Tuesday, 28 June 2011
Lizzie Siddal was the daughter of a working class family that rose from obscurity to become one of the most recognisable faces of Victorian Britain. The most famous image of her, Ophelia by Millais, shows her floating in a shallow stream by a bed of reeds, overhung with dogwood and willows; her red gold hair floating behind her in the water, she’s dressed in a white medieval gown.
She was a poet, artist, artist’s model and muse. An attractive woman, she had striking red hair, pale eyes and pale skin. Her future husband, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, became fascinated with her classic looks and flame hair, and he seduced her into living with him in a squalid apartment in Blackfriars London, where she first began to demonstrate that she was much better at the arts than at domestic duties. Her paintings caught the attention of John Ruskin, who bought all her paintings and settled an annuity of £500 on her future work. Her relationship with Rossetti became more and more strained as he struggled with his own work, took numerous lovers, and became disinterested in Lizzie as her health declined. His portraits of her around this time show her becoming more wraithlike as time passed.
Lizzie began to suffer with Tuberculosis, and took ever increasing amounts of Laudanum to control her symptoms and pain, but showed no improvement to any of her doctors recommended treatments. She grew worse as Rossetti betrayed her again and again with his frequent conquests of the more nubile model he began to prefer. And only took pity on her and married her in May 1860 when she was gravely ill.
The final blow in Lizzie’s sad short life came the following year when she gave birth to a stillborn daughter. She was profoundly depressed, and took her own life by an overdose at the age of 33. She was found shortly after in her bed. An empty phial of laudanum beside her and a note pinned to her nightdress asking her husband to take care of her disabled brother. She was buried at London’s Highgate cemetery.
Sometime after her death, deeply depressed himself, Rossetti had an experience that led him to a final, tragic insult towards his wife. While walking with a friend on a trip to Scotland a small bird came across their path. The small chaffinch did not fly away, but remained still even when picked up. Shaking with emotion, Rossetti was convinced that the bird was the soul of his dear Lizzie, whom many believed he did truly love. On his return to the house he stayed in he was told that the great bell at the door had rung, but that nobody had been there when it was answered. Within hours he was back in London, determined to retrieve the notebook of his sketches and poems he had buried with his wife. Taking what had happened as a call from Lizzie. He persuaded the Home Secretary to waive the exhumation order, and stayed at home in a state of agonised suspense while his friends went to Highgate Cemetery.
“The book in question is bound in rough grey calfskin and has red eyes to the leaves. This will distinguish it from the bible, also there as I told you.” A doctor was on hand to disinfect the book once it was retrieved. Lizzie’s body was reported to look quite perfect by the light of the fire they lit. And when the book was lifted a strand of her red gold hair came away with it.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s sister Christina wrote the following poem about her sister-in-law.
One face looks out from all his canvases,
One self-same figure sits or walks or leans:
We found her hidden just behind those screens,
That mirror gave back all her loveliness.
A queen in opal or in ruby dress,
A nameless girl in freshest summer-greens,
A saint, an angel – every canvas means
The same one meaning, neither more or less.
He feeds upon her face by day and night,
And she with true kind eyes looks back on him,
Fair as the moon and joyful as the light:
Not wan with waiting, not with sorrow dim;
Not as she is, but was when hope shone bright;
Not as she is, but as she fills his dream.
I hand sew all of my dolls clothes from a mix of brand new and recycled fabrics; designing each piece individually to ensure a unique period outfit. I make each layer of clothing that would have been worn by real women to make a truly unique doll. And even though many of these layers can’t be seen they really help to create the right shape and feel to the outfits, as well as giving support to the finished layers. I research not only the lives of the women for my portrait dolls, but also the styles and fashions they would have worn, making each doll truly special.
I’ve made Lizzie Siddal as she would have been at what was the height of her career, when she would have been in her late 20’s. She has rich flame red hair, with pale white eyes that catch blue tones.
Lizzie’s clothing is full of details to make it as authentic as possible. The skirts of this period would have been fuller with most of the bulk at the back, but I think Lizzie would have worn them in a simpler style in keeping with her artistic life-style. Lizzie was one of the first to adopt a more aesthetic style of dress. And over her white cotton open crotch drawers and shift she may or may not have worn a corset which would have been quite shocking at the time. She has layered petticoats of white cotton under a fine, stripped cotton lawn (my favorite fabric at the moment), which is trimmed with a tapestry ribbon at the hem.
This doll stands at 49cm tall, weighs approx. 300g
She wears no pads, bustles or hoops for extra shaping under her skirts, and her dress has a very medieval look in keeping with the Pre-Raphaelite style. Her full sleeves and gathered chemisette are made of 100% silk cotton. Lizzie’s entire gown is made of pure silk with a soft cream underskirt trimmed with a border of hand stitching, under a stripped sage green silk that has been crush treated to add a fine texture. Her wide bell sleeves have a tapered point to match with the high pointed front of her hand embroidered bodice, and both have a tapestry ribbon trim and matching dark red tie. Her overskirt has a short train and a matching hand stitched border and decoration on the lower front corners.