Sorrow and Sunflowers

'Clytie', Evelyn De Morgan

‘Clytie’, Evelyn De Morgan

Clytie was a beautiful water nymph who loved the sun god Apollo (Helios).  Apollo, however, didn’t return her love.  The rejected Clytie could not move on and her love for Apollo grew into obsession.  She remained in one spot, staring at the sun as her unrequited love guided it across the sky each day in his chariot.  Never eating or drinking, her only nourishment came from her own tears as her face followed the sun.

Eventually her legs formed roots and her face transformed into a sunflower, forever following the sun.

At some point in our lives, have we all been Clytie?  Rooted in place, unable to move on? Allowing someone or something to change who we are?

Myths may seem to be archaic tropes, but dust them off  and there’s timeless wisdom.  Clytie is a cautionary tale and the sunflower should be embraced as a symbol of what can happen when we become rooted in unhealthy ideas we can’t let go of — not growing into ourselves, but into something else completely.  Are sunflowers a symbol of Clytie’s sorrow, then?  Not necessarily.  I say they are symbols of hope.  We can look at them and say “Not me.  Not today.  I am moving forward.”

'Clytie', Frederic Leighton

‘Clytie’, Frederic Leighton

She wasted away, deranged by her experience of love. Impatient of the nymphs, night and day, under the open sky, she sat dishevelled, bareheaded, on the bare earth. Without food or water, fasting, for nine days, she lived only on dew and tears, and did not stir from the ground. She only gazed at the god’s aspect as he passed, and turned her face towards him. They say that her limbs clung to the soil, and that her ghastly pallor changed part of her appearance to that of a bloodless plant: but part was reddened, and a flower hid her face. She turns, always, towards the sun; though her roots hold her fast, her love remains unaltered. (Ovid,Metamorphoses IV:256-273)

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Book review: That Summer by Lauren Willig


That Summer was tremendous fun to read, especially if you have an interest in the Pre-Raphaelites.  Lauren Willig adroitly weaves together two tales that take place in two different time periods:  one in 1849, the other in 2009.

In 2009, Julia Conley unexpectedly inherits a house outside of London.  Herne Hill is a family home that she hasn’t visited since the death of her mother when Julia was only six years old.  Dealing with the house isn’t something she relishes and neither are the perplexing memories that are now rising to the surface.  Julia is forced to deal with emotions she long avoided and discuss with her father the one subject they’ve always ignored:  her mother.  When Julia finds a hidden Pre-Raphaelite painting in an old wardrobe, she realizes the house holds more secrets than she realized.

In 1849, Imogen Grantham and her husband Arthur live in a loveless marriage in his family home, Herne Hill.  Arthur is a collector of medieval antiquities and his collection draws interest from a group of young artists, including Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Gavin Thorne.  Gavin is hired to paint Imogen’s portrait and the bond they form will change the Grantham family forever.

I enjoyed That Summer, both for the Victorian story of Imogen and Gavin and for the modern tale of Julia.  Julia’s story is peppered with delightful pop culture references and her efforts to track down information about her Pre-Raphaelite painting rang true since she starts her journey where most of us would:  Google and Wikipedia.  The juxtaposition of Julia’s modern life with the world of the Granthams makes That Summer a delightful story of the same family home seen in two vastly different eras.

Visit the author’s website:  Lauren Willig

In the U.S., you can purchase That Summer: A Novel on
In the UK, you can purchase That Summer on

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Rossetti’s Day Dream

One of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s last paintings shows Jane Morris in a world of green.  She’s surrounded by foliage, seemingly lost in a day dream while her book lies ignored on her lap.  Her hand loosely holds a honeysuckle.

'The Day Dream', Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1880)

‘The Day Dream’, Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1880)


‘Proserpine’, Dante Gabriel Rossetti

'Astarte Syriaca', Dante Gabriel Rossetti

‘Astarte Syriaca’, Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Jane is possibly clad in the same dress she wore in Proserpine, where she is again seen both wearing and surrounded by green. A similar garment can also be seen in Astarte Syriaca, although it is more loosely draped and her bare shoulders are exposed.

Rossetti wrote a sonnet to accompany The Day Dream (read here in full).  The poem ends  She dreams ; till now on her forgotten book/Drops the forgotten blossom from her hand.  The poem and picture are obviously about the woman lost in her day dream, but Rossetti’s obsessive use of Jane Morris in his paintings makes me question whether or not the title refers to Jane as the subject of his own daily thoughts and dreams. Perhaps the painting is not of a woman day dreaming, but showing us the fixation of the artist’s own day dream. To paraphrase his sister Christina Rossetti’s poem, perhaps we see Jane here not as she is, but as she fills his dream. (In an Artists’s Studio).

In the study for The Day Dream, we can focus on Jane’s face.  This is the face that captivated Rossetti from the moment he spotted her in the theatre audience in Oxford, the face that has become representative of Rossetti’s body of work.

Study for 'The Day Dream'

Study for ‘The Day Dream’

“How nice it would be if I could feel sure I had painted you once and for all so as to let the world know what you were, but every new thing I do from you is a disappointment, and it is only at some odd moment when I cannot set about it that I see by a flash the way it ought to be done,” Rossetti wrote to Jane. She was an important part of Rossetti’s later years and each painting can be seen as an attempt to capture some inexplicable quality that is the key to their relationship.  Perhaps each work is a different “day dream”, if we look at day dreams as a way to explore our subconscious. This article, What Your Daydreams Reveal About You, discusses day dreams as a way to understand ourselves, set goals and improve our lives.  Seen in this psychological context, the title of Rossetti’s painting takes on a deeper meaning. Jane Morris, as Rossetti’s muse, became the catalyst for “day dreams” that inspired some of his greatest masterpieces.  Through his work, he may not have been exploring not only Jane’s face, but what she meant to him and why.

'Rossetti working on "The Day Dream" ' by Frederic Shields

‘Rossetti working on “The Day Dream” ‘ by Frederic Shields


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Wombat Friday: Ruth Herbert, Pre-Raphaelite Stunner


“The beautiful Miss Herbert, then acting at the St. James Theatre, used to come sometimes to sit to Watts, and the younger men, if they were there, would gather round her and make studies also. Echoes of their admiration reached us young people, to whom theatres were things unknown, and once we were shewn a small water-colour made by Gabriel of her, radiant in golden hair, – - just the head and throat on an emerald-green background– and deeply did we feel the tribute rendered to her beauty when we read the names which he had written around the four sides of the little picture: “BEATRICE HELEN GUENEVERE HERBERT”. I first saw this lady one evening in the early days of our marriage, at the house of friends and ours, Mr. and Mrs. Street, and then after many years we met again in Rottingdean, when Miss Herbert drove out from Brighton and she and my husband shook hands across the gulf of time. Her grace and dignity of bearing remained very striking, and I do not think there could have been a shock on either side, for both still visibly carried the marks of their distinguishing gifts–of power and of beauty. (The Memorials of Edward Burne-Jones, volume I by Georgiana Burne-Jones)

Ruth Herbert was a Victorian actress who was drawn frequently by artists in the Pre-Raphaelite circle.  Dante Gabriel Rossetti used her features a great deal and once wrote to William Bell Scott while waiting for her arrival:

I am in the stunning position this morning of expecting the actual visit at 1/2 past 11 of a model whom I have been longing to paint for years — Miss Herbert of the Olympic Theatre– who has the most varied and highest expression I ever saw in a woman’s face, besides abundant beauty, golden hair, etc. Did you ever see her? O my eye! she has sat to me now and will sit to me for Mary Magdalene in the picture I am beginning. Such luck!

'Head of a Woman Called Ruth Herbert', Dante Gabriel Rossetti

‘Head of a Woman Called Ruth Herbert’, Dante Gabriel Rossetti

This drawing by Rossetti is of Fanny Cornforth and George Boyce, but Ruth Herbert’s portrait can be seen on the wall:

george boyce fanny cornforth

Mary Elizabeth Braddon, author of Lady Audley’s Secret, declared Ruth Herbert’s performance of Lady Audley to be her favorite. Incidentally, Lady Audley’s Secret is a must-read for Pre-Raphaelite fans.  The description of Lady Audley’s portrait in the book is definitely inspired by the Pre-Raphaelites and the plot itself is an exploration of gender, class and identity. See Pre-Raphaelite References: Lady Audley’s Secret. 

We live in the age of Instagram, where actresses and reality-tv-starlets pepper our news feeds.  In a world where you can be famous without actual talent or achievement, it’s nice to glimpse an actress of a bygone time.  An actress whose features we might never see or whose name we might not hear of had she not captured the fancy of several Pre-Raphaelite artists and their friends.  Here’s to you, Ruth Herbert.

Portrait of Ruth herbert by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Portrait of Ruth herbert by Dante Gabriel Rossetti


Also see Kirsty Stonell Walker’s post about Miss Herbert, Ruth-less, at The Kissed Mouth.

Follow #WombatFriday at the Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood Facebook page or Twitter.


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Love, Death and Potted Plants

'Isabella and the Pot of Basil', William Holman Hunt

‘Isabella and the Pot of Basil’, William Holman Hunt

William Holman Hunt’s Isabella and the Pot of Basil is currently in the news with the recent announcement that the Delaware Art museum will be auctioning the painting tomorrow.  The work has been in their collection since 1947 and it is sad news indeed that the Delaware has to sell it and three other works in order to pay a $19.8 million construction debt.  I was shocked when I first read the news that they would part with Isabella, which is one of the treasures in their Pre-Raphaelite collection.  Kirsty Stonell Walker has just written a particularly brilliant post about the auction that I encourage you to read.

Isabella is an example of absorbing grief and is based on the narrative poem by John Keats. Isabella, the daughter of an affluent family, is in love with one of their servants, Lorenzo.  Her brothers, having planned for Isabella to make a financially advantageous marriage, decide that swift action must be taken to stop Lorenzo and Isabella.  They murder Lorenzo.  His ghost later appears to Isabella and he leads her to his buried body.  She digs him up, removes his head and buries it in a pot of basil.  She then cares for the pot of basil obsessively, pining away and consumed with grief.

Hunt’s painting is not the only Pre-Raphaelite work featuring Keats’ Isabella.  John Everett Millais painted his version, Lorenzo and Isabella,  in the early days of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.  So early, in fact, that the initials PRB were not yet known to the public.  Millais chose not to focus solely on Isabella and the basil, but created a group scene in which she is seen dining with her family prior to the murderous act.

'Lorenzo and Isabella', Sir John Everett Millais

‘Lorenzo and Isabella’, Sir John Everett Millais

If you look closely at Isabella’s chair, you’ll see that Millais included the initials PRB.  At that time, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was a secret group.  It has been suggested that the meaning of the PRB was later leaked by Dante Gabriel Rossetti.


Isabella has also been painted by artists who weren’t members of the Brotherhood, but were inspired by them and can be considered Pre-Raphaelite in style.
John Melhuish Strudwick:


John White Alexander:


John William Waterhouse:


George Henry Grenville Manton:

George Henry Grenville Manton - Isabella


One thing that draws me to Pre-Raphaelite art is this juxtaposition of something ugly with something beautiful.  Grief, death, sorrow are shown through gorgeous imagery and vibrant colors.  The notion that Isabella has severed her deceased lover’s head in order to keep him close is something that we should find disturbing.  Yet when looking at artistic depictions of Isabella, we are not repulsed. It is the haunting beauty and sadness we see and not the gruesome nature of her act.
And she forgot the stars, the moon, and sun,
And she forgot the blue above the trees,
And she forgot the dells where waters run,
And she forgot the chilly autumn breeze;
She had no knowledge when the day was done,
And the new morn she saw not: but in peace
Hung over her sweet Basil evermore,
And moisten’d it with tears unto the core


Posted in George Henry Grenville Manton, John Melhuish Strudwick, John White Alexander, Keats, Millais, News, Waterhouse, William Holman Hunt | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment


'Aurora', Sir Edward Burne-Jones

‘Aurora’, Sir Edward Burne-Jones

A small pocket-book of this time contains a note made by Edward from a canal-bridge in a poor quarter of the city, which nearly thirty years afterwards he developed into the background of his “Aurora”.  The main outlines of building and canal are preserved in the picture, and Aurora with her cymbals comes lightly stepping along a waterside path from which in the original sketch a woman stoops to bathe her baby, but the canal has changed into an arm of a river and the houses have been welded into the long, low storage-places of a wharf, crowned by a great church lifted up against the sky.  He enjoyed making up stories to himself about his backgrounds, as he painted them; and one day as he was working on “Aurora” he did a very unusual thing, for the humour seized him to think aloud, and he spun out a whole history of the place, “You see the city gets poorer as it gets toward the church,” he said,”which makes it more interesting–the rich people have gone to live further off.  It has had many epochs: first the Roman–you may see remains of that in the foundations: then was an oligarchic government, following on a time of anarchy and disaster, that put up many fine buildings, and some of them still remain.  Then came an epoch of trade, capricious and varying in locality, that produced the strangest results on its architecture, one part of the town cutting out another by setting up nearer the sea further down the river, then being driven back again for reasons that can’t be found out now–traces of prosperity and decay succeeding each other.” (written by Georgiana Burne-Jones in Memorials of Edward Burne-Jones, vol. I)

Although the background was taken from a canal in Oxford, you can definitely see the influence from Burne-Jones’ trips to Italy as well.  In mythology, Aurora personifies the dawn and is seen here using her cymbals to awaken the city to a new day.  For comparison, you can see Evelyn De Morgan’s painting of Aurora’s Greek counterpart:  Eos.


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A Friday the 13th #WombatFriday

wombat-friday-lunaThis week, Wombat Friday falls on Friday the 13th AND a full moon.  Our wombat hero visits Luna by Sir Edward Burne-Jones.

You can follow the weekly #wombatfriday madness on Twitter (here’s the #wombatfriday hashtag link; you can follow me on Twitter as @beguilingmerlin). If you are a Facebook user, connect with me on the Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood page.

New to Wombat Friday?  

How Wombat Friday began

Kirsty Stonell Walker’s post gives an excellent explanation about Wombat Friday and Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s obsession with wombats.

And for critics of Wombat Friday:  The Defence of Wombat Friday


Jane Morris and wombat, drawn by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Jane Morris and wombat, drawn by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

 "Do you know the wombat at the Zoo?" asked Rossetti; "a delightful creature -- the most comical little beast." (Memorials of Edward Burne-Jones, Vol. I)

“Do you know the wombat at the Zoo?” asked Rossetti; “a delightful creature — the most comical little beast.” (Memorials of Edward Burne-Jones, Vol. I)



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The Mirror of Venus

'The Mirror of Venus', Sir Edward Burne-Jones

‘The Mirror of Venus’, Sir Edward Burne-Jones

Burne-Jones’ painting The Mirror of Venus is a celebration of female beauty.  Ten women, often identified as Venus and her attendants, gather around their own watery reflections.  The landscape is no rival for their beauty — it’s a bleak land that was described by author Christopher Wood as ‘strangely lunar’.

The painting doesn’t offer us any details as far as story or background are concerned.  What are they doing exactly?  We are able to see most of their reflections, which presents a magnificent example of doubling (something I personally enjoy in art).  Not all of them seek their own image, though. The beauty directly to the right of Venus gazes not at herself, but at her companion.

'The Mirror of venus' detail

‘The Mirror of Venus’ detail

As enigmatic as this painting is, there’s definitely a story here.  Or perhaps Burne-Jones has just provided us with the beginning of a story, the rest of which we must imagine on our own.


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Ophelia’s Flowers

When John Everett Millais painted Ophelia he chose to depict her in the moments just before she drowns, a bold choice as most previous artists portrayed Ophelia before she ever enters the water.  This isn’t the only striking aspect of his painting, however.  In the midst of this picture of death, the plant life is rich and colorful.  Each plant, whether in background or foreground, is given equal attention and no detail is spared.  The botanical aspects of Ophelia are so important that Millais chose to paint the background prior to adding in the figure, which was a very unusual move.

'Ophelia' (1852) John Everett Millais. Model: Elizabeth Siddal

‘Ophelia’ (1852) John Everett Millais. Model: Elizabeth Siddal


Throughout  Hamlet, Ophelia is constantly mistreated and used. Prior to the action of the play, Hamlet and Ophelia are in love.  After seeing his father’s ghost, Hamlet decides to distance himself from her as he plots revenge for his father’s murder.  When Hamlet kills Ophelia’s father, Polonius, she loses her sanity.  Even though she appears quite mad, the flowers she gives to the King, Queen and Laertes have pointed meanings that would have been obvious to Shakespeare’s audience.

Ophelia:  “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance; pray you, love, remember: and there is pansies, that’s for thoughts.”

Laertes:  “A document in madness,–thought and remembrance fitted.”

Ophelia:  “There’s fennel for you, and columbines:–there’s rue for you; and here’s some for me:–we may call it herb-grace o’Sundays:–O you must wear your rue with a difference.–There’s a daisy:–I would give you some violets, but they wither’d all when my father died:–they say he made a good end. ” [Sings] “For bonny sweet Robin is all my joy–”

The scene contains no stage direction, but it is generally accepted that Ophelia hands the flowers out.

To her brother Laertes, rosemary and pansies. For remembrance and thought, both of which are probably alluding to their slain father.

To King Claudius, fennel and columbines. Fennel for flattery. Columbine may mean ingratitude. Fennel was also believed to cast away evil spirits.  Perhaps Ophelia was suggesting that Claudius was evil.

To Queen Gertrude, rue and daisy. Rue for repentance.  Is the queen to wear hers with a difference because she shows no repentance for her previous husband’s death?  Daisy for faithlessness.   See Ophelia’s End:  Does She Hand Out the Flowers? 

In addition to the flowers mentioned in Hamlet, Millais added other flowers with symbolic meaning.  Forget-me-nots are visible on the bank.  A red poppy floats near Ophelia’s hand, a symbol of sleep and death.  Despite her saying that there were no violets, we can see she wears a necklace of them.  Fritillary, symbols of sorrow, also appear.

In Act 4, Scene 5 we hear Queen Gertrude’s description of Ophelia’s death.  Again, plants play an important role.

QUEEN GERTRUDE: There is a willow grows aslant a brook,

That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream;

There with fantastic garlands did she come

Of crow-flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples

That liberal shepherds give a grosser name,

But our cold maids do dead men’s fingers call them:

There, on the pendent boughs her coronet weeds

Clambering to hang, an envious sliver broke;

When down her weedy trophies and herself

Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide;

And, mermaid-like, awhile they bore her up:

Which time she chanted snatches of old tunes;

As one incapable of her own distress,

Or like a creature native and indued

Unto that element: but long it could not be

Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,

Pull’d the poor wretch from her melodious lay

To muddy death.

And so Ophelia dies, alone with her flowers.  Gertrude describes her as ‘mermaid like’ as if in attempt to beautify the ugliness of death.

Study of Elizabeth Siddal for the head of 'Ophelia'.

Study of Elizabeth Siddal for the head of ‘Ophelia’.

Millais used Elizabeth Siddal as the model for Ophelia.  You can read more about her uncomfortable experience posing for the painting on the Ophelia page of my site  Millais set up a series of oil lamps under a bathtub in order to keep the water she posed in a comfortable temperature.  The lamps did not last, however, and Siddal posed for hours in the cold, never saying a word.  This led to illness and the threat of a lawsuit from her father.  Siddal later married fellow Pre-Raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti; she died of a Laudanum overdose two years after their marriage.

It is a macabre coincidence that a poppy floats so close to Siddal’s hand in Ophelia.  After her death, Rossetti painted Beata Beatrix as a posthumous tribute.  A dove delivers a poppy (from which Opium is derived) into her hand.  Laudanum is a mixture of opiates and alcohol.

Beata Beatrix, Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Beata Beatrix, Dante Gabriel Rossetti

“… pray you, love, remember…”

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What is the “Pre-Raphaelite Woman”?

Singer Florence Welch of Florence + The Machine

Singer Florence Welch of Florence + The Machine

Women are central figures in Pre-Raphaelite art and this has given us the concept of a “Pre-Raphaelite Woman”. I frequently see the term ‘Pre-Raphaelite’ in occasional news articles, usually describing an actress or singer with long curly hair.  Florence Welch is often described as Pre-Raphaelite and it’s definitely a look she has embraced. But was there a unified ideal?  If we look beyond the canvasses and see the living women who posed for them, we see different types of women.  To the credit of the Pre-Raphaelites and their followers, not just one type of woman was idealized.  Women of different shapes and sizes were used as inspiration and the strengths of each have merged into what we now recognize as the Pre-Raphaelite Stunner. As much as I abhor the act of reducing a woman by talking solely of her physical appearance, I would now like to look at a few of the models and how their images shaped what we now describe as “Pre-Raphaelite”.

Elizabeth Siddal
Photograph of Elizabeth Siddal

Photograph of Elizabeth Siddal

One of the earliest models was Elizabeth Siddal.  Discovered while working in Mrs. Tozer’s millinery shop, Siddal first appeared in Walter Howell Deverell’s painting Twelfth Night.  She went on to model for William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais (she is his famous Ophelia).  Eventually she posed only for Dante Gabriel Rossetti.  Siddal became his pupil and embarked on a promising art career of her own.  Their on/off relationship lasted nearly a decade before they finally married in 1860.  Always described as being in ill-health, Siddal was addicted to Laudanum.  A stillborn daughter was the tragedy that sealed her fate and Siddal’s depression sent her further into the depths of addiction.  She died of an overdose in 1862.  Her death affected Rossetti for the rest of his life.  Seven years later,while struggling with mental health issues, Rossetti had her grave exhumed in order to retrieve the poems he had buried with her.  It was a sad, tumultuous time in his life and that one act has forever linked Siddal’s name with a tinge of the macabre.
At the beginning, though, her features inspired Rossetti’s work.  In the words of his sister Christina Rossetti’s poem  In An Artist’s Studio, “He feeds upon her face by day and night”. In a similar vein, fellow artist Ford Madox Brown described Rossetti’s repeated and obsessive drawings of Siddal as a “monomania”.  In a letter to Madox Brown, Rossetti confided that when he first saw her, he felt “his destiny was defined”.  I’m sure he meant on a personal level, but on a professional level it certainly does seem that the destiny of his work was defined when she became his muse.  Her features are discernible in most of  his drawings and paintings of the 1850s.


Elizabeth Siddal drawn by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Elizabeth Siddal drawn by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Elizabeth Siddal was not a conventional Victorian beauty.  A petite frame was prized at the time and she was considered quite tall.  Red hair was also not in favor, yet Rossetti and other Pre-Raphaelite artists depicted flowing red locks with such magnificence that they challenged the notion that red hair was both ugly and unlucky.  Later, Siddal’s hair would become famous when Charles Augustus Howell reported that her hair had continue to grow after death, supernaturally filling her coffin.  This, of course, was not true.  However, it has become another Pre-Raphaelite tale that has passed into legend.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti portrait of Elizabeth Siddal, 1854

Dante Gabriel Rossetti portrait of Elizabeth Siddal, 1854

While Rossetti fed upon her face (how parasitic that sounds) and was inspired by his muse’s features, it is interesting to see how Elizabeth Siddal viewed herself.  Her self portrait embraces the Pre-Raphaelite maxim of “truth to nature” yet it would never be described as what we consider the typical Pre-Raphaelite female. She portrays herself in a forthright manner.  It is an unflinching example of self-portraiture.
Self portrait of Elizabeth Siddal

Self portrait of Elizabeth Siddal

Annie Miller

Annie Miller was William Holman Hunt’s muse.  Like Elizabeth Siddal, Miller’s image appears in early Pre-Raphaelite works.  Hunt intended to marry her (eventually) and set about having her take lessons to become refined.  Although he set about to improve her life, their relationship did not end well and marriage never took place.  Hunt was not overly pleased with her behavior while he traveled to the Middle East to paint. ( For that matter, Elizabeth Siddal wasn’t ecstatic about Miller’s relationship with Rossetti.)  It is Rossetti’s images of Miller that I will share below,  since Hunt removed Miller’s face from his paintings of her, including The Awaking Conscience and Il Dolce Far Niente.
Annie Miller, drawn by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Annie Miller, drawn by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Annie Miller as Helen of Troy. Painted by Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

Annie Miller as Helen of Troy. Painted by Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

Annie Miller in Dante Gabriel Rossetti's painting 'Woman in Yellow'

Annie Miller in Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s painting ‘Woman in Yellow’

Photograph of Annie Miller

Photograph of Annie Miller

Effie Millais

Effie was trapped in a cold, loveless marriage to art critic John Ruskin when artist John Everett Millais fell in love with her.  After a legal annulment (and the humiliation of having to prove her virginity) Millais and Effie were married. See Pre-Raphaelite Marriages: Ruskin, Effie and Millais.  Emma Thompson has written an upcoming movie about the John Ruskin/Effie Millais ordeal in which Thompson plays Ruskin’s mother.  Effie Gray is set to be released September 2014, although the release date has changed several times.

Effie was still married to Ruskin when Millais painted her in The Order of  Release

Effie was still married to Ruskin when Millais painted her in The Order of Release

Study of Effie Millais for 'The Eve of St. Agnes'

Study of Effie Millais for ‘The Eve of St. Agnes’

Photograph of Effie Millais

Photograph of Effie Millais

Fanny Cornforth
Fanny Cornforth may have been Rossetti’s truest female friend. Often disparaged by those close to Rossetti, she appears to have been unwavering in her loyalty. Her entry into his life marked a new, sensuous aspect to his work.  The first and most obvious example is Bocca Baciata (The Kissed Mouth).  The title itself embraces physical pleasure.  Where Elizabeth Siddal was said to be thin and underweight due to illness, Fanny Cornforth was plumper, healthier, robust.  Siddal would be his idealized muse, a woman to put on a pedestal and admire.  But Cornforth was a woman to experience life and laughter with, a woman to enjoy unashamedly.  Unfortunately for her, she was not the woman Rossetti would marry.  As the years went on, she eventually became Rossetti’s housekeeper.  Her days as muse passed as his eyes sought out a different type of beauty for his work, yet she would remain a permanent fixture in his life.
Fazio's Mistress, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Model: Fanny Cornforth

Fazio’s Mistress, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Model: Fanny Cornforth

'Bocca Baciata', Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Model: Fanny Cornforth

‘Bocca Baciata’, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Model: Fanny Cornforth

Photo of Fanny Cornforth

Photo of Fanny Cornforth

Fanny Cornforth as Fair Rosamund by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Fanny Cornforth as Fair Rosamund by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Georgiana Burne-Jones

Georgiana Burne-Jones became engaged to Edward Burne-Jones in her adolescence.  She was known for her kind disposition and was a loving wife to “Ned”.  Georgiana, known as “Georgie”, was the fifth of eleven children and one of the “MacDonald sisters”. Her sister Alice married Edward Poynter, a painter who eventually became Director of the National Gallery and, later, President of the Royal Academy.  Their sister Louisa gave birth to future Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin and another sister, Alice, was the mother of Rudyard Kipling.
Georgiana Burne-Jones, drawn by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Georgiana Burne-Jones, drawn by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Georgiana Burne-Jones

Portrait of Georgiana Burne-Jones by Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones


Georgiana Burne-Jones, painted by Sir Edward Burne-Jones

Georgiana Burne-Jones, painted by Sir Edward Burne-Jones

Georgiana Burne-Jones

Georgiana Burne-Jones

Maria Zambaco

Although the Burne-Jones’ enjoyed a long and happy marriage, Ned did have an extra-marital relationship with Maria Zambaco and she is seen repeatedly in his work.  What started out as a passion turned incredibly ugly, however, and eventually his depictions of her seemed to have double meanings. (See my blog post The End of the Affair)
Maria Zambaco in 'Cupid and Psyche' by Sir Edward Burne-Jones

Maria Zambaco in ‘Cupid and Psyche’ by Sir Edward Burne-Jones

Maria Zambaco appears as Nimue in Burne-Jones' 'The Beguiling of Merlin'

Maria Zambaco appears as Nimue in Burne-Jones’ ‘The Beguiling of Merlin’

Photograph of Maria Zambaco

Photograph of Maria Zambaco

Jane Morris

Jane Morris was introduced to the Pre-Raphaelite circle in Oxford. While attending a theatre performance, she was spotted by Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones.  Later she married Rossetti’s close friend William Morris and several years after the death of Elizabeth Siddal, Rossetti and Jane Morris began a passionate romance.  It’s a relationship that is still provocative and interesting to those of us interested in Pre-Raphaelite art as William Morris apparently knew of it and while he must have been heartbroken, he was always loving and supportive towards Jane.  Rossetti’s paintings of Jane took on the same obsessive quality seen in his repeated drawings of Elizabeth Siddal years before. We see Jane again and again in his works and Christina Rossetti’s poem In An Artist’s Studio echoes as we see them all.  Once again, he feeds upon the face of a muse. And that face has become synonymous with the works of  Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
Jane Morris in 'The Blue Silk Dress', Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Jane Morris in ‘The Blue Silk Dress’, Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Jane Morris in Dante Gabriel Rossetti's 'Proserpine'

Jane Morris in Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s ‘Proserpine’

Jane seen in 'The Day-Dream' by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Jane seen in ‘The Day-Dream’ by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Jane Morris

Jane Morris

Jane Morris

Jane Morris

Alexa Wilding

When Rossetti spotted Alexa Wilding on a busy street, he immediately approached her to sit for him.  She was quite tall and even though he painted works featuring Alexa during the same time period he was painting Jane, they could not be more different in looks.  They were physically different types, yet Rossetti would embellish and add his characteristic touches to both: those Rossetti lips, strong arms and lengthened necks.  Kirsty Stonell Walker has recently written a fictionalized account of Alexa’s life, A Curl of Copper and Pearl

Alexa Wilding in Dante Gabriel Rossetti's 'La Ghirlandata'

Alexa Wilding in Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s ‘La Ghirlandata’

Lady Lilith, 1868, Oil on Canvas

Alexa Wilding, ‘Lady Lilith’, Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Alexa Wilding in 'Veronica Veronese', Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Alexa Wilding in ‘Veronica Veronese’, Dante Gabriel Rossetti


What about Pre-Raphaelite beauty in today’s woman?
It may seem as if I am pitting these women against each other and sizing them up according to physical appearance.  That is not my intention at all.  Rather, I’m trying to demonstrate that what we perceive as Pre-Raphaelite beauty is an amalgamation.  The Pre-Raphaelites were a varied group and their individual perceptions of what was aesthetically pleasing have combined together into something beautiful and bold.  And it holds possibilities.  It tells us that we are each Pre-Raphaelite Stunners. It took several types of women to develop the Pre-Raphaelite ideal; it takes women of all types to make up our world.  Resist the narrow definitions of beauty that society uses to define us.  Embrace what you feel are your strengths and silence the negative voice that finds fault.  Look in the mirror, strike a pose and know you are Beauty personified.


Posted in Alexa Wilding, Annie Miller, Burne-Jones, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Elizabeth Siddal, Fanny Cornforth, Georgiana Burne-Jones, Jane Burden Morris, mary zambaco | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Skeletons in the closet

'Fatima', Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones

‘Fatima’, Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones

Fatima was painted by Sir Edward Burne-Jones in 1862 and depicts the last wife of Bluebeard, the ancient serial killer who has the bodies of his previous wives hidden away. You can read an annotated version of Charles Perrault’s Bluebeard online at SurLaLune Fairy Tales. (Originally published in January 1697)

Bluebeard hails from the days when children’s tales were gruesome, cautionary tales. This story in particular holds a warning about marriage and how dangerous it could be for women in a time when they often died in childbirth, meaning that the result of your union could be fatal.  Burne-Jones approaches the subject of  Mrs. Bluebeard as she prepares to unlock the closet forbidden to her. He captures the suspense of the moment, since she has not yet entered and we know that on the other side of the door lies a “floor all covered over with clotted blood, on which lay the bodies of several dead women, ranged against the walls”  Using the forbidden key, she literally unlocks her husband’s secret.

Georgiana Burne-Jones described the painting in two letters to John Ruskin:

He has begun a water-colour, which he does not mean to make more than a sketch, of Bluebeard’s wife putting the key in the closet door.  It is a tall, narrow picture, only containing Mrs. Bluebeard with a long passage behind her down which she has come–and the door, of course.  Edward is sitting by, and has just looked up to charge me not to tell you about Bluebeard’s wife, because you will think the skeletons are the principal features.  I reply that his warning comes too late, for I have told you, but that you will think nothing of the kind, and know as well as I do that it is only the picture of Fatima.”

She briefly mentions Fatima in her next letter to Ruskin:

Bluebeard’s wife has grown apace since I gave notice of her beginning, and is almost all that her friends could wish her–at least they are polite enough to say so, and now Ned has begun a smaller water-colour of Love flinging open a lady”s window in the early morning on St. Valentine’s Day and greeting her.  Love bears her a little letter in his hand.

Interesting that Burne-Jones was reluctant for his wife to mention the picture, lest Ruskin think the skeletons would be the main feature.  I assume that he wanted to avoid depicting the gruesome aspect of the story and focus on the bride herself in the moment before she discovers the truth. In contrast with other Pre-Raphaelite works and their heavily detailed backgrounds, I find the use of simplicity in Fatima to be quite effective.  It enables us to focus on how alone she is and the danger of her situation.  The dark corridor behind her and the narrow size of the painting itself gives a sort of tunnel vision effect.  It is Fatima and Fatima alone that we see and feel for.

Every generation has their Bluebeard.  Personally, as I look at Burne-Jones’ Fatima it is with Angela Carter’s story The Bloody Chamber echoing in my mind.  If you’ve never read The Bloody Chamber: And Other Stories , I can’t urge you enough to find a copy as fast as you can.  Her adult re-tellings of fairy tales are dark. often sinister, yet beautiful.

bloodychamberTerri Windling’s excellent essay, Blue Beard and the Bloody Chamber, is also a must read.

There is a long history of Bluebeard-like figures weaving in and out of writers’ works.  Margaret Atwood’s short story Bluebeard’s Egg is a somewhat recent example (1986) as well as The Robber Bride (1993). Prior to that, Eudora Welty wrote The Robber Bridegroom and even Charlotte Bronte’s Mr. Rochester in Jane Eyre can be viewed as a Bluebeard of sorts.  Charles Dickens penned a piece in 1860 called Captain Murderer in which the main character is a descendant of the Bluebeard family.  Bluebeard and his treachery proves to be an endless source of literary exploration.

In 1901, cinematic pioneer Georges Méliès produced, directed and starred in Barbe-bleue, a silent film in which he portrayed Bluebeard.  The film can be seen in its entirety at  As recently as 1993, Jane Campion reinterpreted the Bluebeard tale in her film The Piano.

Scene from Barbe-bleue in which the bride finds her predecessors' bodies.

Scene from Barbe-bleue in which the bride finds her predecessors’ bodies.

I’m sure there are too many examples of Bluebeard in contemporary works to list.  Bluebeard performs an important role symbolically.  He is in the roots of every story where the villain/villainess has dark secrets to hide from their loved ones.  He is a permanent part of our culture, however well he may be obscured.  No longer a tale for children, Bluebeard represents our worst nightmare:  that the one we love and share our life with is truly unknown to us. That we are no longer safe and that they have killed before and will not hesitate to kill again.

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Book Review: A Curl of Copper and Pearl

“To start with I was nothing, but then the merest sweep of his pencil gave a hint of what I could become.”  –A Curl of Copper and Pearl


I’ve spent almost my entire adult life pursuing the Pre-Raphaelites, but never have I felt so immersed in their world as I did while reading this book. As a disclaimer, I should tell you that Kirsty is a dear friend of mine.  I obviously expected to like the book before I read it, simply because I enjoy Kirsty’s writing voice and perspective.  What I did not expect was how overwhelmed I was by the sheer beauty and power of this story.  Kirsty poured her very soul into Alexa Wilding’s tale.  The Alexa of these pages sparkles with intensity. Her life and experiences are written in an unflinchingly honest way. With utmost sincerity I say to you: this book is a work of art.

When we mention the works of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, his muses are often discussed.  His first discovery was Elizabeth Siddal, his idealized love.  He sketched her endlessly with what Ford Madox Brown would describe as monomania.   She was Beatrice to his Dante, a heavenly love that no mortal woman could ever hope to satisfy.  Sadly, Siddal would die of a laudanum overdose just two years after their marriage.  His fleshly and seductive muse was Fanny Cornforth, a prostitute who was a true friend to him and whose face and body ushered in a radical change in his work.  Then there was his lover Jane Morris, wife of his friend William.  Jane’s dark and enigmatic features lent themselves well to his many depictions of goddesses and strong, brooding women.

Where does Alexa Wilding fit in all of this?  She’s hardly ever described as his muse. Probably because unlike the others, she never seems to have shared a romantic interest with Rossetti.  Her life is a vague, tenuous fog seen in the distance.  She’s the mystery model.  We know very little about her.  If it wasn’t for Rossetti’s work, we’d know nothing at all.

Alexa Wilding in a study for Regina Cordium, Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Alexa Wilding in a study for Regina Cordium, Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Kirsty Stonell Walker assembled the bare bones of Alexa’s life and fleshed them out into a fascinating and compelling work of fiction. Much like Rossetti did when he exaggerated her features on canvas, Kirsty skillfully paints a picture of young Alice (later Alexa) Wilding as Rossetti discovered her on the street and transforms her life of drudgery into one of art and beauty.

The transition from the sewing room of Mrs Pringle’s Dress Emporium to Rossetti’s studio was not an easy one.  Over time, Alexa comes into her own as she experiences love and anguish and witnesses infidelity, madness, forgery, lust, theft and death.  Through Alexa’s eyes, we get a glimpse of Rossetti’s later years and the people in his life. Whereas Elizabeth Siddal, Fanny Cornforth and Jane Morris all had the opportunity to know Rossetti at his peak, Alexa models for  him in the most tumultuous years of his life.  He creates works of beauty while he is plagued by paranoia and mental instability.  And Alexa is the witness to it all.

A Curl of Copper and Pearl from Amazon U.S.

A Curl of Copper and Pearl from Amazon U.K



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