The hitherto unidentified sitter is clearly Alexa Wilding, one of the artist's favourite models in the 1860s and 1870s. She posed for many of his most important works of this period, including Venus Verticordia (1864-8; Russell-Cotes Art Gallery, Bournemouth), Monna Vanna (1866; Tate Gallery), Regina Cordium (1866; Glasgow Art Gallery), Sibylla Palmifera (1866-70; Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight), Veronica Veronese (fig.1), The Bower Meadow (1872; Manchester City Art Gallery), La Ghirlandata (1873; Guildhall Art Gallery, London), and The Blessed Damozel (1875-8; Fogg Museum of Art, Harvard).
Mrs Surtees refers to Alexa Wilding's 'languid features', indicating 'a not too-marked intelligence', and a 'slightly heavy jaw-line.' But perhaps her outstanding feature, very evident in the present drawing, was the way her thick auburn hair fell forward in two pronounced waves on either side of her forehead. 'Miss Wilding's was a lovely face.' wrote Rossetti's assistant Henry Treffry Dunn, 'beautifully moulded in every feature, full of quiescent, soft, mystical repose that suited some of his conceptions admirably, but without any variety of expression. She sat like the Sphinx waiting to be questioned and with always a vague reply in return; about the last girl, one would think, to have the makings of an actress in her; and yet to be that was her ambition.' Dunn also noticed that 'she had a deep well of affection within her seemingly placid exterior.' When Rossetti died at Birchington-on-Sea on Easter Day 1882, she was 'one of the few...who journeyed down...when she could ill afford it so that she might place a wreath on (his) grave.'
The drawing comes from the enormous collection formed by the soap magnate William Hesketh Lever, 1st Viscount Leverhulme (1851-1925), and was given by him to the Lady Lever Art Gallery which he built for the benefit of his workforce at Port Sunlight in Cheshire. Opened in 1922 after delays caused by the First World war, the Gallery was a memorial to his wife, who had died nine years earlier. In 1958, however, the drawing was among the many works in the collection which were sold at Christie's by the Gallery's Trustees, being lumped together with another Rossetti head study in a lot which realised 75 guineas. The sale is a permanent reminder of the dangers of de-accessioning; within a few years, taste was swinging back in favour of the Victorians, and either prices would have been much higher or there would have been no call for the sale at all.
The other drawing in the lot, a head of a girl with long hair, dated 1874, is listed in Tatlock's catalogue of the Port Sunlight collection, no. 2886, and in Mrs Surtees's catalogue raisonée of Rossetti's works, no. 567.