- Also known as
primary name: Siddal, Elizabeth Eleanor
other name: Rossetti, Elizabeth Eleanor
- individual; painter/draughtsman; British; Female
- Life dates
- Painter, watercolourist and model.
Married Dante Gabriel Rossetti (q.v.) in 1860; her work was much influenced by his subject matter and style and until comparitively recently (late 20thC) her work was often attributed to Rossetti
Walter Deverell was responsible for introducing Elizabeth Siddal to the Pre-Raphaelite circle. Struck by the extraordinary beauty of the twenty-year-old assistant in a bonnet-shop, he persuaded his mother to approach her and ask if she would consider posing as a model. Elizabeth Siddal was the model for Viola in his 'Twelfth Night' (1850), for a figure in Holman Hunt's 'Converted British Family sheltering a Christian Priest' (1850) and for Sylvia in his 'Valentine rescuing Sylvia from Proteus' (1851: see 1927,0312.1), as well as for Millais's 'Ophelia' (1852); but from then onwards Rossetti monopolised her attention, and for the next ten years she was his constant companion and source of inspiration, and finally, briefly his wife.
Her brother-in-law W. M. Rossetti described her as "tall, with a stately throat and fine carriage, a pink and white complexion, and massive, straight, coppery-golden hair. Her large greenish-blue eyes, large-lidded, were particularly noticeable". Lady Burne Jones remembered "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, producing a most soft and delicate pink for the darkest flesh tone. Her eyes were of a kind of golden brown - agate colour is the only word I can find to describe them - and wonderfully luminous . . . The eyelids were deep, but without any langour or drowsiness, and had the peculiarity of seeming scarcely to veil the light in her eyes when she was looking down". Swinburne, who was devoted to her, wrote of her "deep-gold hair and luminous grey-green eyes shot through with colours of sea-water in sunlight, and threaded with faint keen lines of fire and light about the pupil". A dissenting voice comes from another poet and friend of Rossetti, William Allingham, who found "her pale face, abundant red hair, and long thin limbs . . . strange and affecting" rather than beautiful.
The lives and personalities of the Pre-Raphaelite group, and especially Rossetti's, have been the subject of intense and sometimes sensation-mongering scrutiny; but unconventional though his relationship with Miss Siddal was, no one has ever suggested that she was his mistress. It was understood that he would eventually marry her and they were treated as an engaged couple, but his impecunious and disordered way of life was not conducive to matrimony. As passion faded and her health declined their relationship came under increasing strain. Finally, in May 1860, he married her; a year later she gave birth to a still-born child; and in February 1862 she died of an overdose of laudanum. Her death was certainly deliberate: according to Helen Angeli, who as William Rossetti's daughter and Madox Brown's granddaughter was in a position to know the truth, a slip of paper pinned to her nightgown bore the message "Take care of Harry" - her feeble-minded brother to whom she was devoted. Overcome by grief and remorse, Rossetti insisted on putting in her coffin the only complete manuscript of his own poems: an impulsive gesture which he came to regret seven years later, when the grave had to be opened to recover the book.
It is impossible to form any positive idea of Elizabeth Siddal's personality. Her drawings, though inevitably derivative from her husband, and her verses, equally derivative from him and his sister Christina, have a flavour of their own, if in a minor key (Forrest Reid, in his 'Illustrators of the Eighteen Sixties', is surely unjust in seeing in her drawings nothing but "a yearning mawkishness"); but in none of the by now considerable number of published Pre-Raphaelite reminiscences and documents is she recorded as expressing an opinion, or indeed as saying anything at all. Nevertheless, the Pre-Raphaelite world of the 1850s is haunted by her withdrawn, elusive presence - "a shadow like an angel, with bright hair".
- Gere 1994
'Elizabeth Siddal' in Jan Marsh (ed.), Pre-Raphaelite Sisters, (London, 2019), pp. 22-33.