Inspired by artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s passion for wombats, every Friday is Wombat Friday at Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood. “The Wombat is a Joy, a Triumph, a Delight, a Madness!” – Dante Gabriel Rossetti
When we read about Elizabeth Siddal, it is quite often an account written with shades of sadness and melancholy, which is understandable as she endured several tragedies in life. She died of a laudanum overdose in 1862 and when her husband, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, had her coffin exhumed in 1869 so that he could publish the poems he had buried with her, he sealed her fate as a macabre literary legend. When reading about her, it can be hard to feel a sense of the real Lizzie as opposed to the Ophelia-like figure of Pre-Raphaelite lore. This is why I enjoy Georgiana Burne-Jones’ descriptions of not only Lizzie, but others in their circle.
The wife of artist Sir Edward Burne-Jones, Georgiana wrote of her husband’s life and career in Memorials of Burne-Jones. It is a fascinating book that spans two volumes and it is a resource I turn to quite often. In her Memorials, I feel I have a stronger sense of Elizabeth Siddal and how Georgiana saw her. It is a lovely glimpse into their unique Pre-Raphaelite world. So, for this #WombatFriday, my worthy wombat assistant T-Dub is getting a close look at Elizabeth Siddal and Georgiana Burne-Jones’ thoughts about the day they met.
“Rossetti and his wife, after their return from Paris, took a lodging at Hampstead, but she was so ill at first that we never saw her till the end of July, when to our great delight a day was fixed for the deferred meeting, and Gabriel suggested that it should take place at the Zoological Gardens. “The Wombat’s Lair” was the assignation that he gave to the Madox Browns and to us. A mention of this meeting in a letter that I wrote next day gives the impression of the actual time: “She was well enough to see us, and I find her as beautiful as imagination, poor thing.”
“I wish I could recall more details of that day — of the wombat’s reception of us, and of the other beasts we visited–but can only remember a passing call on the owls, between one of whom and Gabriel there was a feud. The moment their eyes met they seemed to rush at each other, Gabriel rattling his stick between the cage bars furiously and the owl almost barking with rage. Lizzie’s slender, elegant figure — tall for those days, but I never knew her actual height–comes back to me, in a graceful and simple dress, the incarnate opposite of the “tailor-made” young lady. We went home with them to their rooms at Hampstead, and I know that I then received an impression which never wore away, of romance and tragedy between her and her husband. I see her in the little upstairs bedroom with its lattice window, to which she carried me when we arrived, and the mass of her beautiful deep-red hair as she took off her bonnet: she wore her hair very loosely fastened up, so that it fell in soft, heavy wings. Her complexion looked as if a rose tint lay beneath the white skin, producing a most soft and delicate pink for the darkest flesh-tone. Her eyes were of a kind of golden brown–agate colour is the only word I can think of to describe them– and wonderfully luminous: in all of Gabriel’s drawings of her and in the type she created in his mind this is to be seen. The eyelids were deep, but without any languor or drowsiness, and had the peculiarity of seeming scarcely to veil the light in her eyes when she was looking down.”
“Whilst we were in her room she shewed me a design she had just made, called “The Woeful Victory” –then the vision passes.” (Memorials of Burne-Jones, Vol. I)