The Pre-Raphaelite sisterhood

October 27, 2012

Susan Street

 

The influence and creations of the women in the
pre-Raphaelite movement.

 

The boys. Boys together. Creating, partying, playing, experimenting, bonding. That’s how things go, in the world of art. The development of painting, sculpture and other forms is littered with such relationships. From the dramas of renaissance men like Caravaggio and his contemporaries, through the competitive “bromance” of Van Gogh and Gauguin, to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Ah, yes, the PRB – surely the most emblematic example of art group as boy-gang. Except that their story is a little more complicated than that, there being more to this meta-narrative. There is a sub-plot that is often overlooked. There was a Pre-Raphaelite sisterhood, too.

‘The Lady of Shalott at her Loom’, by Elizabeth Siddal (1853)

It’s easy to get lost among the PRB boys, and their exploits, which have become the stuff of legend. They have been the subject of many exhibitions,  many a discursive essay and even a soapy, racy television dramatisation. Currently, Tate Britain has a comprehensive exhibition of their work.

But what of their women, what of their female friends and acquaintances? What roles did they play? This question, of course, has been “answered” before. More often than not, that answer comprises love, drama and idolisation. The women are paragons of beauty – re-setting and revitalising Hellenic ideals – or merely consigned to the category of “lover”, with the implication that they are forevermore to be considered nothing more, nor less, than this.

At the heart of the pre-Raphaelite sisterhood were two women: Elizabeth (or “Lizzie”) Siddal and Jane (or “Janey”) Morris. Their renown, at least in the terms outlined above, is well-established. Siddal was the wife of pre-eminent PRB member, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Jane Morris was the wife of William Morris, Rossetti’s protégé, who went on to become the founder of the Arts and Crafts movement. However, there was a lot more to this formidable pair than any notion of the art-WAG.

Siddal, a striking figure with long, curled red hair, started modelling for Rossetti in 1853. It is rumoured that the number of depictions he produced of her number in the thousands. She had also modelled for other PRB artists and appeared in some of their best known works (John Everett Millais’s Ophelia, painted in 1852 being a prime example). But Siddal had aspirations of her own. She encouraged Rossetti to tutor her in the techniques of painting and drawing. He also helped her to improve her writing skills. Eventually, PRB patron John Ruskin was drawn in too, offering Siddal a yearly retainer in return for her completed works.

Some of Siddal’s work is in the Tate show, and it can be seen from these pieces that she was indeed a talented artist in her own right: her paintings and sketches have a bold individualism, which almost seems to strike out at the viewer. Siddal’s life did not end well. After a stillbirth, she overdosed on laudanum in 1862, leaving a distraught Rossetti, who later published a collection of sonnets dedicated to her.

Janey Morris (maiden name Burden) was also connected closely to Rossetti, and became the template for his images of the femme fatale. A talented embroideress, she was to be her husband’s equal and co-worker in his drive to promote home-based creation. Janey, with her daughter May, created the hangings for Morris’s extravagant and famous four-poster bed for their home at Kelmscott Manor.

William Morris bed, Kelmscott Manor, with hangings by Jane and May Morris

Like Siddal, Janey was from modest origins, with little or no education at all. After meeting Morris she afforded herself a private education (and was rumoured to be the inspiration for the character of Mrs Higgins in George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion).

Other “PRS” artists include the painter Rosa Brett, whose brother was PRB landscape artist John Brett, and photographer Julia Margaret Cameron. The PRB is accepted to be the UK’s first modern art movement, an early example of the avant-garde. What is less-known is the influence and participation of its women.

 

 

 

 

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