A Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood

(Notes based on Art History Mornings at The Beecroft Gallery, July 2018)

Within the context of the 1850s and the early – experimental – years of Pre-Raphaelitism, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Elizabeth Siddall seem to explore their own art project. Even as Siddall had had no artistic training before becoming Rossetti’s pupil, in looking at their work during this decade we might do well to see it within a collaborative project. Rossetti’s art changes from an emphasis on Christian religious themes – The Girlhood of Mary Virgin, The Annunciation – to the renewal of a mediaeval aesthetic charged with chivalric romance at around the time he and Siddall meet – fall in love with – each other, share studio space and use each other as models in their drawings. Their relationship might well be read into Rossetti’s – idealised – pictures. And whilst that may also be said of Siddall’s, what is particularly interesting is that whilst she adopts the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood’s early manifesto, she adapts it to her own voice, perspective and through her own experience as a woman pursuing a creative career against the confines of gender, class and society’s rules and expectations, in her choice of subject matter… her art, then, is unique in its enquiry.

There are numerous books on the Pre-Raphaelites outlining Rossetti and Siddall’s relationship in all its turbulence; some recognise Siddall as an artist in her own right, many see her as little more than model, muse and tragic heroine.

One of the best books is Jan Marsh’s deeply researched “Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood” to be read alongside her illustrated catalogue “Pre-Raphaelite Women Artists” written with Pamela Gerrish Nunn, and Elizabeth Prettejohn’s “Art of the Pre-Raphaelites” is valuable for a broad perspective. Henriette Garnett’s “Wives and Stunners” is also an excellent read.


Un-weaving the strands of truth and myth though is a difficult business. My strategy here is to keep Siddall’s artworks – those that remain to us at least – central.

Of note: this year there is an exhibition of Elizabeth Siddall’s work:


Millais - Ophelia Saying that, we perhaps have to start with John Everett Millais’ painting “Ophelia” (1852, Tate) as one of the most famous depictions of Elizabeth Siddall, posed as Shakespeare’s character Ophelia who, maddened by love, mourning and deception, drowns herself. That the tragic heroine is seen as a central trope in Pre-Raphaelitism (and indeed Victorian art generally) only serves to obscure Siddall’s real story; however modelling for Millais very nearly did bring about tragedy as, concentrating on his painting, the artist failed to notice that the oil lamps placed around to keep the bath water in which his model posed, long white and all, had gone out. Unsurprisingly, lying in cold water led to pneumonia for Elizabeth Siddall who – due to this episode or otherwise – would never be of robust health again.

It’s in 1852 that she and Rossetti fall for each other. From this point on Siddall only ever models for him, and there are numerous intimate sketches and drawings as well as finished paintings in which she appears




Elizabeth Siddall in a Chair; Elizabeth Siddall plaiting her Hair (no date; both Tate)

Yet it seems that Siddall did not wish to be a model only; by 1852 she had started drawing. As Jan Marsh writes “It is impossible to tell whether she had earlier aspirations of her own, or whether they were stimulated by being in the artists’ company” (1985, p.35).  She no doubt had creative skills however, for she had been a milliner formerly, so must have had an eye for style, colour, texture – not to mention design skills – in that world. Marsh also notes:

“At some stage, it seems, she complained of being treated as nothing more than a model, a sort of clothes horse with interesting hair, and lamented that ‘no one cared for her soul’. This stirred Gabriel’s sympathy, and love and instruction went hand in hand” (Marsh, 1985, p.35).

Rossetti 3.png

Dante Gabriel Rossetti: Elizabeth Siddal Seated at an Easel (1852; National Gallery of Sweden); and two sketches by Rossetti c/o http://lizziesiddal.com/portal/a-drawer-full-of-guggums/

Marsh’s phrase that “love and instruction went hand in hand” is key to the idea that we might see the 1850s work of Rossetti and Siddall as, one way or another, a collaborative practice.

“…if Gabriel’s support was invaluable, it was also reciprocated, for [Lizzie] helped him to produce some of his finest work, as Ruskin (if few others) recognised… there was partnership as well as passion between them…” (Marsh, 1985, p.45).

Rossetti 4

Dante Gabriel Rossetti; Elizabeth Eleanor Rossetti (née Siddall) by Rossetti (1853; National Portrait Gallery)

What is fascinating is that in none of these sketches do we see Rossetti ‘romanticisng’ or ‘glamourising’ Siddall, or even suggesting sensuality as he would in so many of his later portraits of women. Particularly interesting is this sketch of Lizzie peering, scrutinising Rossetti as her model (he looks distinctly uncomfortable!), she is taking her work – and she is taken by Rossetti – seriously, as an artist. Moreover, this close scruting – truth to nature – is very much a Pre-Raphaelite concern.

A further drawing unites that hand-in-hand passion and artistic partnership:

Rossetti 5

Love’s Mirror or a Parable of Love
by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1850 – 1852)
“The simple message of the ‘parable’ is that while the young man assists his beloved with her self-portrait, the mirror (‘Love’s Mirror’) improves on art by reflecting an image of the two lovers together. Whether the features of the woman are meant to be those of Elizabeth Siddal is unclear, but the subject can be read as a romanticised image of her in the dual role of Rossetti’s model and pupil in the earliest days of their relationship” – Birmingham Museums: http://www.preraphaelites.org/the-collection/1904P491/loves-mirror-or-a-parable-of-love/

Is Siddall painting a self-portrait here? Certainly that was one of the tasks set her by Rossetti:

Siddall 1

Elizabeth Siddal (1829–1862) Self-portrait(c. 1853; private collection, c/o Wikipedia)“The portrait is interesting and competent for an artist without formal training or previous experience in oils… It is straightforward, uncompromising and surprisingly strong, emphasising the large-lidded eyes, distinctive mouth and long neck” – (Marsh, p.44-5).

And it’s interesting to see Siddall ‘translated’ through Rossetti’s eyes as she appears at the centre of this composition just a few years later:

The Tune of the Seven Towers 1857 by Dante Gabriel Rossetti 1828-1882

The Tune of the Seven Towers by Rossetti, (1857; Tate)

It is very important though to recognise – as Rossetti himself did – that Siddall brought her own understanding to the pictures she made, and it’s worth remembering:

Siddal - Shalott

The Lady of Shalott at Her Loom
Elizabeth Eleanor Siddal (1829-1862)
Pen and ink on paper
Jeremy Maas Gallery c/o www.victorianweb.org

“Neither bird nor crucifix features in the poem, but have been added by the artist as emblems of her interpretation of the Lady. This, it may be noted, runs counter to the image of a wicked, tragic transgressor so powerfully suggested by the poem.”

In a letter, Rossetti writes: “[Lizzie] has also finished her ‘Lady of Shalott’ sketch and made quite another thing of it.” – quoted in Marsh, 1985, p.46.

Siddall’s drawing references the exact moment – as no other artist had done – that the Lady turns to look through the window, her gaze active: she is seeing for herself, as a woman, as an artist. We might review the core principles of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood – that they would not copy ideas from old master paintings but look directly upon nature, and that they would present serious issues in a serious way. Here, Siddall is taking on those ideas – expressing the autobiographical, experiential truth of looking to nature as a woman artist – no matter the consequences (and of course the Lady of Shalott will die because of her transgression).

We might see then, in Siddal’s work, that she brings her own knowledge to bear – in terms, perhaps especially, of her subject matter – combining her own understandings and sympathies with the romantic-mediaeval project she shares with Rossetti through the 1850s.

Among the most prominent and completed works by Siddal (note – her surname loses one of its l’s when she comes to sign her own work from 1853 onwards) is a picture based on a well-known Border ballad:

Siddal - Clerk Saunders

“Clerk Saunders” by Elizabeth Siddal (1857; c/o Fitzwilliam  Museum – see http://webapps.fitzmuseum.cam.ac.uk/explorer/index.php?oid=13598

In the Clerk Saunders ballad… The first part describes how the Clerk seduces Maid Margaret and is stabbed to death by her brothers when they find them sleeping. In the second part, which seems to be the subject of Siddal’s design, the action moves into the sphere of the supernatural. The Clerk returns after death to claim a token of love and Maid Margaret follows him in a vain attempt to share his grave as she has his bed. Siddal’s design was conceived in response to a commission that she and Rossetti received in 1854 to illustrate a collection of ballads that their friend William Allingham was editing for Routledge. The scheme in this form eventually fell through, but not before both artists had executed a number of designs. (preraphaelitepaintings.blogspot.com)

Note how compact – almost claustrophobic – the picture is; gaining in intensity through the diagonal of Margaret and the Clerk’s gaze, paralleled – awkwardly and effectively – by arms, bedstead and prie-dieu (the open Bible escalating the drama of the emotional impact of the Clerk’s return). Both Rossetti and John Ruskin admired Siddal’s skill in developing powerful designs. Here the oval of the window conflicting with the lines and squares that make up the rest of the picture’s architecture; the verticality of the two figures. And then there are the colours – the various blues, the pinky reds and golden yellows framing, contrasting with the green. Mediaeval illuminated manuscripts and stained glass spring to mind – through both the colours and the naivete – exactly as Siddal and Rossetti would have wished in their Pre-Raphaelite opposition to Academic rules and expectations.

As the characters of “Clerk Saunders” seem to have given up all self-restraint in terms of what they will do for love, Lady Clare’s moral compass deems that she tells the truth, even if that should destroy the fulfilment of her love.

Siddal - Lady Clare.png

Elizabeth Siddal: Lady Clare (c.1854-7; private collection)

Derived from a poem by Tennyson, Lady Clare is engaged to Lord Ronald, but she learns that she is not of noble birth, but the daughter of the nurse. The nurse implores Clare not to tell, but the daughter vows she will, whatever the consequences – and in fact Lord Ronald does stand by his love and marry her.

Again, what is striking about this image is its design – claustrophobic once again, suggesting Lady Clare’s turmoil at discovering the truth, realising it could destroy the possibility of her marriage. As everything seems to be closing in, the tall figure of Lady Clare is almost writhing, an s-shape, in the space; her gaze is determined in what she must do as she confronts the claustrophobia of the situation, both pushing against the nurse/her mother and opening the door to go through and tell Lord Ronald. Everything, however, will be well even when the truth is told, and that glimpse through the door – into relatively open space, seems to suggest just that.

If Siddal looks to represent psychological struggle in these two pictures, then she dismisses – or subsumes – such drama in the next, despite the very awful context of the situation:


Siddal - Lady and Knight.png

Elizabeth Eleanor Siddal: Lady Affixing Pennant to a Knight’s Spear(c.1856; Tate)

In this chivalric subject, the Knight is leaving his love and going off to war – the tragedy of course is that he might not return. However, Siddal brings us a moment of emotional unity: note how similar in size the man and woman are; they are a union, affixing the pennant as equal partners. Outside, through the doorway and window we see the world into which the Knight must go, but here we are intimately indoors. The pennant – red for passion, love, possibly blood – is central between them, holding the two figures together as it were in this moment of heart-breaking harmony.


The relationship between Siddal and Rossetti was notoriously up-and-down; from 1858 Siddal was often ill, her use of laudanum increasing. In 1860 she appeared to be close to dying and, in passion, Rossetti proposed. They married 23rd May 1860.

In 1861, Rossetti would write that Siddal was still drawing – “she has real genius in conception and colour… I am sure she will paint such pictures as no woman has painted yet” (quoted in Marsh, p.199). It even sees she joined William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones at Morris’s Red House to paint a wall mural (see: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2013/aug/18/hidden-mural-william-morris-house).

In early 1862, Lizzie was pregnant. There is the possibility she miscarried, or it may have been that she was trying to give up the laudanum making her more ill than ever; however she seems to have taken an overdose.

Elizabeth Siddal died on 11th February 1862; she was thirty-two years old.

Stricken with grief, Rossetti’s memorial painting of Lizzie is a reflection on his poetic idol Dante’s despair at the death of his beloved Beatrice:

Rossetti - Beata.png

Dante Gabriel Rossetti: Beata Beatrix (c.1864–70, Tate)

The picture is a portrait of Elizabeth Siddall in the character of Beatrice. It has a hazy, transcendental quality, giving the sensation of a dream or vision, and is filled with symbolic references. Rossetti intended to represent her, not at the moment of death, but transformed by a ‘sudden spiritual transfiguration’… She is posed in an attitude of ecstasy, with her hands before her and her lips parted, as if she is about to receive Communion (https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/rossetti-beata-beatrix-n01279).


At the same time that Siddal was working in collaboration with Rossetti, other women artists of the 1850s were also finding their vision within the Pre-Raphaelite project. But if finding out about Lizzie Siddal is difficult, then the lack of resources makes telling the stories of these others even more difficult. It’s here that “Pre-Raphaelite Women Artists” by Jan Marsh and Pamela Gerrish Nunn – a Manchester Art Gallery exhibition catalogue from 1997 – really comes into its own.

Two women artists were friends of Rossetti and Siddal:

Barbara Leigh Smith (later Bodichon) 1827-1891 who was committed to promoting women’s rights in marriage and education. See:




also: Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon – Feminist, Artist and Rebel by Pam Hirsch:


“Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon was the most unconventional and influential leader of the Victorian women’s movement. Enormously talented, energetic and original, she was a feminist, law-reformer, painter, journalist, the close friend of George Eliot and a cousin of Florence Nightingale. As a painter, Barbara is now recognised as a vital figure among Pre-Raphaelite women artists. As a feminist she led four great campaigns: for married women’s legal status, for the right to work, the right to vote and to education. Making brilliant use of unpublished journals and letters, Pam Hirsch has written a biography that is as lively and powerful as its subject, recreating the woman in all her moods, and placing her firmly in the context of women’s struggle for equality” – Vintage Publishing.

There’s a fabulous portrait of Bodichon at Girton College, Cambridge:

Osborn, Emily Mary, 1828-1925; Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon

Portrait of Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon by Emily Mary Osborn (1828–1925) [no date;
Girton College, University of Cambridge; c/o artuk.org]

The earliest known painting by Bodichon is “Dreams of Escape: Ireland 1846” (1846; Whitworth Gallery)

Bodichon 1.png

“This work shows both her skill as a watercolourist and her concern with the issues of the day, since it alludes to the disastrous failure of the potato crop in Ireland between 1845 and 1851, when millions of Irish people either died of hunger or emigrated to America or Australia. The scene depicted is an imaginary view of the west of Ireland with abandoned cottages and a ruined monastery, while the ghostly masts of ships in the sky presumably refer to those that will take the desolate figure in the foreground away from Ireland and famine to safety” – Helen Stalker (Assistant Curator of Fine Art; Whitworth website)

Combining both Bodichon’s recognition of the socio-political situation and her skill in painting, this watercolour has the drama and fluidity of Dutch landscape. It was after meeting Anna Mary Howitt (see below) that she became an advocate of the Pre-Raphaelite style, in particular the close attention to detail, as can be seen in her preferred genre of landscape:

Bodichon - 2.png Barbara Leigh Smith: “At Ventnor, Isle of White” (1856, private collection)

and this gorgeous “Landscape with Irises”

Bodichon - 3.png

(no date; c/o http://steveartgallery.se/picture/image-37683.html)


Anna Mary Howitt (later Watts) 1824-1884 started out with a strong career; unable to advance in her studies in London, she went to Germany and wrote about the experience in “An Art Student in Munich”. A close friend of Barbara Bodichon, she joined her in The Langham Circle. Her debut as an artist was in 1854, however when the RA rejected her painting of Boadicea and the art critic John Ruskin criticised it, telling Howitt that she should leave such subjects alone and paint still life – combined with personal difficulties – she suffered a mental breakdown and destroyed her pictures.  In later life she became a Spritualist, publishing poetry and texts with her husband Alaric Alfred Watts.


The only apparently surviving picture from this period is:


Anna Mary Howitt: The Sensitive Plant (1855)

As an aside, rather intriguingly, Howitt did it seems continue to paint within her adoption of Spritualism, and images are held in Cambridge including this spirit drawing:

Howitt 1.jpg

c/o https://specialcollections-blog.lib.cam.ac.uk/?p=12818

Another artist – with whom Anna Mary Howitt travelled to Munich – was Jane Benham (later Benham Hay) 1829-1895?


Very little is known about her, even the date of her death, for not long after marrying and giving birth to a son, she moved to Florence in the 1850s and met Francesco Saverio Altamura – a painter associated with the Macchiaioli group in Tuscany. Jane Benham’s work therefore seems to unite both the radical Pre-Raphaelites with the revolutionary Macchiaiolis.

Benham 1.png


Jane Benham Hay: England and Italy (1859; c/o Wikipedia)

Whilst this painting concurs with detailed Pre-Raphaelitism, it is also ‘serious’ and political, referencing the plight of poverty-stricken Italy – in the form of the boy on the right – in contrast to the English boy. Radical Italians were then fighting their Austro-Hungarian rulers and pursuing independent Italian unification.

Two other paintings appear on https://artuk.org/discover/artists/hay-jane-eleanor-benham-18291904


Perhaps the most stand-out unique of these early Pre-Raphaelite women artists was Joanna Mary Boyce (1831-1861)



Having trained at art schools in London and Paris, and touring Italy before marrying Henry Tanworth Wells, Joanna Boyce secured excellent praise for her exhibited work: Ruskin thought she would rise to the first rank of painters; William Rossetti declared her: the best painter than ever handled a brush with a female hand.

A few of her paintings are available to view via https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Joanna_Mary_Boyce

but here I would like to focus on her portraits of women.

It is probably that when we think of Pre-Raphaelite portraits of individual women, the images that come to mind are of Rossetti’s sensuous ‘stunners’ painted from the 1860s onwards (of note Andrew Graham-Dixon’s “Rossetti: Sex, Drugs and Oilpaint” is available on BBC i-player).

However, a very different image of woman was made by the paintbrush of Joanna Boyce:



Joanna Mary Boyce: Elgiva (1855, private collection)

Elgiva was an Anglo-Saxon Queen, sacrificed as a pawn in a royal struggle – it’s a subject painted by Millais in 1847, where he show Elgiva as the victim of the scene.

Boyce, however, has changed the perspective, giving Elgiva a stately dignity against all the odds. There’s a simplicity and directness of style that reaches back to the first PRB paintings, a clarity of colour and sculptural modelling that invites our empathy.

It seems that through the 1850s, Boyce focused on paintings of working women and servants. Again, examples are difficult to find.

Boyce - Heather Gatherer The Heather Gatherer (no date, no location; found online) is one – very suggestive of a connection with the French realists of Barbizon, and Boyce had been in France.

Gretchen 1861 by Joanna Mary Wells 1831-1861

and the unfinished “Gretchen” (1861; Tate) is another. This painting may represent the innocent maiden from Goethe’s Faust, but the Tate suggests also it might be a portrait of the nursey maid in the employ of the Boyce-Wells family. Whichever, it is clear that Boyce sought to represent strong women, the heather gatherer and Gretchen are working women, with solid bodies and strong arms – they couldn’t be further away from either the romantic medieval or the sensual images of women we usually associate with the Pre-Raphaelites.

Joanna Mary Boyce Wells died due to complications in childbirth in 1861. It seems she was planning a further series of ‘great women’ including a Sybil (Greek prophetess) and a Zenobia, an ancient queen renowned for her military might.

One of the last paintings she left us, was another extraordinary – beautiful – portrait:

Fanny Eaton.png

Joanna Mary Boyce Wells: Fanny Eaton (1861, Yale Centre for British Art)

“This painting is another vivid demonstration of Boyce’s very independent grasp of Pre-Raphaelitism. Black figures are infrequent in Pre-Raphaelite work… [and tended to be embedded within a broader narrative/ grouping]… whereas Boyce treats her as an individual, as the sitter for a portrait” (Manchester exhib. catalogue p.112).

And interestingly, some research work has been done to find out more about Mrs Eaton:

“Fanny Eaton was a black Victorian Londoner and, for some time, painter’s model. Born in Jamaica in 1835, Eaton was the daughter of an ex-slave and, it is suspected, a white slave owner. She came to London in the 1840s and began modelling in her twenties. It has been discovered that she was working as a regular portrait model at the Royal Academy…Her career as a model lasted for around ten years. Much later a census finds her working as a domestic cook on the Isle of Wight at the age of 63, and another shows her back in London at the age 88, where she is known to have died.…much about Fanny Eaton remains in obscurity, and pending more definitive research she may carry on inhabiting the fringes of history” – from http://www.anothermag.com/art-photography/8453/fanny-eaton-the-black-pre-raphaelite-muse-that-time-forgot.


One can only wonder what brilliance Joanna Boyce Wells would have painted had she lived when already, not even thirty years old, she had produced such portraits. Like the other women in this essay, she had a sincere and unique perspective that she developed within the Pre-Raphaelite framework. These artists formed what we might call the ‘first generation’ of the Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood.

Pre-Raphaelitism itself would change through the 1860s, with a more literary and decorative focus (via the Arts & Crafts Movement, Aestheticism and so on), and yet it continued to develop itself as a community in which women were welcome as working, exhibiting artists.

In our discussion next month, we’ll look at this later flowering of the Pre-Raphaelite Movement – primarily through the life and work of Edward Burne-Jones – whilst keeping a sharp eye on it as a community of men- and women- artists.


Post-script: Gender-blending.

You may have been thinking: there’s one sister who has gone unmentioned – the poet Christina Rossetti, and you’d be right. She is the first woman to be associated with the PRBs. Not that she was a painter. But, some of her poetry did appear in the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood’s magazine “The Germ” and she does appear in some of the paintings: she is the Virgin Mary in Gabriel Rossetti’s “The Girlhood of Mary Virgin (1849) and The Annunciation (1850). Rather more intriguingly, it is said that she sat for the figure of St John in Ford Madox Brown’s “Jesus Washing Peter’s Feet” (1852; Tate) and that she modelled for the head of the Saviour in Holman Hunt’s “The Light of the World” (1853; Keble College, Oxford).


Art History Mornings at The Beecroft, 28th July 2018: A Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood

Art History Mornings at The Beecroft Gallery

Saturday 28th July, 10.30am-12.30pm

with Dr ML Banting

A Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood

Whilst many of us know the works of the Pre-Raphaelite Brothers, the women artists in their circle were just as radical.

Today we’ll focus on Elizabeth Siddal, Joanna Mary Wells, Barbara Leigh Smith and others, their stories and art-works, to suggest a Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood.


Image: Joanna Mary Wells “Gretchen” (1861; c/o tate.org.uk)

Meetings are held 10.30am – 12.30pm in the Beecroft Gallery lecture theatre.

Each talk costs £10 and includes tea/coffee (biscuits!)

For further information please contact Mark Banting by email  chasingtales@rocketmail.com or via twitter @TheCommonViewer

These monthly Saturday morning art history talks are educational yet informal and open to anyone with an interest in art.