Objects Out Loud

Not Just a Pretty Face

February 26, 2021 Ashmolean Museum / Lucie Dawkins / Caroline Palmer / Josie Richardson / Sid Sagar Season 1 Episode 4
Objects Out Loud
Not Just a Pretty Face
Show Notes Transcript

Lizzie Siddall was the 19th century’s proto-supermodel. Her beauty inspired the artists and poets of her generation, who presented her as a mysterious, fairytale creature. We tend to know her through the filter of the men who painted her, but in the archives of the Ashmolean Museum, you can encounter the real Lizzie. Behind the silent muse of Pre-Raphaelite art was a vibrant, creative woman, who was herself a talented poet and artist. In this episode, meet one of history’s most famous models, on her own terms.

Two men in a boat and a woman punting, Elizabeth Siddal (1829–1862) View this online

Elizabeth Siddal playing a Stringed Instrument, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882) View this online

Elizabeth Siddal playing Double Pipes, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882) View this online

If you want to take a closer look at the artworks mentioned in this episode, you can view them at the links above. Visit the podcast page on the Ashmolean website: ashmolean.org/objects-out-loud

Hosted by Lucie Dawkins, with Caroline Palmer and the voices of Josie Richardson and Sid Sagar. With poems by Lizzie Siddall, Christina Rossetti, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and Alfred Lord Tennyson.
The producer is Lucie Dawkins.

About Objects Out Loud: From a magician who inspired Shakespeare, and poems woven into Japanese prints, to manuscripts illuminated with the ancient love story of Layla and Majnun, this new podcast series will delve into the poetry and literature hidden in the collections at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.

Lucie: Please be advised that this episode contains mentions of addiction and suicide, and may not be suitable for all listeners  

Imagine we are sitting in a kitchen in the London borough of Southwark, in the 1830s. We’ve joined the Siddall family for supper. Mr Siddall is a shopkeeper, and the family is only just making ends meet. There’s a bit of a din going on, as seven children are crowded around the table. Among the chattering siblings, one girl stands out. She’s got striking golden-red hair, and she is uncannily beautiful. Unlike the others, she is sitting quietly, staring with rapt attention at a plate of  butter on the table. If you follow her gaze, you will see that she’s actually looking at the torn newspaper wrapped around the butter. It has a few verses of poetry on it by the writer Alfred Lord Tennyson, telling a story of a doomed maiden and a medieval knight. You can sense that the little girl is lost in her own world, her imagination whirring away. 

This is Lizzie, and it’s one of her first encounters with a poem. Little does she know it now, but when she grows up, she is going to be a supermodel. And not only that, she will also become an artist and poet in her own right. One day, she will even illustrate the very poem she is staring at right now… and eventually, some of her drawings will end up in the Ashmolean Museum. 

This is Objects Out Loud, an audio adventure through the poetry and stories hidden in the galleries of the Ashmolean Museum. This episode is all about a muse, in her own words.

Today, we are heading to the Ashmolean’s Western Art Print Room. Its stores thousands works on paper, from drawings and watercolours, to prints and manuscripts.  We are here, looking for traces of Lizzie Siddall, one of the most recognisable faces of the 19th century, whose beauty inspired some of the great poetry and art of her generation. We know a lot about how other people saw Lizzie - but if you know where to look in the Print Room, you discover how she saw the world back. 

Here’s Caroline Palmer, one of the Print Room managers, to tell the story of the extraordinary Lizzie Siddall.

Caroline: In 1856, the poet Christina Rossetti visited her brother, the artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti, in London. What she saw there seems to have fascinated her. All over his studio there were drawings and paintings of the same woman, obsessively repeated. It played on her mind, and she wrote a poem about it. 

Christina Rossetti

In An Artist’s Studio

One face looks out from all his canvases,

One selfsame figure sits or walks or leans:

We found her hidden 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 canvas means

The same one meaning, neither more or less.

He feeds upon her face by day and night,

And she with true kind eyes looks back on him,

Fair as the moon and joyful as the light:

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.

The face in all these paintings was that of Elizabeth Eleanor Siddal, who is best known as a Pre-Raphaelite muse and model. The Pre-Raphaelites were a radical band of artists intent on tearing up what they saw as the fusty rules of the Victorian art establishment.

Thanks to them, you may already be familiar with Lizzie’s face. Perhaps from Millais’s painting in the Tate Gallery, for instance, where she appears as the doomed Ophelia drowning in the waters of a brook. From what contemporaries said, there seems to have been an element of other-worldliness about her, an aloofness in her bearing that made her seem more like a duchess than the daughter of a shopkeeper. One story goes that Walter Deverell, a friend of the brotherhood of artists, spotted her working in a hat shop and was so struck by her appearance that he employed her as a model. The whole group became obsessed with her, competing to have her in their paintings. And none was more fixated than Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Soon, he and Lizzie became lovers. 

Early on in their relationship, the besotted Rossetti drew her repeatedly, and in the Western Art Print Room we are lucky enough to have several of his exquisite drawings of Lizzie. In one she kneels in profile playing some musical pipes; in another she plucks delicately at a stringed instrument. In all of these drawings her eyes are downcast, giving the impression of a slightly wistful, melancholy figure.

But Christina Rossetti’s poem hints that the real Lizzie behind her brother’s pictures is more than she seems – the drawings show her ‘not as she is, but as she fills his dream’. So what lies behind the dreamy image that we tend to have of Lizzie, as filtered through the eyes of Rossetti and his circle? 

There is no better place to answer this question than the Ashmolean print Room, which contains sheet after sheet of Lizzie’s drawings and poems. Out of these appears the portrait of a woman on her own terms and in her own voice. And it is a very different picture from the wistful fairytale woman of the Pre-Raphaelites’ pictures. 

Lizzie was no shrinking violet, and was far more than just a pretty face. The poet Algernon Swinburne, for example, spoke of her “wit, humour, heroism and sweetness”, emphasizing her love of literature, and the sparkling pleasure of her company. She enjoyed limericks, engaged in high-spirited pranks with Holman Hunt, and became a great friend of the feminist artists and social reformers Anna Mary Howitt, Barbara Bodichon and Bessie Rayner Parkes. Striking and unconventional in her looks and in her dress, the “incomparable Miss Siddal” made a strong impression on everyone she met.

Although she had little encouragement at home, where money was tight, she was literate, with a great enthusiasm for poetry and art. Taught by Rossetti to draw and paint in watercolours, she shared the Pre-Raphaelite fascination with the medieval world of knights and ladies, of chivalry, love and loyalty. Her fondness for poetry led her to create illustrations for traditional ballads and the poems of Walter Scott, for John Keats’s ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’, and Alfred Lord Tennyson’s ‘Lady of Shalott’, after first becoming captivated by this poem as a child. 

Here’s an extract of Tennyson’s poem telling the story of a medieval lady, cursed to die if she ever looks out of the window. To protect herself, she looks at the passing world reflected in a mirror.

Alfred Lord Tennyson

Extract from the ‘Lady of Shalott’

On either side the river lie 

Long fields of barley and of rye, 

That clothe the wold and meet the sky; 

And thro' the field the road runs by 

    To many-tower'd Camelot; 

And up and down the people go, 

Gazing where the lilies blow 

Round an island there below, 

    The island of Shalott. 

Willows whiten, aspens quiver, 

Little breezes dusk and shiver 

Thro' the wave that runs for ever 

By the island in the river 

    Flowing down to Camelot. 

Four gray walls, and four gray towers, 

Overlook a space of flowers, 

And the silent isle imbowers 

    The Lady of Shalott. 

By the margin, willow veil'd, 

Slide the heavy barges trail'd 

By slow horses; and unhail'd 

The shallop flitteth silken-sail'd 

    Skimming down to Camelot: 

But who hath seen her wave her hand? 

Or at the casement seen her stand? 

Or is she known in all the land, 

    The Lady of Shalott? 

Only reapers, reaping early 

In among the bearded barley, 

Hear a song that echoes cheerly 

From the river winding clearly, 

    Down to tower'd Camelot: 

And by the moon the reaper weary, 

Piling sheaves in uplands airy, 

Listening, whispers " 'Tis the fairy 

    Lady of Shalott." 

Part II 

There she weaves by night and day 

A magic web with colours gay. 

She has heard a whisper say, 

A curse is on her if she stay 

    To look down to Camelot. 

She knows not what the curse may be, 

And so she weaveth steadily, 

And little other care hath she, 

    The Lady of Shalott. 

And moving thro' a mirror clear 

That hangs before her all the year, 

Shadows of the world appear. 

There she sees the highway near 

    Winding down to Camelot: 

There the river eddy whirls, 

And there the surly village-churls, 

And the red cloaks of market girls, 

    Pass onward from Shalott. 

Sometimes a troop of damsels glad, 

An abbot on an ambling pad, 

Sometimes a curly shepherd-lad, 

Or long-hair'd page in crimson clad, 

    Goes by to tower'd Camelot; 

And sometimes thro' the mirror blue 

The knights come riding two and two: 

She hath no loyal knight and true, 

    The Lady of Shalott. 

But in her web she still delights 

To weave the mirror's magic sights, 

For often thro' the silent nights 

A funeral, with plumes and lights 

    And music, went to Camelot: 

Or when the moon was overhead, 

Came two young lovers lately wed: 

"I am half sick of shadows," said 

    The Lady of Shalott. 

Of course, all ends tragically  for the Lady of Shalott. When she sees in her mirror the handsome Sir Lancelot riding by, she falls in love with him, and looks out of the window. The curse falls upon her, and she dies. Poems like this one captured Lizzie’s imagination, and some of her illustrations for them are now in the Ashmolean.

Several reflect the medieval spirit of Tennyson’s poem, echoing the elongated, slightly gawky figures of illuminated manuscripts with their angular poses and cramped interiors. They are often quite briefly sketched, but with a powerful directness and simplicity, conveying raw emotion. One of her drawings, illustrating Robert Browning’s poem ‘Pippa Passes’, so impressed the critic John Ruskin that he bought up her entire output of drawings on the spot. The fresh, untutored style of Siddal’s work appealed to him, embodying what he saw as the naivety and sincerity of medieval art. He became her patron, paying for her to visit Paris and Nice in the south of France, and then to study art in Sheffield. Lizzie aspired to become a professional artist in her own right, at a time when this was an unusual role for women.

For most visitors today, one of the Ashmolean drawings in particular stands out as an entirely unexpected sketch by a Victorian young lady. It is on a small sheet of paper – as most of Siddal’s drawings are – hastily drawn in black ink with a sharp-nibbed pen. On it, we can see a picture of Lizzie as she saw herself. Standing in a small skiff or punt, wearing a long, loose dress, she is fending off an approach from two men in a rowing boat. This looks more like an encounter on an Oxford river than the mysterious waters flowing down to Camelot. This female figure is no Arthurian Lady of the Lake! Rather than languishing in the punt, trailing her long fingers in the water as we might expect, she stands erect, leaning heavily on the punt pole to make good her escape. And for once we can see her eyes – her determined gaze is focussed on the marauding males, repelling their unwanted attentions as one of them lunges towards her. It is quite a shock to see her so active, her eyes confrontational, rather than demurely lowered. It’s a brief sketch, probably just an amused recollection of a playful incident, but it hints at a very different side to Lizzie.

It seems to show a time when there was fun, even horseplay between friends, before the cloud descended on the friendship between Rossetti and his wife-to-be. When “hope shone bright”, as Christina Rossetti put it. As well as these drawings, the Ashmolean has several handwritten drafts for Siddal’s poems, some of which convey the intensity that once characterised the relationship between them. Here is one of them Lizzie’s poems.

Lizzie Siddall

O God, forgive me that I ranged

My life into a dream of love

Will tears of anguish never wash

The passion from my blood?

Love kept my heart in a song of joy,

My pulses quivered to the tune;

The coldest blasts of winter blew

Upon me like sweet airs in June.

Love floated on the mists of morn

And rested on the sunset’s rays;

He calmed the thunder of the storm

And lighted all my ways.

O Heaven help my foolish heart

Which heeded not the passing time

That dragged my idol from its place

And shattered all its shrine.

Love held me joyful through the day

And dreaming all through the night;

No evil thing could come to me,

My spirit was so light.

This kind of joyful love is the element of Lizzie’s story that tends to disappear when we think of the tragic end to her relatively short life. The dominant note in most of her poems is one of sadness, of lost love, and betrayal. Here she hints at the ‘fallen idol’ Rossetti was to become for her, disappointing her with his fickle affections, his repeated infidelities, and his refusal to marry – probably for fear of family disapproval. Weakened by digestive problems and lung disease, Lizzie became increasingly erratic, and – from Rossetti’s perspective – demanding. Her growing addiction to laudanum, initially taken for medical reasons, is reflected in some of the scraps of paper we have in the collection. These have fragments of poetry scribbled wildly across them in barely legible handwriting, quite different from her usual, careful script. 

Thinking her finally on the point of death, Rossetti resolved to marry, and they travelled on honeymoon to Paris, where Lizzie regained something of her old energy. But a stillbirth followed by miscarriage led her deeper into illness and depression. Whether her death was suicide or not – and there are conflicting reports about this – most of her poems seem to reflect the acutely painful circumstances of her life. It is difficult not to interpret the following poem as autobiographical, although we should resist the temptation to assume that this is always the case, since ballads and Romantic poetry often revelled in an air of melancholy.

Lizzie Siddall

Thy strong arms are around me, love

My hand is on thy breast;

Low words of comfort come from thee

Yet my soul is not at rest.

For I am but a scared thing

Nor can I ever be

Aught but a bird whose broken wings

Must fly away from thee.

I cannot give to thee the love

I gave so long ago,

The love that turned and struck me down

Among the blinding snow.

I can but give a tired heart

And weary eyes of pain,

A faded mouth that cannot smile

And may not laugh again.

Yet keep thine arms around me, love,

Until I fall to sleep;

Then leave me, saying no goodbye

Lest I might wake, and weep

Our manuscript of this poem is fascinating, because it is a hand-written draft made by Lizzie herself, rather than the version edited after her death by William Michael Rossetti, Dante’s brother. His amended version was the one that was eventually published, so that Lizzie’s presence was once again filtered by the men in her life. The version you have just heard was in Lizzie’s original words, preserved here in the Print Room. 

Rossetti was left devastated by Lizzie’s death, no doubt riddled with guilt at his less-than-noble behaviour – and she remained crucial to his creative imagination. His poems and paintings, in which the same themes are often intertwined, fused his idealised love for Siddal with that of the lovers Dante and Beatrice. The gruesome tale of how Lizzie’s coffin was exhumed, in order to rescue the notebook of poems he had had buried with her, has sadly overshadowed our image of Siddal as she once was - an enthusiastic pupil at the Sheffield art school; catching the train with fellow students to the Manchester Art Treasures exhibition; exhibiting her paintings with the Pre-Raphaelites in Russell Place; meeting up with Emma Madox Brown at the bus stop for a walk in the park and a chat, or sending her friends Georgiana and Ned Burne-Jones ‘a willow-pattern dish full of love’.

Rossetti tried to make amends, by recording as much as he could of Lizzie’s artistic output. The Print Room has an extraordinary collection of glass-plate negatives, fragile records of the photographs he arranged to have taken of her drawings. Determined to preserve her memory, he pasted the prints into a series of albums which he shared with close friends and family. The Ashmolean has several pages from these albums, and the photos provide an important record of some drawings that are now lost. In at least one case they have helped to identify as Siddal’s, a work once wrongly attributed to Rossetti himself.

But there is a drawing missing from Rossetti’s albums. Lizzie’s self-portrait in the punt. 

Perhaps it did not ‘fill his dream’ of Lizzie sufficiently. It is not his ‘dear dove divine’, ‘half sick of shadows’, gazing dreamily from her medieval casement window. But for us, the fact that this drawing is preserved provides an important counterweight to Rossetti’s carefully ‘curated’ version of Siddal. It conveys a powerful sense of her as an active, living human being, beyond the misty memories and the mystery – recording a moment of fun and games, splashing about on the river. 

Rossetti’s poems, such as his ‘Sudden Light’, capture beautifully the consolations of memory and imagined spiritual reunion with his lost love. 

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Sudden Light

I have been here before, 

But when or how I cannot tell: 

I know the grass beyond the door, 

The sweet keen smell, 

The sighing sound, the lights around the shore. 

You have been mine before,— 

How long ago I may not know: 

But just when at that swallow's soar 

Your neck turn'd so, 

Some veil did fall,—I knew it all of yore. 

Has this been thus before? 

And shall not thus time's eddying flight 

Still with our lives our love restore 

In death's despite, 

And day and night yield one delight once more? 

This poem evokes the shadowy, dream-like version of Siddal that tends to dominate our inherited notion of her – as Rossetti’s great love. At the Ashmolean, you have the chance meet her more directly, through the manuscripts of her poems and through her drawings, and to uncover the spirited, creative woman she really was. I do urge you to come and experience them for yourself. When the museum re-opens, the Print Room is open to everyone, without appointment. Come and visit us, and you’ll be able to sit face to face with Lizzie’s self-portrait.

Lucie: Thank you for listening to this week’s episode. While we are waiting for the museum to reopen, if you want to look at Lizzie in the way she intended, follow the link in the podcast notes, and you can find this wonderful little drawing there. Join us next week for a trip into a dark forest with the poets John Burnside and Derek Mahon. Until then, stay well.