforward story of a woman exploited. "When I started researching the book, I thought Dante treated her very badly," Hawksley says. "I felt quite angry with him. Then it became clear that it was more complicated than that, and I went through a stage of finding Lizzie really irritating."

Siddal's role as an embittered, wheedling consort is all the more sad in the context of occasional letters showing her to have, when not drugged and needy, a wicked sense of humour - unlike her pre-Raphaelite friends, who took themselves rather seriously.

Travelling in France, she wrote a sharp, well-observed and witty account of the trials and tribulations involved in collecting wired money. But more often, her personality was doused: at the centre of the picture, but powerless to move or speak.

"Dante loved Lizzie as a work of art," Hawksley says, "but not as a real woman."

The power to entrance is not necessarily a route to real power.


  1. Fascinating. Thank you so much for this article! As anyone who visits my blog can tell, I do have a bit of a thing about the pre-Raphaelites. I'm not completely sure why, but I know it doesn't hurt that I have my own mane of red hair.

    I think I am also drawn to the moodiness of the paintings: the facial expressions, the sense of wandering thought behind the eyes and beneath the mass of willful hair...

  2. Interesting piece - thank you! Incidentally I seem to remember that many of the pictures she posed for were themselves seen as highly transgressive by the standards of that time, and this in itself gave her something of a reputation.

    I've recently been reading up on the pre-Raphaelites and others such as Byron, since there seems to be a resurgence of interest in this period and this group. Morals may have changed since then (though Byron, at least, would still be seen as outrageously deviant!) but many of the personal issues and struggles of artists, models and writers in that period are, as you point out, still applicable today.

  3. It is an interesting piece -- but I'm feeling guilty because I stole it from the always excellent Jess Cartner-Morley.

    The Guardian, Saturday 21 August 2004