Who were the women behind the famous brotherhood’s best-known works? An introduction to three of the movement’s silent muses — Lizzie Siddal, Fanny Cornforth and Mrs F.R. Leyland
Founded in 1848 by William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood grew to become an extended body of English painters, poets and critics, joined by a shared desire to reject the Classical poses of Raphael and return to the intensely-coloured, complex compositions of Italian Quattrocento art.
Pale, full-lipped, and framed by waves of luxuriant hair, the women who posed for the Pre-Raphaelites inspired some of art history’s most striking images. With characteristic angular features and wistful expressions, these unintentional muses were ‘discovered’ in shops, alehouses, or simply the street — plucked from relative obscurity to animate a world of stately archetypes.
‘The stunners’ — as they collectively came to be known — animated some of the movement’s most celebrated images, becoming Arthurian heroines, Italian muses and drowning femme fatales. For some, the transformation was disconcertingly convincing: Lizzie Siddal notoriously courted death posing for Millais’ Ophelia, having spent hours submerged in a cold tin bath.
The real identity of these celebrated, yet silent, subjects has captured the imagination of art historians — the lives of the ‘stunners’ often more dramatic than the Arthurian narratives they illustrate. Here, we look at three of the women portrayed by artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti, whose images were instrumental in the development of his literary and artistic output.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882), Study for ‘Hamlet and Ophelia’. Pencil, pen and black ink, brown wash on paper. This work and those below were offered in our Victorian, Pre-Raphaelite & British Impressionist Art sale on 16 June 2015 at Christie’s in London. Sold for £47,500
When artist Walter Deverell first ‘discovered’ Lizzie Siddal in 1849, she was working in a milliner’s shop in London. Said to have been attracted by Siddal’s ‘plainness’, Deverall persuaded her to begin work as his model, introducing his new subject to members of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood.
Where Deverall had seen ‘plainness’, these artists saw beauty, raising Siddal to the status of worthy muse. For poet William Michael Rossetti, she was ‘a most beautiful creature,’ her ‘tall, finely-formed’ figure finished with ‘large perfect eyelids, brilliant complexion and a lavish heavy wealth of coppery golden hair’.
Demand for Siddal quickly grew: in 1852, she posed for Millais’ celebrated portrait of drowning Ophelia, lying in a bath of shallow water while the artist painted. When the lights that warmed the water cut out, Siddal obligingly remained in an icy pool — the project provoking the first of several bouts of severe ill-health.
But Siddal is perhaps best known as the principal muse of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, a founding member of the brotherhood, who first drew her in 1851. Utterly captivated, Rossetti rejected other models, demanding that Siddal pose exclusively for him. He depicted her in hundreds of drawings, paintings, and poems — the pair eventually marrying in 1860.
Rossetti buried Siddal with the only copy of his poems he owned. In 1869, addicted to drugs and convinced he was going blind, he requested the works be exhumed
Their relationship was famously turbulent: while Rossetti exalted Siddal in his art, he was frequently unfaithful. Suffering from depression — exacerbated by persistent illness and the death of her first child — Siddal became addicted to laudanum, an overdose of the substance eventually killing her in the early months of 1862.
Overcome with grief, Rossetti buried Siddal with the only copy of his poems he owned, purportedly sliding the bound pages into her flowing red hair. In 1869, addicted to drugs and convinced he was going blind, he requested the works be exhumed. They were published to poor critical reception, the process haunting Rossetti for the rest of his life.
While Siddal became one of the Pre-Raphaelites’ most iconic subjects, she was also a talented artist and writer. In the early years of their relationship, Siddal would study with her husband — eventually receiving patronage from art critic John Ruskin. As a young girl, a Tennyson poem, printed on the newspaper wrapped around a block of butter, is said to have inspired her own writing.
According to critic William Gaunt: ‘Her verses were as simple and moving as ancient ballads; her drawings were as genuine in their medieval spirit as much more highly finished and competent works of Pre-Raphaelite art.’
Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882). Study of Fanny Cornforth, asleep on a chaise-longue, 1862. Pencil on paper
Fanny Cornforth met Rossetti in 1858, becoming the artist’s model and — it is rumoured — his mistress. Born Sarah Cox, the daughter of a blacksmith in the Sussex village of Steyning, she was admired for her radiant health, extroversion and beauty — the antithesis of Rossetti’s increasingly fragile wife Lizzie.
Writing on his brother’s new muse, William Rossetti described ‘a pre-eminently fine woman with regular and sweet features’, with a ‘mass of the most lovely blond hair’. Despite her appearance, Cornforth’s background meant she was frequently ostracised: although he admired her hair, William (incorrectly) claimed she had ‘no charm of breeding, education, or intellect’.
As a model, Cornforth appeared to inspire a shift, not only in Rossetti’s romantic affections, but his approach to painting. Finished in 1859, his first picture of her — Bocca Baciata — saw the move towards a more mature style, departing from chivalric narratives that had shaped works featuring Lizzie towards an appreciation of beauty that saw Rossetti aligned with the Aesthetic movement.
When Siddal died in 1862, Cornforth moved into his home as housekeeper — mutual weight gain giving rise to the perversely affectionate pet names ‘My Dear Elephant’ (Cornforth) and ‘Rhino’ (Rossetti). The pair remained together for several years and, while Rossetti’s declining health eventually prompted Cornforth to move, they remained in touch, the artist leaving her a number of his paintings.
Mrs F.R. Leyland
Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882). A study of Mrs Frederick Leyland, bust-length, for ‘Monna Rosa’, 1867. Sold for £62,500
Mrs F.R. Leyland (1834–1910) was the wife of Frederick Richards Leyland, the Liverpool ship-owner who was one of Rossetti’s most important patrons. Unlike many of the Pre-Raphaelite’s models, Mrs Leyland was not a muse discovered by chance encounter, but the subject of a portrait commissioned by Mr Leyland in 1867.
The project became a fruitful opportunity for Rossetti to explore the rich possibilities of a new Aesthetic style, first adopted in studies of Fanny Cornforth. Rossetti worked enthusiastically, writing to Leyland in 1867 to inform him of his progress: ‘The picture is much advanced, and in every way altered, as I have again had it considerably enlarged!’
While this sketch captures the sitter’s personality, the artist’s finished work was far from being a character study. Described by John Christian as an ‘object designed to take its place in a carefully contrived decorative ensemble’, the resulting image was a flamboyant exercise in Aestheticism: dressed in white and gold drapery, Mrs Leyland was surrounded by a rose bush emerging from a blue and white Chinese vase, a bamboo and red lacquer stand in the background, a peacock feather fan hanging on the wall.
A ruthless self-made businessman, Leyland took an unexpectedly prominent role in the development of the Aesthetic movement. Working with Rossetti, the dealers Murray Marks and Charles Augustus Howell, and the architect Norman Shaw, he created two celebrated Aesthetic interiors — allowing him to realise his dream of ‘living the life of an old Venetian merchant in modern London’.
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