Annie Miller was a working-class girl from a Chelsea slum. Of great beauty but easy virtue, she was noticed by Holman Hunt and modelled for the 'kept' woman on the brink of reformation in The Awakening Conscience (Tate Britain), his modern-life subject of 1853-4. Hunt fell heavily for Annie and, like so many Victorian men in his position, hoped to educate her, save her from her 'life of sin', and marry her. When he left for the Holy Land in January 1854, he asked Rossetti to keep an eye on her, not letting her sit to unsuitable artists or otherwise go astray.
He should have known better. Ford Madox Brown described Annie in his diary as having a 'siren-like' quality that, he implied, men found irresistible. This was certainly true of Rossetti, who not only used Annie as a model but allowed her to sit to others, flirted with her outrageously and took her to Cremorne Gardens and other dubious resorts. Not surprisingly, this not only annoyed his fiancée, Lizzie Siddal, but aroused the jealousy of Hunt when he returned from the East in February 1856. 'They all seem mad about Annie Miller', Brown recorded on 6 July that year, 'and poor Hunt has had a fever about it.'
Annie also appears in the diary of the landscape painter G.P. Boyce, who was another of her admirers. In January 1858 he noted that Hunt was still hoping to marry her once 'her education both of mind and manners shall have been completed'. But by December 1859 matters had taken a turn for the worse. Annie had called to say that 'all was broken off between her and Hunt,' and the soft-hearted Boyce was 'pitying the poor girl very much by reason of the distraction of her mind and heart.' That evening he called on Hunt and heard his side of the story. Hunt had cancelled his engagement on finding that he could not persuade Annie 'to do what he wanted to make her a desirable wife for him, nor to wean herself from old objectionable habits.' 'The whole affair,' he told Boyce, 'had preyed on his mind for years.'
Annie makes her last appearance in Boyce's diary on 16 June 1862 when he saw her at the International Exhibition at South Kensington, 'looking as handsome as ever, (and) walking with a young man, rather a swell.' This was probably Thomas Ranelagh Thomson, the cousin of a former lover, whom she married the following year. Many years later Hunt met her accidentally on Richmond Hill, by now 'a buxom matron with a carriage full of children'. He too was now happily married, and after talking they parted amicably, old grievances mutually forgiven.
Annie modelled for several of Rossetti's pictures, notably Helen of Troy, an oil of 1863 (Kunsthalle, Hamburg). Virginia Surtees also lists six independent studies in her catalogue raisonné. Two are in public collections (Birmingham and Cambridge), and the other four have all been sold by Christie's in London in recent years (9 June 2005, lot 108; 5 June 2007, lot 102; 4 June 2009, lot 21; the present drawing).
Surtees dates our drawing to about 1860, which would place it not long after the final severance of Annie's relationship with Hunt. Of all the drawings we have of her, this one is particularly strong as a study of character, capturing her 'siren-like' allure and suggesting why men were so 'mad' about her. The unfinished sketch on the back seems to show a different model, who has not been identified.
The drawing has an interesting provenance. It was given by Rossetti in 1866 to the artist Frederic Shields, who often worked in his studio; and Shields promised to leave it to his fellow Mancunian Charles Rowley, who, as his 'memo' on the backboard reveals, had admired it in Shields' study for forty years. A philanthropist active in local politics, Rowley was a keen supporter of the Pre-Raphaelites. In 1878, aided by Shields, he secured the commission for Ford Madox Brown to paint his great series of murals in Manchester Town Hall.
Shields unfortunately forgot his promise to bequeath the drawing to Rowley, and when the artist died in 1911 Rowley was compelled to buy it from his executors. He almost certainly lent it to the exhibition of works by Madox Brown and other Pre-Raphaelites held that year at the Manchester Art Gallery, but in 1912, despite having coveted it for so long, he sold it to Percy Withers, a doctor living a few miles south of Manchester at Hale in Cheshire. Withers's interest in Rossetti may have been mainly literary. He corresponded with prominent men of letters such as A.E. Housman, Max Beerbohm and Walter de la Mare, and his house is said to have been 'full of books'.
Withers's daughter Audrey (Mrs Victor Kennett) inherited the drawing from her father, and was yet another remarkable owner. Educated at Somerville College, Oxford, she joined the staff of Vogue in 1931 and by the time war broke out in 1939, was the magazine's editor. Under her rule, which lasted until 1960, she not only steered it through twenty years of austerity but made it a major contributor to national life, helping to boost public morale and acting as a conduit for information and advice that the Board of Trade wanted to disseminate. She was also responsible for commissioning a galaxy of distinguished writers, including Bertrand Russell, Dylan Thomas, Kenneth Tynan, Kingsley Amis and Elizabeth David, as well as such photographers as Cecil Beaton, Norman Parkinson and Lee Miller. As Audrey Withers herself observed, 'I think it could be said that, during this unusual period in Vogue's history, it became the Intelligent Woman's Guide to much more than fashion'.