Elizabeth Siddal: Her Story, a volume just published by Athena Press sheds new light on her figure. No longer simply the wife and muse of Pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti, but an artist and voice in her own right.
The biographer and curator Jan Marsh (a pivotal figure in the studies dedicated to Pre-Raphaelite and Victorial art, in full) brings to light the discoveries of a tireless research in our interview; illustrating the connections with the exhibition currently dedicated to Rossetti, hosted in the halls of the Tate Britain in London; as well as the projects that will see her involved after this umpteenth, admirable literary effort.
According to the curators, the Rossettis exhibition at Tate is a "landmark to correct the longstanding myth of Elizabeth Siddal as a 'meek, unconscious dove' and sad victim of misogyny and drug addiction". I understand you share this opinion. How did you manage to give new luster to the stale image often reserved for her?
I have been researching Siddal’s life and work for a long time now, trying to disentangle facts from myth – mostly without success, as fiction/fantasy is always more powerful than actuality. There is, for instance, no corroboration of the tale that she was ‘discovered’ working as a milliner, which seems to have been invented by Holman Hunt and/or Frederic Stephens. There is, however, an independent account, that must have come from Siddal herself, stating that she took the initiative by showing her own drawings to the director of the School of Design in London, through whom she met and modelled for members of the PRB circle. Sounds more plausible to me, as it fits with other demonstrations of ambition. Ambition and independence are the narrative threads I have followed in the new book, along with contemporary descriptions of Siddal as ‘proud’, ‘willful’, ‘headstrong’ and ‘ungrateful’. No one described her as ‘meek’ – the notion comes from Rossetti’s delicate drawings of her, which do portray a sense of passivity when they are sketches of her seated, resting, reading, dozing. She was in fact assertive, demanding, even ‘difficult.’
The Tate exhibition does not include the painting Ophelia by John Everett Millais. Regardless of the skepticism this decision has created, I found myself in agreement, as this highlights Elizabeth’s artist abilities even more. Is this a vision you also share?
Millais’s Ophelia is of course on view in a nearby gallery at Tate Britain, and isn’t central or even relevant to the Rossettis theme of the exhibition. The curators choose to present the creativity of Rossetti family members, including Siddal as sister-in-law and wife. This enables the exhibition to showcase her own works, two of which are in the Tate’s collection. Appreciation of her art has been increasing in the recent past, but it doesn’t lend itself to widespread exhibition because the works are very small [mostly designed as illustrations] and on paper [which limits their exposure to light]. I am naturally pleased that curators, critics and visitors respond positively to Siddal’s art-making, as in my humble opinion this is of greater interest than more or less fanciful anecdotes of her life. All, however, were and are eclipsed by her sad death at 29 from a drug overdose to combat postnatal psychosis following the stillbirth of her daughter.
What was the reason why Rossetti’s brother was keen to deny the months Siddal spend at the art school in Sheffield?
He was not always keen. Only around 1911 when former students at Sheffield art school shared their memories in the local press, William dismissed the idea because he knew nothing of it, and by this date he had nevertheless established himself as the authority on Siddal. We don’t even know if Gabriel Rossetti was aware of what Siddal did during her 1857 summer in Sheffield; as soon as he travelled north to join her, they took lodgings in Matlock, a spa town in the picturesque Peak District. But is it a major element in her career, showing that she presented herself independently as an artist. So, we must rebuild the narrative of Siddal in Sheffield – and there must be more now lost information, as this was her father’s hometown and full of as-yet unidentified relatives.
In comparison with your previous monographic book about Siddal, this work casts new light on many aspects of her life. How did you carry out your most recent research (especially after the exhibition you curated in 2019: Pre-Raphaelite Sisters)?
The new information was already known to me when curating Pre-Raphaelite Sisters. As that exhibition showcased 12 women, it wasn’t possible to feature Siddal in depth. There are also new facts that have just come to light, such as the fact that she and Rossetti were together in Warwickshire around Christmas and New Year 1860 – when previously everyone (myself included) had inferred that they were estranged. They stayed together at a hotel, signing as ‘Mr and Miss Rossetti’ - a very extraordinary move, and also visited Shakespeare’s Birthplace in Stratford-on-Avon. I am still puzzling over what this means in terms of their allegedly unstable relationship. Research can be very surprising!
May I ask you whether you are already working on new art/pre-raphaelite projects?
Right now, English Heritage is installing a blue plaque to artist Marie Spartali Stillman at her former family home in Clapham. Check out janmarshblogspot for more details. More or less the same time we’ll see commemorations for the Jamaican-born model Fanny Eaton, plus a stage play based on her fascinating story.
I am also contributing to a major forthcoming exhibition on Women Artists 1600-1900 which will appear at Tate Britain in 2024. So. there’s much more life in the Pre-Raphaelites, yet to come.