Imagine lying in the bath. The water is warm and enveloping. Your mind dances with images of the handsome young man you met recently; his sparkling eyes; his cheeky grin; his artistic hands. The water begins to cool imperceptibly. You remain motionless, entranced. The water is now stone cold. Your skin is wrinkled. The wet brocade fabric of your dress seems to pull you deeper into the cold water. You hold your breath and try to force your mind back to the man. You are really shivering now but you remain silent and motionless. This is your destiny because you are Elizabeth Eleanor Siddal, modelling for Pre-Raphaelite artist John Everett Millais’s painting of Shakespeare’s Ophelia, which will become one of Britain’s favourite works of art.
The story about Siddal posing in the bath and catching a chill is as popular as the painting itself, a magnet for visitors to the Tate Gallery. This is how I first encountered Siddal, sinking to her ‘muddy death’ as Shakespeare’s tragic heroine, Ophelia. Millais’s painting provided the spark that ignited the flame which, for me, has grown into a consuming passion.
I was determined to find out more about the painting’s red-haired model and found Lucinda Hawksley’s monograph, Lizzie Siddal: The Tragedy of a Pre-Raphaelite Supermodel (André Deutsch, 2004), in my local library. The book sent my brain into overdrive. What if things weren’t as Hawksley described them? What if it was Siddal who didn’t want to marry Rossetti? In the 1850s women and their property were still considered chattels and marriage would have taken away her independence. Hawksley, descendent of novelist Charles Dickens, had presented me with her story of Siddal, but what about other views?
Searching for answers to my questions I found little literature specifically dedicated to Siddal. In most cases she received only a brief mention in the biographies of her eventual husband, artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Then I discovered The Legend of Elizabeth Siddal by Jan Marsh (Quartet Books, 1989). Marsh’s book was a revelation; she presented the many different views I had been searching for and left me, the reader, to make up my own mind. My head was bursting. So Siddal was an artist as well as a model! That demanded immediate investigation. I began by locating a copy of Marsh’s exhibition catalogue, Elizabeth Siddal: Pre-Raphaelite Artist 1829-1862 (The Ruskin Gallery, 1991), which contained images of many of Siddal’s artworks. I visited the Western Art Print Room at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, to examine its collection of her original drawings, photographs, and 150-year-old glass plate negatives of her work.
I am fitting the pieces of the jigsaw together slowly. With every discovery more questions demand answers. I never imagined that Millais’s painting would lead me to where I am today: half-way through my PhD researching Siddal and ultimately hoping to publish a book. If something ignites your passion, kindle that flame, for who knows where it will lead.
Glenda Youde is a PhD candidate at the University of York researching her thesis ‘Beyond Ophelia: The Artistic Legacy of Elizabeth Eleanor Siddal’. She took redundancy and early retirement from her career in the energy industry at the end of 2011 to pursue her passion for art history.
This is the first in a series of 500-word guest blogs written by people we know and admire.
“Say what you wanna say
And let the words fall out”