Pre-Raphaelites and Shakespeare: Portia


The model for Millais’ painting of Portia has often been incorrectly identified as Shakespearean actress Ellen Terry. The model was Kate Dolan, although the mistake was understandable as she was painted wearing Ellen Terry’s costume:

Of course I will lend you the dress (here it is.) or anything in the world that I possess, that could be of the very smallest service to you.

The dress was away in Scotland being cleaned for storing, or I should have sent it to you before–

Yours sincerely,

Ellen Terry


(Dated March 30, 1886)

Portia is the heroine of The Merchant of Venice.  You may be familiar with one of her speeches:

The quality of mercy is not strain’d.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.

Ellen Terry as Portia

Ellen Terry as Portia


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Happy Birthday Shakespeare: Pre-Raphaelites and King Lear

If you are looking for Shakespeare inspiration today, you are in luck!  Visit for a large collective of bloggers sharing posts in honor of the day!

In celebration of the Bard’s birthday, here’s a post from the archives:

William Holman Hunt, The Hireling Shepherd

King Lear is a tragic play filled with anger and grief.   It is wrought with suffering and explores issues of old age and family as only Shakespeare could explore them.  William Holman Hunt took inspiration from a quotation of King Lear for his painting The Hireling Shepherd (pictured above).  It is from the lines of the Fool, who says:

Sleepest or wakest thou, jolly shepherd?
Thy sheep be in the corn.
And for one blast of thy minikin mouth,
Thy sheep shall take no harm.

Hunt portrays the shepherd as neglecting his flock, too busy flirting with the shepherdess to see that they are falling ill.  In his hand he holds a death’s head moth.  The moth is impressive once you notice it, Hunt captured it in minute detail.   The shepherdess, also distracted and neglectful, has a young lamb in her lap that will also soon fall ill since it is eating a green apple.


Hunt’s painting is striking.  The colors are vivid and the detail is superb.  But it is Ford Madox Brown’s paintings of King Lear that excite me, because they were born from the passion of a viewer who was captivated by the performance of the play.  Lucinda Hawksley describes this in Essential Pre-Raphaelites:

“Ford Madox Brown’s fascination for Shakespeare’s King Lear began in 1843 (reputedly after seeing William Charles Macready playing Lear on the London stage).  Brown began to sketch scenes from the play feverishly — producing 16 in one year.  Henry Irving, who later played Lear to great acclaim, became the owner of several of these.”

This is the kind of tale that resonates with me. I can easily imagine an artist being swept away by an outstanding performance, a performance that inspired him to create his own images of the saga. It is a completely different experience for us now. Most of us see movies far more often than a live production. And if we want, we can easily own the movie on dvd for us to watch again and again. But what of Ford Madox Brown? A play is a different animal entirely. Performances can differ from night to night; with each new audience a new experience is created. So I see Ford Madox Brown’s work as an attempt to capture what was inspired by that one performance. He may not have painted the exact actors, scenery or costumes from that performance, but he painted the passion for the story of King Lear that the performance inspired.

Ford Madox Brown’s painting Cordelia at the Bedside of Lear:

Ford Madox Brown: Cordelia at the Bedside of LearCordelia is modeled by Brown’s wife Emma. The Fool, staring so intently at Lear, was modeled by Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

Later, Brown painted an earlier scene from the play.  Cordelia’s Portion:

In Will of the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare, author Stephen Greenblatt proposes that Shakespeare was possibly contemplating retirement –and thinking about its perils– when he wrote King Lear.  “The tragedy is his greatest meditation on extreme old age; on the painful necessity of renouncing power;  on the loss of house, land, authority, love, eyesight, and sanity itself.”  Greenblatt describes it well.  It is one of the most tumultuous Shakespearean dramas I have ever seen.

When I decided to write this post, I read King Lear in its entirety.  It is a beautiful text to read, but I was left feeling dissatisfied.  This was not the experience I wanted to have.  Shakespeare did not write his plays to be read, he wanted them to be seen!  I wanted to be involved in the story as Ford Madox Brown was.  Searching for an adaptation to watch, I was happy to find a production of King Lear starring Sir Ian McKellen on Netflix.  I highly recommend it. It is a masterful performance with a talented ensemble.   And I’m not alone in my admiration of it — visitor comments on the PBS Great Performances page describes King Lear as a  “life-altering experience, proving, once again, how great art presented intimately and at home, can illuminate the intricacies of a classic play in startling new ways.” Reading Shakespeare can be a beautiful experience, but it can never be the same as seeing it performed.  Not just performed, but performed well.

There is a life cycle to art and creativity.  Shakespeare continues to inspire.  As do the Pre-Raphaelites.  Since starting this website, I have been lucky enough to have found talented artisans whose work is often a nod to the Pre-Raphaelites and their associates.  I love Ford Madox Brown’s representations of King Lear because it is a perfect example of how someone’s creativity will stimulate the inventiveness of others.  In Act 1, Scene1 of King Lear, Shakespeare wrote that “Nothing will come of nothing.” And now it is my firm belief that Art will come from Art.

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Who is The Blessed Damozel?

'The Blessed Damozel', Dante Gabriel Rossetti.  Based on his poem by the same name.

‘The Blessed Damozel’, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Based on his poem by the same name.

The Poem:  Drawing inspiration from Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven, Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s The Blessed Damozel explores the theme of lovers separated by death.  Like Poe’s Lenore, the damozel (an archaic form of damsel) has died and Rossetti introduces her to us as she looks down upon her lover from heaven.  Rossetti later told Hall Caine ‘I saw that Poe had done the utmost it is possible to do with the grief of the lover on earth, and so I determined to reverse the conditions and give utterance to the yearning of the loved one in heaven.’ You can read the full text of the poem here.

The Blessed Damozel has shades of Dante’s Vita Nuova, except where Dante Alighieri’s sainted Beatrice was a courtly love, Rossetti’s damozel desires both a romantic and a physical union with her lover.  She still represents an idealized love, but she is not remote and unattainable like Beatrice. She seems flesh and blood, even leaning against the golden bar of heaven so long that ‘…her bosom must have made/The bar she lean’d on warm”.

First written in 1847, The Blessed Damozel was published in 1850 in the Pre-Raphaelite journal The Germ.


The Painting:  The model seen in The Blessed Damozel is often mistakenly identified as Elizabeth Siddal. It’s an understandable mistake–the subject matter of a departed lover in heaven watching the man she left behind on earth lends itself well to the Rossetti/Siddal story. Elizabeth Siddal is also occasionally assumed to have inspired Rossetti to write The Blessed Damozel poem, when in fact it was first written prior to meeting her.


Instead of Siddal inspiring The Blessed Damozel, perhaps it was the other way around: the idealized love of his poem (and described by Dante and Poe) inspired his interest in her. He cast her as Beatrice to his Dante, elevating her to the position of Muse. Her face became an integral part of his work. It was not one-sided, however. As he tutored her in art, she became someone to mold as he helped her to develop her talent. She had no greater champion of her work. Theirs was undeniably a complicated relationship. The sense of melancholy that surrounds the story of her addiction, stillborn child and the overdose that caused her death ensures that we will forever see her as Beatrice and Ophelia. Thus, the mingling of Lizzie/Beatrice/Ophelia and the perception that she must be seen in The Blessed Damozel.

Just who would he cast as The Blessed Damozel? By the time Rossetti painted it, he had moved far beyond his days of using Siddal’s features in his work. His last tribute to her, Beata Beatrix, marked the end of her reign as muse. Nor was Fanny Cornforth his muse du jour. Their relationship had mellowed into a deep friendship and, although she was was a permanent fixture of his household, she was not going to be his choice to portray the damozel. His passion for Jane Morris was unwavering; she would have made an excellent damozel. When we think of this time in his life, it is often his repeated depictions of Jane that come to mind. Yet, as Kirsty Stonell Walker points out, we seem to overlook the fact that his paintings and drawings of Alexa Wilding outnumber those of Jane.

That’s right. The Blessed Damozel is the beautiful Alexa Wilding, discovered by Rossetti on a crowded street at a time when his work needed a new face.  Painfully little has been written about Alexa (originally named Alice). We know her primarily as the face of Venus Verticordia and Veronica Veronese. Or the face that replaced Fanny Cornforth’s in Lady Lilith. 

Kirsty Stonell Walker has filled the negative space that surrounds Alexa Wilding with a brilliantly crafted tale in her new novel A Curl of Copper and Pearl.  We meet Alexa, as Rossetti did, on the streets.  Through her eyes, we see Rossetti in his tumultuous later years.  We also get a first-hand and scintillating look at Fanny Cornforth, George Boyce, Jane Morris, et al.  It’s a compelling page-turner and you will love it.



Related Links:

The Mysterious Alexa Wilding

A Curl of Copper and Pearl: An Extract for Wombat Friday

The Spiritual Depths of the Feminine Soul in Rossetti’s “Blessed Damozel’

Parallel Imagery in “The Blessed Damozel”

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Image of the Week: ‘The Dryad’, Evelyn De Morgan


Dryads are nymphs of the trees.  Their connection with the tree they lived in was so strong, they would die when the tree died.

Purple irises are at her feet, symbolizing the minor Greek goddess Iris.  Iris is the messenger of the gods, particularly Zeus and Hera.  She is also the personification of the rainbow and, as goddess of sea and sky, provides clouds with water to rain upon the world to nourish plants and trees.

The model for the dryad was Jane Hales, once nursemaid to Evelyn De Morgan’s sister.  Hales became one of De Morgan’s favorite models and is seen frequently in her work.

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Effie Millais describes ‘Apple Blossoms’

'Apple Blossoms', John Everett Millais

‘Apple Blossoms’, John Everett Millais

Apple Blossoms captures a relaxing outing on a spring day.  Liverpool Museums points out that there are many different ways to interpret this painting, especially with the odd appearance of a scythe on the right hand side of the picture.

On the face of it, this is a picture about youth and beauty, but it has a deeper message. On the right is a scythe, hinting at the inner meaning of the picture. The scythe is a traditional symbol of death, associated with the figure of ‘Death, the Grim Reaper’, often depicted as a skeleton carrying a scythe. Millais’s message is that even the youth and beauty of the girls will come to an end. Flowers fade, the seasons move on and the summer grass is cut down at harvest time. – Liverpool Museums

Turning to The Life and Letters of Sir John Everett Millais (written by his son) I am unable to find any reference to the scythe, but there is a lengthy description of the painting from the artist’s wife Effie:

In May, 1858, they went as usual to Bowerswell, where in due time the artist applied himself to ‘Apple Blossoms’, or ‘Spring’ as it was latterly called, painting it in neighboring orchards.

Here I must again avail myself of my mother’s notebook, and her remarks on ‘Spring Flowers’, as she calls it.

“This picture, whatever its future may be, I consider the most unfortunate of Millais’ pictures. It was begun at Annat Lodge, Perth, in the autumn of 1856, and took nearly four years to complete.  The first idea was to be a study of an apple tree in full blossom, and the picture was begun with a lady sitting under the tree, whilst a knight in the background looked from the shade at her.  This was to have been named ‘Faint Heart Never Won Fair Ladye’.  The idea was, however, abandoned, and Millais, in the following spring, had to leave the tree from which he had made such a careful painting, because the tenant at Annat Lodge would not let him return to paint, for she said if he came to paint in the garden it would disturb her friends walking there.  This was ridiculous, but Millais, looking about for some other suitable trees, soon found them in the orchard of our kind neighbor Mrs. Seton (Potterhill), who paid him the greatest attention.  Every day she sent her maid with luncheon, and had tablecloths pinned up on the trees so as to form a tent to shade him from the sun, and he painted there in great comfort for three weeks whilst the blossoms lasted.  During that year (1857) he began to draw in the figures, and the next year he changed to some other trees in Mr. Gentle’s orchard, next door to our home.  Here he painted in quiet comfort, and during the two springs finished all the background and some of the figures.  The centre figure was painted from Sir Thomas Moncrieff’s daughter Georgiana (afterwards Lady Dudley); Sophie Gray, my sister, is at the left side of the picture.  Alice is there too, in two positions, one resting on her elbow, singularly like, and the other lying on her back with a grass stem in her mouth.  He afterwards made an etching of this figure for the Etching Club, and called it ‘A Day in the Country’.  When the picture of ‘Spring Flowers’ was on the easel out of doors, and in broad sunlight, the bees used often to settle on the bunches of blossom, thinking them real flowers from which they might make their honey. ” –The Life and Letters of Sir John Everett Millais Vol. I

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Pre-Raphaelite Princess of Star Wars


When Time magazine asked George Lucas about the unusual hairstyle he created for Star Wars character Princess Leia, he answered:

In the 1977 film, I was working very hard to create something different that wasn’t fashion, so I went with a kind of Southwestern Pancho Villa woman revolutionary look, which is what that is. The buns are basically from turn-of-the-century Mexico. Then it took such hits and became such a thing. looks at the possible inspirations of Leia’s iconic buns in this post: The Curious Case of Leia’s Rolls.  Unable to find similar buns among photos of Mexican revolutionaries, Kitbashed author Michael Heilemann did find a 1906 photograph called ‘A Hopiland Beauty’ that bears more resemblance to Padme Amidala in Episode II.  It seems that the roots of Leia’s buns lie not from a single source, but an amalgam of several influences –Batgirl wears the double buns as Dr. Barbara Gordon, as does Queen Fria from  the Flash Gordon comics.

The twin-side-buns hairstyle exists in Pre-Raphaelite inspired art.  In John William Waterhouse’s The Crystal Ball, the hairstyle is seen in profile.  We cannot see the other side but the part down the middle of her head is visible, indicating a similar bun on the other side.

Princess Leia's iconic double bun hairstyle can be seen in 'The Crystal Ball' (John William Waterhouse, 1902)

Princess Leia’s iconic double bun hairstyle can be seen in ‘The Crystal Ball’ (John William Waterhouse, 1902)

 Titania by Henry Meynell Rheam also seems to have the same hairstyle:


And in Violets, also by Henry Meynell Rheam


Princess Leia is a woman in white, a perfect contrast for the evil Darth Vadar, who is clad head to toe in black.  Although Star Wars is set ‘a long time ago in a galaxy far away‘, I can see a medieval influence in Leia’s gowns, an influence reminiscent of Pre-Raphaelite works.


'Ecce Ancilla Domini', Dante Gabriel Rossetti

‘Ecce Ancilla Domini’, Dante Gabriel Rossetti



‘The Lady of Shalott’, John William Waterhouse



‘The Accolade’, Edmund Blair Leighton


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Margaret Hannay, sugarplum of the universe

Margaret Thompson Hannay, drawn by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Margaret Thompson Hannay, drawn by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Scottish author James Hannay once described his wife Margaret as the ‘sugarplum of the universe’.   Dante Gabriel Rossetti captured the sugarplum’s beauty in the sketch above, drawn a few weeks before the couple wed.

Margaret also appears as Beatrice in the original watercolor Dante’s Dream at the Time of the Death of Beatrice (1856).  In the later oil painting, Rossetti replaced Margaret with Jane Morris.

'Dante's Dream at the Time of the Death of Beatrice': Margaret Hannay appears as Beatrice on her deathbed.  Models Annie Miller and Miss Lazenby are Beatrice's attendants. Dante is clad in black and red, the figure of 'Love' kisses Beatrice.

‘Dante’s Dream at the Time of the Death of Beatrice’: Margaret Hannay appears as Beatrice on her deathbed. Models Annie Miller and Miss Lazenby are her attendants. Dante is clad in black and red, the figure of ‘Love’ kisses Beatrice. Jane Morris appears as Beatrice in the oil reproduction of this work.

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