If you have ever visited that most Gothic of landscapes, the tipsy byways of London's Highgate Cemetery, and walked among the catacombs and mouldering memorials, you might have found a particular grave, the last resting place ofDante Gabriel Rossetti and his wife, known to us as Elizabeth (Lizzie) Siddal.
Lizzie’ s face is familiar to all fans of Pre-Raphaelite art, along with the more familiar face of Jane Morris. These idealised portraits of feminine virtues, these Angels in the House, were popularised by
Rossetti and the rest of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. To this grave in London Rossetti consigned his young wife's body, and, in his grief he buried with her the manuscript containing all of his early
He had her body exhumed 7 years later. In the dead of night workmen retrieved that same collection of
poems from amongst the still luxuriant tresses of her hair.
Lizzie can be seen In Holman Hunt’ s painting, Ophelia. She appears to be floating in deep water, its
surface strewn with flowers. For that painting she posed for many hours. The artist Holman Hunt,
required her to pose in a tin bath full ofwater. It was Winter and lanterns beneath the bath were
intended to keep the water from freezing but they went out. The self-effacing Lizzie did not mention
her discomfort. She was ill after this experience and her health never really recovered. She became
pregnant with Rossetti’ s child, miscarried and fell into a deep depression. Already in poor health and
addicted to laudanum she died of an accidental overdose.
I visited the Birmingham Art Gallery and Museum and saw Rossetti's painting, Beata Beatrix in which
Rossetti's paints Lizzie as Beatrice, the woman loved by Dante Alighieri, author of the Divine Comedy.
Rossetti was Italian by birth and named Dante after the great poet. This painting is considered to be
Rossetti's monument to Lizzie. In it she appears as Beatrice at the moment of her death when she is
described as transfigured and transformed by love. The picture has misty reds and greens. There are
three figures in the painting. In the background stand both Dante and the figure of Love. They flank
Beatrice who sits in a meditative pose, hands clasped before her as if she is praying. Her neck is arched, her head tilted back as if catching the days last ray's of sunshine. But the light that throws a nimbus about her auburn hair is not from the sun, but comes from another source, the “flame of love" issuing from a heart on fire held in the hands of the figure of Love. Rossetti described Lizzie's expression as symbolizing a trance or sudden spiritual transfiguration.
A red dove is seen dropping a white poppy flower into the hand of Beatrice. The poppy represents the
laudanum that killed Lizzie, but also refers to the easing of pain and the bringing of forgetfulness. The figure of Dante in the background does not look at Beatrice but instead stares at the figure of Love and the flame she holds in her cupped hand. In the background is a landscape depicting a view of the river Arno, its bridge, with the distant silhouette of the Ponte Vecchio and the Duomo of Florence, the landscape known to Rossetti’ s hero, the other Dante. But it is no sunlit scene but a city ofmist and shadow.
Rossetti reworked this subject many times and in different media. He had started the painting when Lizzie was still alive and we can still see the original sketches he made. Although Rossetti always preferred to paint from life, in Beata Beatrix he is painting from his imagination. And we can see the change in his work.
Ifwe compare this Beatrice to his series of portraits of beautiful women in the 1 860s with their startling close-ups, and the richly exotic accessories, this painting is in contrast both mystical and uncertain. This is a painting of longing and regret and has all the tension of violent contradictions.
It has been suggested that there is a close link between the Dante and Beatrice relationship and the doomed relationship between Rossetti and Lizzie. The expression on her face is one she often had after taking laudanum. The background of the picture is not a sunny paradise and as has been pointed out, as a suicide Lizzie would not have been granted a place in heaven. It has been suggested that the background represents a hell-like London rather than Florence.
At this time Rossetti was in failing health and was a virtual recluse. He was also obsessed with spiritualism and had been trying to contact the spirit of Lizzie. The dove in the picture could represent the dove that appeared during a seance which Rossetti claimed to be the returned spirit of Lizzie.
As I stared at this painting I wondered at the furtive figure ofDante, walking purposefully, face half
concealed as he stares at the woman holding the heart of Lizzie. I could not help but think that the woman was not a representative of Love but Lizzie’ s rival in love, Jane Morris who Rossetti pursued just before Lizzie’ s death. And I reflected on the irony that after the exhumation of his wife's body and the subsequent publication of the poems taken from her grave, Rossetti received bad reviews for this poetry and there followed a decline in his health and reputation. Charles Dickens could not have written a more tragic story of love, loss and betrayal as this. We should not weep for Rossetti, but instead wonder at his obsession with representing the passive and vacant gaze of women, particularly that of his wife who was driven to despair addiction and death only to be paraded as his tragedy, and not her own.