Was Elizabeth Siddal the real brains behind the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood?

'He feeds upon her face by day and night': Rossetti's Regina Cordium is a portrait of Elizabeth Siddal painted a few months after their marriage - Bridgeman Images
'He feeds upon her face by day and night': Rossetti's Regina Cordium is a portrait of Elizabeth Siddal painted a few months after their marriage - Bridgeman Images

“One face looks out from all his canvases,” wrote Christina Rossetti in her 1856 sonnet “In the Artist’s Studio”, around the time her brother Dante Gabriel was obsessively drawing Elizabeth Siddal, or “Guggum”, as he called her. A year earlier, Ford Madox Brown had come to see Rossetti at his studio, where “he showed me a drawer full of ‘Guggums’; God knows how many… it is like a monomania with him”.

In Christina’s sonnet, that reverence becomes vampiric: “He feeds upon her face by day and night.” Yet the artist sees only what he wants. The girl in his paintings is “Not wan with waiting, not with sorrow dim;/ Not as she is, but was when hope shone bright;/ Not as she is, but as she fills his dream.”

It’s a savage punchline. Rossetti, unsurprisingly, didn’t see it that way. “This is her picture as she was,” he writes firmly in the first line of “The Portrait”, one of the poems he tucked into Siddal’s coffin, under her hair, after her death from an overdose of laudanum in 1862, aged 32; then scandalously exhumed seven years later for publication. (The manuscript, Rossetti said, was “soaked through and through… a dreadful smell – partly no doubt the disinfectants”.)

For modern readers, accustomed to the legend of Siddal as the “meek, unconscious dove” (as Rossetti called her, after Tennyson), it is a jolt to find that this much-fed-upon face could actually talk back – and that, behind the “sweet lips” so fetishised by Rossetti, were pointed teeth. For Elizabeth Eleanor Siddall – as she was born, before she dropped an L for chic – was a painter and a poet, too. In caustic verse, she skewered his skin-deep love:

I care not for my Lady’s soul
Though I worship before her smile
I care not where be my Lady’s goal
When her beauty shall lose its wile.
Low sit I down at my Lady’s feet
Gazing through her wild eyes
Smiling to think how my love will fleet
When their starlike beauty dies.

 ‘As she fills his dream’: Elizabeth Siddal (1850-65) by Dante G Rossetti - Bridgeman Images
‘As she fills his dream’: Elizabeth Siddal (1850-65) by Dante G Rossetti - Bridgeman Images

And when she painted her own face, the result was confrontational, unsugary – profoundly different from that which “fills his dream”. Perhaps Siddal’s 1854 self-portrait is closer to her “as she was”. For as Holman Hunt said of Gabriel (admittedly, in a spirit of rivalry), “Rossetti’s tendency in sketching a face was to convert the features of his sitter to his favourite ideal type… you had to make believe a good deal to see the likeness.”

From next month, 17 paintings and drawings by Elizabeth Siddal are to be seen in Tate Britain’s new blockbuster, The Rossettis, which juxtaposes her with Gabriel and Christina. It is the largest showing of the London-born Siddal’s work since the seminal 1991 revival at the Ruskin Gallery in Sheffield, and her first ever show in a major institution.

The hope is to spring this cutler’s daughter from the trap of the most inextricable of all Pre-Raphaelite legends: Elizabeth Siddal “the exquisite and mysterious virgin” (as Peter Quennell archly put it in his 1949 Ruskin biography), sacrificed on the altar of art. For, of course, she is already one of Tate Britain’s biggest draws, as Millais’ famous 1852 Ophelia in the permanent collection, for which she posed in a tin bath heated by oil lamps. When the flames failed, rather than interrupt Millais, Siddal “kept floating in the cold water till she was quite benumbed”, and contracted such a severe cold that her father threatened to sue: life imitating art – and a macabre prophecy of her own early end. Like Marilyn Monroe playing the dumb blonde, Siddal has got stuck as the doomed maiden. Now Dr Carol Jacobi, curator of the Tate exhibition, wants to “break her free of Ophelia” and “get her out of the bath tub”.

Unsugary, confrontational: Siddal’s 1854 self-portrait
Unsugary, confrontational: Siddal’s 1854 self-portrait

The forgotten fact of the matter is that Elizabeth Siddal was not just a swooner and a sigher, but a mover and a shaker. Her “fecundity of invention and facility are quite wonderful, much greater than mine”, Rossetti told Brown, having taken his model on as a pupil, in awe of what he called “Gug’s emanations”. In April 1855, Ruskin, the great champion of the Pre-Raphaelites, gave her a stipend of £150 a year, and told her: “The plain HARD FACT is that I think you have genius; that I don’t think there is much genius in the world; and I want to keep what there is, in it, heaven having, I suppose, enough for all its purposes.”

It was not Siddal’s “truth to nature” in the basic, observational sense that mattered to Ruskin (in fact, he kept nagging her to “draw in a dull way sometimes from dull things”) but her flair for design: turning “existential moments of human crisis” into “expressive, graphic dramas”, as Jacobi puts it. If she were alive today, she would be a Camden goth. Illustrating, for instance, the traditional Scottish ballad of The Gay Goss Hawk, she chose the ghoulish moment when the stepmother drops molten lead onto the breast of the young woman to check if she is really dead or not. Her pedantic early drawings became more and more abstracted, prefiguring Munch.

Ruskin wasn’t easily pleased – “You are a conceited monkey,” he once told Rossetti, “thinking your pictures right when I tell you positively they are WRONG” – so the fervour of his belief in Siddal is significant. He even got his mother to send her jellied ivory dust as a miracle cure for her weak constitution. When Siddal (for reasons unknown) cut herself off from his stipend in 1857, Ruskin pleaded that it was his duty to help her, just as it would be to “save a beautiful tree from being cut down, or a bit of Gothic cathedral whose strength was failing. If you would be so good as to consider yourself as a piece of wood or Gothic for a few months, I should be grateful…” She refused.

Doomed maiden: Elizabeth Siddal modelled for Millais' famous Ophelia (1851-2) - The Print Collector/Getty Images
Doomed maiden: Elizabeth Siddal modelled for Millais' famous Ophelia (1851-2) - The Print Collector/Getty Images

Art was not a dilettante diversion for Siddal, nor a means to make money (her first income came from dressmaking), but a matter of life and death: “I should like to have my water-colours sent down if possible, as I am quite destitute of all means of keeping myself alive,” she wrote to Rossetti from Brighton. In her day, she was feted beyond the wildest expectations of most artists, let alone a working-class female artist: the only woman to exhibit alongside the male Pre-Raphaelites in 1857; singled out for praise by critics; bought by an American collector.

It was only after her death that the juggernaut of Pre-Raphaelite mythmaking recast her as mere Galatea to Rossetti’s Pygmalion. Yet an early obituary unearthed by biographer Jan Marsh – the heroic figure in what we might call Siddalology – claims that Siddal, far from needing Rossetti to “invent” her as an artist, was making designs before she had even met the Pre-Raphaelites.

Later, her tiny oeuvre came to be seen as purely derivative of Rossetti’s (or, where admirable, evidence of his own hand). “He had his defects, and she had the deficiencies of those defects,” his brother, William Michael Rossetti, the self-appointed Pre-Raphaelite chronicler, wrote in 1903. The condescension deepened with every passing generation: in 1928, Evelyn Waugh wrote that her art had “so little real artistic merit, and so much of what one’s governess called ‘feeling’; so tentative, so imitative”.

The big twist in the Tate exhibition is to remind us that Rossetti was actually derivative of Siddal, not just the other way around. She was the first of all the Pre-Raphaelites to illustrate scenes from popular ballads and Tennyson (not yet the moth-eaten laureate, but a daring contemporary poet, whose verse the teenage Siddal had discovered wrapped around a pat of butter). Rossetti followed her lead in both. Together, tucked away in his Blackfriars studio, poring over the designs of William Blake, Siddal and Rossetti confected a medieval fantasy world of jewel-bright colours and pattern, which precipitated the turn in art from Pre-Raphaelite “truth to nature” to Aestheticism.

Rossetti followed her lead: Clerk Saunders (1851) by Elizabeth Siddal - Image Library, Fitzwilliam Museum
Rossetti followed her lead: Clerk Saunders (1851) by Elizabeth Siddal - Image Library, Fitzwilliam Museum

The scholar Glenda Youde has also studied the well-thumbed photo album that Rossetti made of Siddal’s work after she had died, and concludes that he used it as a sourcebook. (“I forget whether I ever drew your attention much to any of her designs, but am sure you will find them repay examination, as she had real inventive genius,” he told a patron.)

In 1854, Siddal had illustrated Rossetti’s poem “Sister Helen”; 15 years later, when Rossetti came to make his own illustrations, he lifted her designs wholesale. Of her drawing of St Cecilia, William Michael Rossetti wrote: “I have no doubt it preceded Rossetti’s design, and therefore this detail of invention properly belongs to Miss Siddal.” This traffic of ideas from Siddal to Rossetti has been hidden in plain sight, ignored by generations with an idée fixe about the story they wanted to tell.

As Christina Rossetti put it:

The mangled frog abides incog,
The uninteresting actual frog:
The hypothetic frog alone
Is the one frog we dwell upon.

Anyone interested in the actual frog of Siddal must battle through more than the usual number of “hypothetics”. After her death, there was a craze for reminiscence about her, ranging in unreliability from the lightly romanticised (the discovery of this “stunner” in a hat shop) to the extremely silly (her coffin, exhumed after seven years, being filled with coppery hair that grew unstoppably from her immaculate corpse). After Rossetti’s alcoholic, outcast death at 53 in 1882, he was transfigured into the Pre-Raphaelites’ patron saint (Edward Burne-Jones called him “Gabriel, whom I loved, and would have been chopped up for”) and Siddal, in turn, became the movement’s “talisman or touchstone”. “Having known her was authentic proof of membership of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in its charmed, early days”, as Marsh puts it in her superlative 1989 book, The Legend of Elizabeth Siddal.

Elizabeth Siddal's Lady Clare (1854-1857) based on Tennyson's poem - Jaiwana Monaghan
Elizabeth Siddal's Lady Clare (1854-1857) based on Tennyson's poem - Jaiwana Monaghan

Siddal’s life is filled with awkward lacunae, which each age has greedily rushed to fill, with supposition that reveals more about itself than it does about her. What, for instance, was the illness that made her, in Madox Brown’s words, ever “thinner and more deathlike and more beautiful and more ragged”? In her lifetime, nobody knew. (As Burne-Jones’s wife Georgie put it: “How was it possible for her to suffer so much without developing a specific disease?”) Doctors told her she was consumptive, or suffering (implausibly) from “curvature of the spine”, or the vague “neuralgia”. After her death, she picked up whatever female complaint was in fashion: in the 1920s, she became neurotic; by the 1980s, anorexic.

The other big puzzle is her relations with Rossetti. In 1855, Madox Brown wrote in his diary that when Rossetti “first saw her, he felt his destiny was defined. Why does he not marry her?” Why indeed? Of course, Rossetti would marry Siddal in the end – but only in 1860, a decade into their romance, by which point she was so fantastically frail that she had to be carried to Hastings register office. Eighteen months later, desolate after a stillbirth and pregnant again, she took a fatal overdose of laudanum; the fact that it was suicide, then illegal, was for decades suppressed.

For the Decadent poets of the 1890s, Siddal became an erotic ghost story – those who met her remembered “a delicate wraith… a ghost in the house of living”, pale and poisonous, exhaling sex and death. In the 1900s, she was cast as a “morose and slatternly addict” to excuse Rossetti’s infidelities with other models – Annie Miller, Fanny Cornforth, Jane Morris et al – as they came to light. In the 1920s, the vogue for psychology redrew their romance as a “sex war”. According to Violet Hunt’s scandalous The Wife of Rossetti (“the gleanings from the Pre-Raphaelite wastepaper bins”, as Rossetti’s niece Helen put it), it was Siddal’s “noli me tangere” frigidity that had forced him to look elsewhere for sex – emphasis is always placed on the needs of his “southern blood” – and as a consequence he was too emotionally distracted to marry her. (Whereas now it is thought that he did not bother to marry her because she failed to deny him sex.)

In the 1930s, a proliferation of fan fiction turned the Pre-Raphaelites into lurid costume drama. After the war, she embodied conservative fears about shopgirls hustling for a better life. The 1960s loved all that: she became the forerunner of the models scouted on Carnaby Street – a long-haired, loose-living, drug-taking, working-class innocent – and inspired a Ken Russell film. The theory-obsessed 1980s reinvented her as “semiotic”.

In short, like Rossetti, every generation exhumes Siddal, only to re-embalm her in their own ideas. It is a fate to which she seems peculiarly vulnerable. In life, she was in love with stories: she wore faintly chivalric dress, and almost all of her artworks illustrate a poem. Now, in death, she has become pure story.

Rossetti used Elizabeth Siddal as his model for Beata Beatrix, a painting of Dante's poem La Vita Nuova - Marcus Leith
Rossetti used Elizabeth Siddal as his model for Beata Beatrix, a painting of Dante's poem La Vita Nuova - Marcus Leith

What hope do we have of knowing her, when even William Michael Rossetti, who spent days and days with her, found her “not quite easy to understand, and not at all on the surface... I hardly think I ever heard her say a single thing indicative of her own character, or of her serious underlying thought”? And if we are doomed to reinvent Siddal in our own image, how shall she look?

Marsh and Jacobi think we might be the first era capable of seeing her as “active and assertive” instead of as sad victim. “She was not meek, nor invalid,” says Marsh, “and her fatal opiate overdose was likely the result of post­natal psychosis after her daughter was born dead.”

We have her pictures, we have her poems, and we have a rare fragment of a letter to Rossetti from Nice in December 1855, in which she is not the pale lady of death in his painting Beata Beatrix, but an effervescent raconteur: “You make your way to the Post Office, and there present yourself before a grating, which makes the man behind it look like an overdone mutton-chop sticking to a gridiron,” she writes. “On asking for a letter containing money, Mutton-chop sees at once that you are a murderer, and makes up its mind not to let you off alive… looking as much like doom as overdone mutton can look, fizzing in French, not one word of which is understood…”

With upturned nose, William Michael Rossetti wrote that “all her talk was of a ‘chaffy’ kind – its tone sarcastic, its substance lightsome. It was like the speech of a person who wanted to turn off the conversation.” If she did, perhaps it was because he never asked the right questions. As she once told Dante Gabriel Rossetti, “No man cared for my soul.”

Elizabeth Siddal: Her Story, by Jan Marsh (Pallas Athene) is out on Apr 6. The Rossettis opens at Tate Britain, London SW1 (, the same day