Saturday, December 3, 2011
Dante Gabriel Rossetti - Elizabeth Siddal seated in a chair
with inscriptions 'By Dante G. Rossetti./Elizabeth Eleanor Siddal (Mrs Dante G. Rossetti)./Presented to Frank Hueffer in affectionate reminiscence by/Wm M. Rossetti/January 1883.' and 'This drawing must have been done I think in either 1859 or/1860-i.e, either a little before or a little after the marriage/of Rossetti & Miss Siddal/W.M.R.' (on two labels attached to the backboard)
8 x 5½ in. (20.5 x 14 cm.)
Elizabeth (Lizzie) Siddal is probably the most famous of the 'stunners' who inspired the Pre-Raphaelites and moulded their ideal of female beauty. She was born on 25 July 1829, a year and two months after Rossetti. Her father, Charles Siddall (she preferred to spell the name with a singel 'l'), was a cutler of Sheffield origin, and the family lived at 7 Charles Street, Hatton Garden, in Holborn, later moving to 8 Kent Place, off the Old Kent Road in Southwark. By the end of 1849 she was working as a milliner's assistant in Cranbourne Alley, Leicester Square. There she was 'discovered' by Walter Deverell, a young, good-looking associate of the recently founded Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and asked to model for the figure of Viola in the picture he was currently painting, Twelfth Night (formerly Forbes Collection, sold Christie's, London, 19 February 2003, lot 36). Rossetti was also sitting for the picture, taking the part of the jester Feste, and it was in Deverell's studio that he and Lizzie met.
Deverell was in raptures over Lizzie's appearance, describing her to Holman Hunt as 'a stupendously beautiful creature...By Jove! She's like a queen, magnificently tall, with a lovely figure, a stately neck, and a face of the most delicate and finished modelling...; she has grey eyes, and her hair is like dazzling copper.' It was not long before she was sitting to other artists, appearing in Hunt's Christian Missionary (1850; Ashmolean Museum, Oxford) and Valentine rescuing Silvia (1851; Manchester), and most famously of all in Millais' Ophelia (1852; Tate Gallery).
Shortly after this, however, she ceased to model for anyone but Rossetti. From the moment he saw her, he later told Madox Brown, he felt that 'his destiny was defined'. Intensely romantic, he recognised his ideal woman in her statuesque beauty and regal carriage, her natural distinction overlaying a profound shyness, and her subtle, unusual colouring - her straight, loosely fastened auburn hair, her pale skin and grey-green eyes, slightly protruberant and veiled by heavy lids. Her preference for simple, unconventional dresses of dove-grey or black material only enhanced her air of ethereal, almost spiritual, elegance. But if Rossetti had met his 'destiny', Lizzie too was enslaved by this ardent and brilliant young artist of almost wholly Italian blood, so different from anyone she had hitherto encountered in her restricted life. No wonder they fell in love. Lizzie, or 'Guggum' as Rossetti called her, was constantly at his bohemian 'crib' in Chatham Place, Blackfriars. They were soon engaged, and throughout the 1850s she was his unrivalled muse, inspiring endless drawings and appearing in all his work of the period, whether the religious and Dantesque subjects to which he was so drawn during the early part of the decade (see lot 3), or the 'Froissartian' themes that tended to take over following his meeting with Burne-Jones and William Morris in 1856. Lizzie herself had ambitions to become an artist, and Rossetti encouraged her efforts both in painting and poetry. He even declared that she was a better artist than he was, and while this is patently untrue her work does have a touching sincerity, reflecting his in style but speaking with a faltering voice of its own. Ruskin was another admirer of her drawings, and paid her a regular income in an attempt to help them both.
But the relationship between these two highly-strung and egocentric people came under increasing strain. Lizzie suffered from chronic ill-health. Consumptive and racked by neuralgia, she was also the victim of a host of half-realised fears and stresses; the professional frustration of the almost totally untrained artist; the struggle to hold her own in a circle of brilliant intellects; and who knows what insecurities resulting from her humble background and the fate of her youngest brother, Harry, who was mentally retarded. All this was exacerbated by Rossetti's reluctance to commit himself to marriage, partly constitutional, partly fanned by his family, who opposed it on the grounds of Lizzie's health and social inferiority. There was also the question of jealousy, as Rossetti sought sexual satisfaction in a series of liaisons with more robust and accommodating partners. By the mid 1850s the lovers' relations had become soured by moods, rows and mutual recriminations. Or Lizzie would flee to some spa - Hastings, Bath, Matlock, even Nice - in search of the health that eluded her in London and to escape the poisoned atmosphere of Chatham Place. Sometimes she went alone, sometimes with Rossetti, who was himself fleeing from demons.
Matters came to a head in the spring of 1860 when Lizzie's health deteriorated dramatically and Rossetti, fearing that she would die at any moment and all too aware of the suffering he had caused her, resolved to marry. The ceremony took place at Hastings on 23 May, and was followed by a honeymoon in Paris. The couple returned to Blackfriars and for a brief period Lizzie enjoyed greater happiness, re-assured by her new status and anticipating the arrival of a baby. But the birth of a still-born girl in May 1861 was a devastating blow for someone so wasted by illness and dependent on drugs, reviving all her old tendency to morbid reflection and erratic behaviour. On the evening of 10 February 1862, left alone at Chatham Place while Rossetti was out teaching at the Working Men's College, she took an overdose of the laudanum she had long been using for medicinal purposes. A verdict of accidental death was recorded, but all the evidence pointed to suicide.
Overwhelmed with remorse, Rossetti buried his manuscript poems beside Lizzie in her coffin, only to exhume them in 1869 when friends urged their publication. The tragedy of his failed relationship with Lizzie was to haunt him for the rest of his life. Preying on a powerful imagination nurtured by the phantasmagoria of Romanticism, nothing did more to fuel the mental and physical decline that led inexorably to his own death twenty years later. His 'destiny' had become his nemesis.
Some sixty of Rossetti's drawings of Lizzie survive, the earliest dating from about 1850, when she was twenty-one, the last from June 1861, eight months before her death. A few of the drawings are studies for paintings, but by far the majority were made for their own sake and stand as independent works of art. Some are carefully considered head studies, some indicate her setting in considerable detail, but most are impromptu sketches recording some pose that had caught the artist's imagination as she reclined wearily in her chair, sat at her easel, read a book, or, in one instance, listlessly cut a pattern from a strip of paper. Madox Brown captured the claustrophobic world in which these drawings were created in a diary entry for 7 October 1854: 'Called on Dante Rossetti saw Miss Siddall (sic) looking thinner & more deathlike & more beautiful & more ragged than ever, a real artist, a woman without parallel for many a long year. Gabriel as usual diffuse & inconsequent in his work. Drawing wonderful & lovely "Guggums" one after another each one a fresh charm each one stamped with immortality.' On 6 August 1855 he was at Chatham Place again and recorded: 'I remained talking to Rossetti till 3 a.m. he showed me a drawer full of "Guggums", God knows how many, but not bad work I should say for the six years he has known her. It is like a monomania with him. Many of them are matchless in beauty however & one day will be worth large sums.'
Rossetti's drawings of Lizzie are generally regarded as one of his greatest achievements. There is nothing quite like them in British art, even within the context of Pre-Raphaelitism and the cult of the 'stunner'. Neither Rossetti's own later studies of Jane Morris nor Burne-Jones's of Maria Zambaco approach them in range, number, intimacy and sheer obsessiveness. If anywhere, it is outside Pre-Raphaelitism, in Augustus John's innumerable studies of Dorelia, that we find the closest parallel.
On a label on the back, William Michael Rossetti suggested a date for the present example of 1859-60, that is to say shortly before or after Lizzie's marriage in May of the latter year; but it is now generally accepted that the drawing was made when the lovers were staying at Hastings in May/June 1854. They had gone there at the suggestion of their friend Barbara Leigh Smith, whose country house, 'Scalands', was nearby, Lizzie of course being in search of better health. Rossetti 'made many sketches of (Lizzie) now', wrote his biographer Oswald Doughty, 'tender, intimate little sketches showing her in the simple attitudes of daily life: sitting or standing by a window, seated in her chair, reading, or working at her drawings.' The drawing of her 'standing by a window' is the highly finished and well-known study, inscribed 'Hastings May 1854', in the Victoria and Albert Museum (fig. 1), while that of her 'seated in her chair', inscribed 'Hastings June 2 1854', is in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge (fig. 2). Our drawing can be dated to the same period since it clearly shows Lizzie sitting in the same adjustable chair. It is night in the room she had taken in Mrs Elphick's boarding-house. As so often, weak and tired, she leans against a pillow, along the upper edge of which her hair is spread. On the table beside her sits a cup and saucer, perhaps holding invalid's broth, while a lighted candle casts dramatic shadows and simplifies the forms of her head, pillow and dress.
It is not clear if the drawing remained in Rossetti's possession until his death in 1882 or was given to his brother William Michael. At all events, according to the labels on the back, William Michael gave it in January 1883 to Dr Franz Hueffer, a German musicologist who had married Ford Madox Brown's daughter Catherine in 1872. William Michael himself was married to Catherine's elder sister, Lucy. On Hueffer's death in 1889 the drawing was inherited by his widow, who presumably still had it at her death in 1927. After passing throught the hands of another owner, it came some five years later into the possession of the art-historian Kenneth Clark. Well-known as the wartime director of the National Gallery, the author of such books as Landscape into Art and The Nude, and the presenter of the popular television series Civilisation, Clark kept it until his death in 1983, lending it to a number of major exhibitions.