In 1850 Elizabeth Siddal was stitching bonnets in a back room of Mrs Tozer’s millinery in Cranbourne Alley, near Leicester Square, when she was glimpsed through an open door by the young artist Walter Deverell. Struck by her beauty, he persuaded his mother – the reason he was there in the first place – to ask this tall, pale young woman if she would model for him, and… but wait. It might not have happened like that. According to Jan Marsh, the co-curator of ‘Pre-Raphaelite Sisters’ at the National Portrait Gallery, this account of Siddal’s ‘discovery’, a key piece of Pre-Raphaelite lore, is a picturesque fiction, created long after the event by people who weren’t there at the time. An alternative story, apparently recounted by Siddal herself, is that she met Deverell through his father, then assistant secretary of the Government School of Design in London, to whom she had shown some of her drawings. Well, I wasn’t there either, but it would hardly be surprising if both accounts had been shaped by omissions and embellishments while containing some elements of truth. But the first, more often told tale has undoubtedly cast Siddal in too passive a role by focusing solely on her significance as a model and muse.
‘Pre-Raphaelite Sisters’ takes the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, fades out the central figures and asks those previously known for their supporting or peripheral roles to step forward. It pays attention to models such as Fanny Cornforth and Annie Miller, investigates the activities of the wives of some of its leading figures, including Jane Morris, Georgiana Burne-Jones and Effie Gray Millais, and celebrates the art of such sculptors and painters as Maria Zambaco and Marie Spartali Stillman. It is, in effect, a cultural history of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in its focus on how clients were tended, studios managed, costumes stitched, parallel careers pursued, opportunities for work seized and respectability either sought or rejected. It unfolds a fascinating series of interconnected life stories.
Of the twelve women explored, each in a discrete section, some remain elusive. One of the most intriguing figures is Fanny Eaton, a black model who, as Marsh points out in the book accompanying the exhibition, has been ‘hiding in plain sight’ in paintings by Joanna Boyce Wells (another ‘sister’ represented here), Albert Moore and Simeon Solomon, who asked her to serve as a model for both African and Middle Eastern figures. ‘To date, none of Eaton’s own words or thoughts are known,’ Marsh writes, although her features can be traced from one picture to the next. We know a little more about Annie Miller, a young barmaid asked by William Holman Hunt in 1853 to sit for his major picture The Awakening Conscience. As time went on and the group’s ‘modern moral subjects’ transitioned into paintings focusing closely on the female face, Dante Gabriel Rossetti made her into one of his icons of beauty. Hunt paid for Miller’s education in reading, writing and etiquette, hoping eventually to marry her, but somehow the wheels fell off that one and instead Miller married a man rather higher up the social scale. It is frustrating, however, that we can only trace this evidently determined, resourceful woman through the eyes and accounts of the artists for whom she sat, rather than in her own words.
The section devoted to Siddal feels much more personal; it even includes a curl of her deep red hair, snipped off as a memento after her death in 1862 from an overdose of laudanum. Her lack of formal art training positively recommended her pictures to her future husband, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who despised the conventions taught in art schools. But it undoubtedly held her back: her figures are stiff because she had not been taught anatomy, and she continued to work on a scale (small) and in media (pen and ink or watercolour) more associated at the time with amateur art than with professional practice. The skilled and imaginative drawings included here, however, in particular Lovers Listening to Music, reveal the seriousness of her ambition and place her as an active participant in the Pre-Raphaelite project.
Christina Rossetti had more independence than most. As a young woman she agreed to model for her brother Gabriel’s first paintings – included here is Ecce Ancilla Domini! of 1849–50, in which she decorously appears as the Virgin Mary – but, unencumbered by the need to look after a husband or to support a family, she was able to pursue a writing career.
Perhaps as a result, the section devoted to her makes her seem oddly aloof. The curators could have remedied this by placing her in a fuller context: for instance, by including illustrations to her poems by Pre-Raphaelite artists and their associates such as John Everett Millais, Frederick Sandys and Arthur Hughes, who produced drawings for her two children’s books.
One of the most rewarding sections is devoted to Georgiana Burne-Jones, wife of Edward (or Ned), who fixes us with her coolly appraising gaze from her husband’s portrait of her. She had artistic ambitions herself – some of her careful drawings are included here – but ended up channelling her energies into tending to Ned’s career and eventually writing an acclaimed biography of him. One person Georgiana understandably did not include in her account of her husband’s life was Maria Zambaco, a young Greek artist with whom Ned had an anguished love affair. He painted Zambaco as Nimuë enchanting the infatuated Merlin and, in another mood, as Phyllis bursting out of her almond tree to embrace her remorseful former lover Demophoön. As well as presenting Zambaco in her well-known role as muse and model, the exhibition also reveals her to have been an accomplished artist in her own right: she trained at the Slade and became a sculptor; here are examples of her expressive portrait medals.
There aren’t untold stories to tell in every instance, of course, and the exhibition’s claim that the contributions made by these twelve women have been ‘overlooked’ wildly exaggerates the case. Christina Rossetti’s poetry, for instance, can hardly be described as such, given the liveliness of scholarly interest in it, not to mention its immense popularity (I suspect that, outside the museum world, the name ‘Rossetti’ now calls Christina, rather than Gabriel, to most minds). Similarly, if Siddal has ever been overlooked then she must surely be a strong contender for what one might call the Leonora Carrington Prize for Regular Rediscovery. One of the strengths of the exhibition, in fact, is in revealing the diversity of the twelve, who are, admittedly, hard to sum up in a soundbite: each brought her own specific abilities to the Pre-Raphaelite enterprise and each shaped its narrative in unique ways.
The accompanying book contains five expansive and insightful essays on subjects from the precise fee a model could command (one shilling an hour, which was more lucrative than hat shop wages) to the broader context of artistic brotherhoods, while each of the twelve women is discussed in shorter, focused sections. It will be a valuable resource. Scholarship on women artists of the Victorian period has blossomed since Jan Marsh began to work in this area – her seminal books The Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood and (with Pamela Gerrish Nunn) Women Artists and the Pre-Raphaelite Movement were published in 1985 and 1989 respectively – and she personally deserves a great deal of credit for that huge increase in interest. It is a shame, though, that so little of this recent work is included in the book’s bibliography, which is unaccountably meagre when it could have been an authoritative round-up of books and articles on the subject.