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John Everett Millais’ Ophelia (1851-52). Now in the collection of Tate Britain (image: Wikimedia Commons).

Lizzie Siddall and Dante Gabriel Rossetti in the Old Town

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood liked Victorian Hastings and the area.  Maureen Connett discusses their star couple, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his muse Lizzie Siddall, who got married in the Old Town.

‘Lizzie’ was known as a ‘stunner’ in the language of the time and ‘the first supermodel’ today.  She was tall, pale and stately, with luxurious red/gold hair and an ethereal expression:   ‘an icon of decadence’ and ‘a picture of ill-health, according to the society papers.  Most of us would look sickly if kept in a cold bath for hours on end, as she was while she was painted by the fashionable artist, John Everett Millais, one of the Pre-Raphaelite group.

She was being used as a model for Shakespeare’s Ophelia, who dies a tragic death, floating on the river, covered in herbs and wildflowers and singing snatches of old songs.  This romantic image (at Tate Britain), painted in 1850-52, has never gone out of fashion, and is one of Millais’ most popular prints.  It is easy to see why: the colour is glorious and the model is the epitome of the pitiful heroine.

Rossetti’s Beata Beatrix (1863). Completed after the death of Elizabeth Siddall in 1862. (Image: Wikimedia Commons.)

Dante Gabriel Rossetti was the leading painter of the Pre-Raphaelite movement and Lizzie Siddall was his favourite model. A hard-working girl from a lower-class family, she had found a respectable job as a milliner’s assistant in central London. It was long hours and poor pay at £24 per annum, and she was glad to escape into something better.,

She first modelled for Rossetti in 1850 and he drew and painted her thousands of times; on many occasions in the Old Town.  They fell passionately in love and Lizzie wanted to marry and settle down.  She was recovering from her ordeal as the model for Ophelia, being cared for by the landlady, Mrs Elphick, at 5 High Street.  (A plaque records their 1854 visit.)

Rossetti was full of good intentions, and for 10 years they were ‘engaged’ but he was regularly unfaithful and would not commit to marriage, despite regular visits to Hastings to see her.

Marriage at last

By 1860, in precarious health and addicted to laudanum, she broke off the relationship with Rossetti, who immediately took fright.  He rushed to Hastings with a marriage licence. (He stayed at the Cutter pub in East Parade, as a plaque outside indicates.) As soon as she felt well enough they were married in St Clement’s Church on 23 May 1860. It was an easy walk down the hill to the picturesque church, and soon they were off to France.

Rossetti’s drawing of Lizzie Siddall as Regina Cordium (The Queen of Hearts). Image: University of Birmingham.

What followed was the beginning of the end. After a protracted honeymoon, in Paris, they returned to find that Lizzie was pregnant  She was delighted at the prospect of becoming a mother, but there was an underlying fear that things would go wrong, as had happened before.  She gave birth to a stillborn daughter and never recovered from the depression that engulfed her following the baby’s death.

Although Rossetti was grieving too,  he was soon back at work, leaving Lizzie to recover alone.  She was seriously reliant on laudanum, and Rossetti’s attitude to the drug was the usual one of the time.

Laudanum as a legal opioid was used freely as a cure-all whose benefits were immediate.  It relieved pain and soothed distress, bringing about a peaceful sleep. A pennyworth from the local shop was all that was needed to bring the longed-for relief.  It was addictive and because the body quickly got used to it, more and more was needed for it to be effective.

On the evening of 10 February 1862  Rossetti went out to teach a night class, leaving Lizzie settled in bed. She had taken her usual dose of laudanum and there was about half a bottle left.  When he returned the bottle was empty and Lizzie was in a sleep — so deep he was unable to wake her.

Despite the efforts of four doctors, Lizzie died in the early hours of 11 February 1862. She had written what was thought to be a suicide note to Rossetti but he destroyed it, so making sure she could have a Christian burial.  She was buried in London’s Highgate Cemetery (West).  Her grave is a place of pilgrimage, especially for art lovers, particularly from Hastings.

Tables turned: Siddall drawing Rossetti (image: University of Birmingham).

Posted 20:24 Wednesday, Nov 18, 2020 In: History

2 Comments

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  1. Irene

    I had no idea Lizzie and Dante we’re married in Hastings. So great to discover something new about this fascinating couple.

    Comment by Irene — Sunday, Nov 22, 2020 @ 09:58

  2. Stewart Rayment

    I’m surprised Maureen Connett doesn’t mention that Elizabeth Siddal, as well as being muse and model, was an artist in her own right, particularly following last year’s Pre-Raphaelite Sisters at the National Portrait Gallery. Regarded sufficiently for Ruskin to have bought much of her work, she suffered the fate of most women artists of her day in terms of neglect. Yet she was the only woman artist to feature in the Tate’s Pre-Raphaelites in 1984.

    Comment by Stewart Rayment — Wednesday, Nov 18, 2020 @ 23:31

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