Painter and Poet: A Celebration of Elizabeth Siddal’s Works

As many Pre-Raphaelite scholars and enthusiasts will be aware, today is the anniversary of Elizabeth Siddal’s death, and as such an appropriate day to celebrate her artistic and literary endeavours. Perceptions of Lizzie are somewhat at odds with her actuality. She is often portrayed as a sulky and manipulative invalid (Violet Hunt’s The Wife of Rossetti), socially awkward and difficult: “not quite easy to understand, and not at all on the surface. All her talk was of a “chaffy” kind its tone sarcastic, its substance lightsome,” (WMR in Hawksley 57-58)

Yet the few extant letters by Lizzie show her to be witty and humorous, and mentions of her in Rossetti’s letters show her to be physically and mentally engaged with her work despite health problems. Although it is never said, between the lines of many accounts of her is the suggestion that Lizzie was a little bit too pleased with herself and haughty, yet her self portrait (1854) shows no trace of such narcissism or arrogance.

There is an unerring honesty about this portrait, her dress and hair are simply presented, her expression serious and the palette muted giving weight to her artistic aspirations. Lizzie wanted to be taken seriously.

As many of her paintings demonstrate Lizzie clearly had a good eye for colour and composition, her technical ability is weaker but improvement -as the below image shows- is also evident as time passes.

 

Sir Patrick Spens 1856

Sir Patrick Spens (1856) is one of Lizzie’s most compelling works, the drama of the cliffs and sea beyond is juxtaposed with the stillness and misery of the foreground figures. Lizzie articulates the agony of watching and waiting and the numbed expression concomitant with grief. An improvement in Lizzie’s painting ability is in evidence here too. Her figures have a greater refinement and she demonstrates her growing confidence by painting hands in complex contortions with, it has to be said, some success.

Lizzie’s poetry also has great appeal, its strength being in its simplicity. Rather than the complex and sometimes inaccessible verse of Dante Rossetti, Lizzie’s poetry is readable and as such highly evocative and emotive. Critics have often commented on the morbid and maudlin nature of her verse but the same can be said of many poets of the period; male and female alike. One doesn’t have to look too far to Christina Rossetti’s poetry or Mary Coleridge or to Tennyson, Browning and Keats to see similarly themed works.

Although the number of extant poems by Lizzie are few, once again we can see her promise. The below poem A Year and A Day is redolent with both sadness, and a distinct love of nature. The leaves, grass and corn are beautiful, cruel and eternal like the loss of love.

A Year and a Day

Slow days have passed that make a year,
Slow hours that make a day,
Since I could take my first dear love
And kiss him the old way;
Yet the green leaves touch me on the cheek,
Dear Christ, this month of May.

I lie among the tall green grass
That bends above my head
And covers up my wasted face
And folds me in its bed
Tenderly and lovingly
Like grass above the dead.

Dim phantoms of an unknown ill
Float through my tired brain;
The unformed visions of my life
Pass by in ghostly train;
Some pause to touch me on the cheek,
Some scatter tears like rain.

A shadow falls along the grass
And lingers at my feet;
A new face lies between my hands –
Dear Christ, if I could weep
Tears to shut out the summer leaves
When this new face I greet.

Still it is but the memory
Of something I have seen
In the dreamy summer weather
When the green leaves came between:
The shadow of my dear love’s face –
So far and strange it seems.

The river ever running down
Between its grassy bed,
The voices of a thousand birds
That clang above my head,
Shall bring to me a sadder dream
When this sad dream is dead.

A silence falls upon my heart
And hushes all its pain.
I stretch my hands in the long grass
And fall to sleep again,
There to lie empty of all love
Like beaten corn of grain.

So today, on the 153 rd anniversary of Lizzie’s death let’s celebrate her life, achievements and promise rather than forever consigning her to the role of tragic muse.

Elizabeth Siddal 25 July 1829 – 11 February 1862: Artist and Poet.

For more on Lizzie please visit http://lizziesiddal.com

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