Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Elizabeth Siddal Beyond Ophelia


It's time that Elizabeth Siddal had an exhibition of her own art works - some decades after the one I curated at the Ruskin Gallery in Sheffield.
So good news that the team at Wightwick Manor in Warwickshire is showing a fair selection from now until the end of the year.
Lizzie, as she is familiarly known to all fans, came into the Pre-Raphaelite world as a model, most famously of course for Millais's Ophelia. I discount the idea of discovery in a milliner's shop: though at least one of her sisters worked as a dressmaker and Lizzie probably did the same,  she had aspirations to art and  her first known modelling job was for Walter Deverell, whom she doubtless met at the School of Design where he taught and she attended classes, as she did later at Sheffield Art School.
When, after working for Millais, Holman Hunt and probably Charles Collins, Lizzie went to sit for Rossetti, she lamented that 'no man cares for her soul', only for her availability as a model.  He was the first person to respond to her aspirations, taking her under his wing as student as well as prospective partner.  He drew her at the easel and drawing board.
After her death  Gabriel collected together all her own watercolours and drawings, having the latter photographed for memorial albums.

Sadly, Gabriel never taught Lizzie much in the way of technique, anatomy or composition, so her works were genuinely naïve.  They convey emotional force, often articulated through paired couples. 
Many have a curiously Blakean air, and not only when the figures are similarly boneless.
The range of subjects is relatively wide, but notably focussed. 
Firstly on moments relating to Tennyson's early poems, when Gabriel was pushing for Lizzie to be included among the illustrators of the Moxon edition.  Here are images from Tennyson's St Agnes Eve [not to be confused with Keats' Eve of St Agnes] and the allusion to St Cecilia in  The Palace of Art.  Another is Lizzie's early image for the Lady of Shalott.
Secondly on traditional ballads, for a projected book based on Scott's Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, Lizzie's copy of which survives.  These include St Patrick Spens, Clerk Saunders and May Margaret, and the Lass of Lochroyan.
Several other subjects are devotional - the Nativity, Angels, the self-sacrificial daughter of Jephtha. 
Then there are those illustrating Rossetti's poems: The Blessed Damozel, Sister Helen, The Woeful Victory. 
And some whose subjects are yet unidentified, including these two:
one where in a forest a ghost figure frightens a woman; and one where lovers listen to dark-skinned girls playing an exotic musical instrument.  it is likely that both also have literary sources - which surely ought to be guessable?
Wightwick Manor has a relatively large collection of Siddal's works because in 1961 Rosalie Mander, chatelaine of the Manor and author of a biography of Rossetti, bought them at auction.
 The exhibition BEYOND OPHELIA :  A CELEBRATION OF LIZZIE SIDDAL ARTIST AND POET is curated by Hannah Squire and on display in the Daisy Room at Wightwick until Christmas Eve.
a slightly clearer image of the ghost in the forest:

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