I was so pleased with myself too.
My New Year's Resolution to read a book properly for the Endsleigh Salon book group monthly meeting. Not try and make something else I've read fit the theme, no, I would choose a specific and relevant book and read accordingly.
The first gathering on my return from New Zealand and the theme was 'Gemstones'. I had read The Colour by Rose Tremain and it seemed perfect. I rambled on about location, and reading a book in the actual place...who knew how many miners had dug that ground beneath my feet at Lake Kaniere, or pitched their own tents nearby in 1860, and as I drove home I had the next month's theme buzzing around my head...'In the Picture.'
I chose, as my offering for March, Lizzie Siddal - The Tragedy of a Pre-Raphaelite Supermodel by Lucinda Hawksley which has sat half-read on my shelves since 2004. I was ready for a sojourn with the Brotherhood and, with fond memories of a fiftieth birthday trip to see the exhibition of Andrew Lloyd-Webber's collection back in 2003, I settled down with the book and the catalogue (it's a good cover-to-cover read) and had a really lovely time.
I was quite excited about the meeting, it was a good read and there would be plenty to discuss I felt sure...
Except Manfluenza was zipping through us like the plague. The Gamekeeper, then the Kayaker, then Bookhound (a sort of harmony of coughing should they happen to be in the same room) so it was only a matter of time before I succumbed, and just in time for the very day of the meeting. It hardly seems fair to sneeze and cough and snuffle in a warm room full of people who absolutely don't need the contagion, so I sent along this written report instead, stayed home and watched Happy Valley as consolation, and spent the next two days in bed (first time in years I've felt that rough.)
But Lizzie probably felt a whole lot worse...
Lizzie Siddal was spotted in true rags to riches fashion by one of the Pre-Raphaelite artists as she worked in a milliner's shop in London. Said to be striking rather than beautiful she was tall and slender with a mane of copper hair. The artists called her a 'stunner' and Lizzie was immediately in great demand, most famously as the model for Ophelia in John Everett Millais' famous painting. This involved her floating in a bath of water heated by lamps placed underneath the tub which sadly went out and Lizzie, ever the professional, didn't complain, just lay there and froze. Millais ended up paying the medical bills for her recovery.
Meanwhile Dante Gabriel Rossetti (DGR!) has fallen for Lizzie big time ( calling her his 'dove' and preferring her to wear grey!) and both share similarities which may explain the ensuing conflicts. Both headstrong and wilful, depressive, prone to wild mood swings, destructively jealous and needing to be the centre of attention in any relationship. Add in addictive tendencies and it's a recipe for a right old lash up, which is mostly what it was. Tempestuous, manipulative and often making each other's lives hellish, there was nevertheless love in there somewhere, add in the insane jealousy of Christina, Dante's poet sister, and how good it would have been to be a fly on the wall.
Lizzie's addiction to laudanum must have created any number of health issues which she plays to the full, using ill-health, both real and imagined, as her best weapon to reel in Dante every time he strays, and to somehow gain some control over her life. It takes nine years and Lizzie at death's door for Dante to finally make an honest woman of her. There will follow a tragic stillbirth from which Lizzie never recovers, and whilst Lucinda Hawksley doesn't speculate I could only think what a blessing for that baby...it would have been born with an addiction to opiates and on the Geoffrey's Cordial within hours.
For a while Lizzie does become a successful artist thanks to the £150 a year patronage of John Ruskin who had a bit of a gap in his own life since his very public divorce from Effie. That could probably read as the dreaded typo 'pubic' divorce because it was said that he took fright at the sight of his wife naked and the presence of same, and the marriage was thus never consummated. Effie would eventually marry John Everett Millais (he of the bath) and have umpteen children.
Lizzie's demise, in Feb 1862 at the age of 32, whilst in the early stages of a second pregnancy, and due to an overdose of laudanum, is smoothed over as an 'accident' by Dante who destroys the suicide note. And yes, he does bury his poems with her and then have the body exhumed seven years later to recover them for publication. The myth is born about the unchanged body and the hair that had never stopped growing, and it would seem was invented to comfort Dante who wasn't present at the undigging...the clue perhaps being that the book had to be cleaned and disinfected before it could be given to him.
Dante allies himself artistically with William Morris and Burne Jones, and physically with Janey, William's wife but eventually descends into choral addiction and alcoholism remaining haunted and possessed by Lizzie for the rest of his life.
A good read that, on International Women's Day, demonstrates the stark realities of a woman's life and limitations in the 19th century and on into the 20th, the potential for scandal and lack of opportunity, the double standards in a patriarchal society, whilst also detailing much of interest about the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Sadly Lizzie's only weapon in the fight was her body and she lost.
This from the Tate Gallery website reminded me of a few details...
'The brilliant colour and luminosity of 'Ophelia' is the result of the Pre-Raphaelite technique of painting in pure colours onto a pure white ground. The ground was sometimes laid fresh for each day's work - the 'wet white' technique - which gave added brilliance and was used by Millais in 'Ophelia' particularly for the flowers. The picture contains dozens of different plants and flowers painted with the most painstaking botanical fidelity and in some cases charged with symbolic significance. For example, the willow, the nettle growing within its branches and the daisies near Ophelia's right hand, are associated with forsaken love, pain and innocence respectively. The poppy is a symbol of death.'
Bless Lizzie for posing for that.
Now I know the Pre-Raphaelites often divide art lovers so...
Like or loath?
Inspiring or dull?
I am now reminded of how much I enjoyed a book about Effie's life with John Ruskin, Effie : A Victorian Scandal by Merryn Williams a few years ago, so any more good Pre-Raphaelite reads you can recommend...