Elizabeth Siddal (circa 1860 at approximately 31 – if we accept her baptism record’s birth date of July 1829)

Woman as Sign… by Cherry and Pollock opens with a fairly substantial paragraph from J. Nicoll’s 1975 monograph Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The article was written in 1984, and to them, I suspect, the 1975 monograph sounded dated and presumably full of sexist judgemental leanings. However, to myself (a woman) in the year 2014, I equally find Cherry and Pollock’s thirty year old article both out-dated and ill-judged, not to mention a highly unconvincing argument. That being said, I do not disagree entirely with every statement they make and my now heavily annotated copy of their article has as many ticks as it does question marks, underlines, exclamation marks and mild outrage (predominantly for my eyes only!) This ‘breakdown’ of their article will provide a glimpse of the content for those that have not read it, or are unable to get hold of a copy easily.

The first paragraph (from Nicoll) seems chosen solely to provide Cherry and Pollock the means of making the rest of their article exist. They have seemingly opted for the most outdated, ridiculous paragraph which therefore stands so far at the other end of the spectrum that one is at immediate risk of buying into their ‘case’. One could argue that is good authorial command, I am not sure if I concur with that. After all, the Nicoll passage should be indicative of a general pattern of thinking and not just an extreme form of an argument which exists in Pre-Raphaelite literature. I say extreme but this again seems to be an attitude that is based on attitudes changing and time passing, e.g. the ten years between Nicoll’s book, and Cherry and Pollock’s article, and the thirty years between them and myself.

The quote from Nicoll is fraught with value judgement. The very first sentence (as I say this piece was obviously chosen very selectively to be placed at the start of Cherry and Pollock’s article) opens with the line that ‘Elizabeth Siddal was a girl of quite remarkable beauty’.[1] This statement has an immediate problem; How can we say that? Whose rule or definition of beauty are we using? Particularly when we are having to go to the paintings of Siddal to establish what she looked like, after all there are only a handful of photographs of Siddal. Whilst some contemporary written descriptions of Siddal are well detailed, they are also subject to bias or memory or personal preference and definition of what constitutes ‘Beauty’. Swinburne, Georgiana Burne-Jones, and William Michael Rossetti’s views all vary. Even the paintings themselves differ greatly, e.g. compare Rossetti, Elizabeth Siddal (1854, Delaware Museum of Art) to Millais, Ophelia (1851, Tate). Nicoll suggest Siddal was consumptive but we have no definitive record of this. Nor can we confirm she was anorexic as some people think. Nor can we confirm she meant to kill herself (or whether she accidentally overdosed). All of these viewpoints may be feasible, likely even, but we cannot confirm or prove them. Nor can we confirm or prove Siddal was beautiful.

Cherry and Pollock suggest the individual named Siddall has become a historical individual named Siddal, certainly since the 1880s unto (their) present day. I would suggest either spelling has become acceptable of late, they certainly seem to be interchangeably used in more recent literature.[2] One of Cherry and Pollock’s main concerns is that ‘Siddal’ was reportedly ‘discovered’ in 1850; they take issue with this name and spelling because it ‘is redolent of those imperialist enterprises in which existence of a people or a country is acknowledged only when seen in a colonial relation to the master race, class, gender’.[3] It certainly does have a feel that Siddal’s existence only truly become relevant to History once she was ‘discovered’ by those men which she is now forever associated with. She was ‘discovered’ by Deverell in a milliners, and in that way, the term ‘discovered’ functions correctly. ‘Found’ or ‘met’ could be considered ineffectual or incomplete alternatives. History or Art History only discovered Siddal the moment Rossetti / Deverell ‘discovered’ her. For me the word ‘discovered’ is a minor point; perhaps she also used the term ‘discovered’ for this introduction or meeting. We don’t have her voice to answer such questions. The one significant fact to note at this stage is that Siddal was Elizabeth Eleanor Siddall when she was first known to the Pre-Raphaelites, as she had been when baptised.

The underlying issues of the Nicoll quote are of more interest to Cherry and Pollock, and myself. The celebratory tone of the individual (male) achievement of Rossetti is apparent which show a ‘predominantly biographical impulse of art history’, one which ‘has structured the ways in which Pre-Raphaelitism is constituted and studied’.[4] Pre-Raphaelitism seems particularly subject to this approach, not least because of the many stories of love affairs, and drugs, and arguments etc. In this light, Siddal is her own protagonist.

Study for the head of Elizabeth Siddal
Millais, Study for the head of Ophelia (1852, BMAG)

Cherry and Pollock are right in their reading that Siddal has oft been ‘constructed as a creature relative to Rossetti’.[5] What they don’t concede is that she should be, because she was his lover, his friend, and wife. She wanted to be part of Rossetti’s life, as he did in hers. They cannot nor should they be considered entirely separately: both contributed to the other. Yes, Siddal existed prior to Rossetti, and through her one hundred plus paintings and many poems she showed herself to be more than capable of functioning in his world after she met him. But their story is entwined. Was Siddal pursuing these interests prior to meeting the Rossetti? I believe not. Cherry and Pollock provide no evidence of such an interest (not that they intended to). They consider ‘Siddal’ to be a constructed cipher for ‘masculine creativity inspired by and fulfilled in love for a beautiful feminine face’.[6] Yes, in part. But only in part. I fail to see why this is a negative scenario, after all it was not the sum of Siddal’s existence.

Biography should be handled carefully. Commentaries upon Rossetti should be considered with an awareness of the art historical tendency for biography. Holman Hunt’s memoirs are a good example of ‘setting the story straight’ and when utilising the plentiful information within them, we should consider them alongside other primary sources in order to be mindful of Hunt’s own bias. We should also be aware of dramatic hyperbole used by authors, e.g. Fredeman describes Siddal as ‘the only Pre-Raphaelite. In a grim way, she stood for what it all meant; and she combined in her fragile beauty and in her tragic life the legendary aspect that inspired the movement’s art and poetry’.[7] The problem with the change in spelling of Siddal’s name is one which Cherry and Pollock seem to assume Siddal herself had no command over, or, by inference, they suggest that she may have objected to it. Her many pet names, Guggums, The Sid, Ida etc. are considered by the authors as being indicative of the ‘refashioning which this working class woman underwent’. Yes I agree in part, but what Cherry and Pollock do not say is that Siddal may have condoned, endorsed, or been entirely happy with this scenario (nor do they permit these possibilities at any point throughout the article). Why is this name change assumed to be a negative experience for Siddal? The issue of a fixed name can be problematic for historians, but I think it is a little pedantic for the authors in this instance to suggest that we are dazzled by the complexities raised by the use of Siddal or Siddall. The surname is, after all, sufficiently singular within the world of the Pre-Raphaelites that we can make an educated guess as to who they are talking about. Their position is clearly that Siddal, as ‘sign’ is representative of a male consuming sociological thinking, one which encourages women to be the objects of exchange (Cherry and Pollock mention Cowie’s reference and her catalytic article ‘Women as Sign’ at this juncture).[8] Viewing Siddal as a sign therefore asserts Siddal the woman as being a passive person. We have no real evidence for this, any more than we do of her consumption, anorexia etc. In fact it seems from diaries and letters that Siddal may have had a manipulative streak, and why not? It is certainly feasible, or at least as possible as it is that she was a passive woman. Cherry and Pollock consider Siddal’s beauty and its descriptions, or the responses to her form, as being a ‘dominant trope’; and that terms such as fragile do little to undo this notion of the passive figure. This is entirely true. But there are other points along the spectrum. Whilst our view of Siddal tends toward the weak and fragile, there is evidence to suggest that she was these things. Making or unmaking Siddal’s role as victim does not get us anywhere closer to the truth of the woman’s substance. As a sign which encompasses these attitudes of fragility ‘Siddal’ ‘articulates the informing ideologies of art history about the personal process of artistic creation and its natural disposition between the sexes’. Yes it does, but only if you position Siddal as a victim.

Rossetti, Elizabeth Siddal (1854, Delaware Museum of Art)

Merely asserting focus upon Siddal’s (quite breath taking) artistic and literary output does not alter the validity or likelihood of Siddal as having been a fragile person. Either position could be true, and this is ultimately the source of my discontent with the article. However, I do agree that we need to research and consider Siddal’s work in more depth, and that statement still stands true even thirty years on from the date of the article.

The next section of the article turns to reassembling Siddal’s oeuvre, and commences with the now common reference to Ruskin’s support of Siddal’s art. There also follows a brief list of Siddal’s paintings (the Tate states that Siddal is known to have produced over one hundred works although the article mentions less than fifteen). There has been one collection of her poems in the last century, and I am aware there is another one being worked on by Dr. Serena Trowbridge.

Recognition of Siddal’s work via relation to Rossetti’s is a limiting approach. I wouldn’t rule it out entirely though as I believe the collaborative approach to their work was important for both artists (e.g. the murals found in the Red House last year). Cherry and Pollock disagree with Hadjinicolaou’s view that Siddal had no ‘original creative power’ and whilst this seems a very bold statement by Hadjinicolaou, which certainly makes one uneasy, it cannot be denied. I do not see Siddal as an innovator, but I do see her as an important contributor. Repeatedly emphasising this ‘working class woman’ and her transformation does not mean she was an innovator, it could just as easily mean she was an adept learner. Neither interpretation is wrong. But we cannot make Siddal into something she was not. The merit of Siddal’s paintings is not, for me, dependent on her perceived assertiveness orher  character, nor is it relevant what other people have said about her paintings.

Siddal and Rossetti collaboration, The Quest of the Holy Grail (1855)

The further the article goes on the more holes there seem to be. Assumed positions of Woman as being inherently subservient to Man mean the central preoccupation with identifying ‘Truth’s’ rears its head. Women have been significantly overlooked throughout history, and often still are. However, in this particular case, if we accept this subjugation as being applicable then we are disregarding the possibility of Siddal’s integrity, personality, and own will. Devaluing William Michael Rossetti’s writings in relation to Siddal is strangely paradoxical when we consider how Holman Hunt’s memoirs are seldom taken at face value; and yet, Cherry and Pollock suggest there is an authority which is so powerful that we should be wary of William Michael’s ‘privileged’ voice in his writing about Siddal. When he writes of ‘my brother’ he is asserting this male authority (is it really so odd for him to have written the word ‘brother’?) Again, Cherry and Pollock’s concern is regarding biography, and the suggested dramatic quality of many Rossettian commentaries which, by implication, overshadow and disable Siddal’s position within the art historical cannon of Pre-Raphaelitism. They consider William Michael’s texts as historically specific documents which ‘have to be examined carefully’, and remind us that all writing is subject to bias. It is fairly transparent what their view is, and what their article’s objective is. William Michael’s most uncomfortable declaration in Dante Gabriel Rossetti, His Family Letters with a Memoir (1895) is when he writes how ‘my brother always spelled the name thus’ (as in Rossetti spelled her name as Siddal).[9]

There then follows a gentle criticism that even as far as Chapter 17 Siddal (‘she’) has yet to be introduced (presumably her role as sign was not yet required / fully formulated / identifiable within the literature). However, it was not the intention of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, His Family Letters with a Memoir to focus upon Siddal in a book on Rossetti and when she is mentioned there is even some debate over her age (for all intents and purposes resolved by the baptism certificate which states July 25th 1829).

The conversation once again comes round to the issue of innovation, genius, talent, and recognition. As a feminist myself, I do not entirely accept the term ‘genius’. Why are there many more male than female genii within the pages of history books? Why, when access to learning and nurturing is given, do we end up with equally amazing examples of female talent / genius, e.g. Artemsia Gentileschi.? Surely there is a correlation! Gentileschi may well be a useful comparison here. She exceeds Siddal in terms of innovation and skill at a time when her capacity for social manoeuvring was significantly constrained by gendered politics, in a way which Siddal’s was not (not that we should underestimate the constraints women in the nineteenth century were subjected to by Victorian Society). However, this knotty problem of class seems to preoccupy the authors and considering it does I am surprised there is not further comparison to Jane Morris’ equal if not more significant ‘transformation’. One of the main points of contention seems to be the ‘romantic’ reading of Siddal, and the main fear of Cherry and Pollock is that if we continue with this application of interpretation, we will arrive at nothing more than the insistence of ‘the beautiful, fragile woman remaining the unattainable image for the masculine artist inspired by her beauty, a beauty which he fabricates in the ‘beautiful’ drawings he makes’.[10] It is a huge risk. However, I do not believe it is negotiated or avoided by merely trying to assert Siddal as being something beyond what the evidence tells us she was. The point I came back to time and time again when reading this, is that there is NO evidence quoted at all which tells us that Siddal was unhappy or forced into no longer being Siddall. In an entirely different article Cherry actually reports Siddal signing herself as Siddal in a letter to William Allingham. [11] This reference is not mentioned here. This bias seems a little untoward although I do not know whether Cherry and Pollock knew this information in 1984.

The romantic fascination with the Pre-Raphaelites is a huge risk to academic clarity. Cherry and Pollock adeptly draw out the insistence of a certain type of language which relies upon the female, e.g. William Michael proclaiming Siddal was Rossetti’s favourite model for ‘all the leading female personages’.[12] Siddal is certainly subjected to a barrage of labels which constrain her within the role of Rossetti’s imagination, paintings, or within a Dantean romance. Cherry and Pollock contest William Michael’s declaration that Siddal’s ill health, her relationship with Rossetti, and his drawings of females, are ‘not irrelevant for the study of Rossetti’s art which was always directly linked with the events of his life’. This attitude is one which still pervades the 1975 monograph by Nicoll, from which they quote from once again (and quite rightly so).

Madonna and child, c.1855 (w/c over pencil)
Siddal, Madonna and child, (c..1855).

Siddal is always compared. Compared to Rossetti. To Jane. To Fanny. She is thwarted by her function ‘as a sign whose signified is masculine creativity’.[13] Many authors, including Surtees in the catalogue raisonné of Rossetti, consider his works to be ideologically driven by Rossetti: he is the sole ‘cause and the origin of their meaning’.[14] Anchoring meaning via a name is considered by Cherry and Pollock to be a form of elaborating ‘the dispersed signifying systems of the culture in and for which they are produced’.[15] They complain that there is no attempt to identify what is included within the catalogue raisonné’s category of Siddal and observe that many of the models share similar features.[16] The final pages protest at the categorisation of Siddal as a frail woman with down cast eyes, often situated in a reclining or resting position. The relationship between the drawings of Siddal, the process of their being worked, their absorption being a product of history is considered as being ‘a hierarchy of power’. The premise of the article having been to syphon out the different regimes of representation being explored during the 1850s, and how they relate to images of Siddal. The deliberate wedge they place within art historical literature is between the historical figure of Elizabeth Eleanor ‘Siddall’ and that of ‘Siddal’ whom they consider to have been constructed as a male sign, in order that we may better receive the male origins of genius present within the work of Rossetti.

There seems to be a thinly veiled disgust at the male lens which they see has denied Siddal authority. Cherry and Pollock do not counteract that, in fact by paying attention to it they merely amplify it. The entire article fails to really draw out Siddal as being any of the things they suggest she could well have been. They merely denounce what art historical literature has since done with her as ‘sign’, rather than affirming her reputation as artist or innovator. They do declare toward the end of the article that their intention was to drive a theoretical wedge between the two figures Siddal and Siddall. They do this, but I am unsure of the necessity; particularly when in acknowledging outdated interpretations or readings of Rossetti via Siddal (or even vice versa) they do not redress Siddal’s reputation, which is a great shame.

It seems one major conclusion from this article is that we should avoid reliance upon biographical readings. However, that being said, I would make one strong final assertion that, without evidence to the contrary, Siddal must be referred to as Siddal and not Siddall. If only because she endorsed that name with her own pen.

Siddal, Self Portrait, Unknown location

[1] I use the form Siddal throughout the article, except where I am making direct quotes. To illuminate the points Cherry and Pollock are making I try to make this clear through using the spelling to which they are opposed (they assert the legitimacy of Siddall as a spelling).

[2] Interestingly the well-respected Pre-Raphaelite author Jan Marsh’s opts for one ‘L’ in her book The Legend of Elizabeth Siddal (2010: Quartet Books)

[3] Deborah Cherry and Griselda Pollock, ‘Woman as sign in Pre-Raphaelite literature: a study of the representation of Elizabeth Siddall’, Art Journal, Volume 7, Issue 2 (1984), pp 202 – 225 (p. 207).

[4] Cherry and Pollock, p. 207.

[5] Ibid., p. 207

[6] Ibid., p. 207.

[7] Ibid., p. 208.

[8] This idea references Cowie’s catalytic article ‘Women as Sign’.

[9] Ibid., 213.

[10] Ibid., 217.

[11] William Allingham, [1856], Troxell Collection, Princeton University Library

[12] Deborah Cherry and Griselda Pollock, ‘Woman as sign in Pre-Raphaelite literature: a study of the representation of Elizabeth Siddall’, Art Journal, Volume 7, Issue 2 (1984), pp 202 – 225 (p. 218).

[13] Cherry and Pollock, p. 220.

[14] Ibid., 222.

[15] Ibid., 222.

[16] Without sounding facetious I think the intention of the heading in the catalogue is fairly obvious, particularly when the other headings are equally differentiated by name. I wonder whether there is a certain pedantry here.

Advertisements