by Roderick Conway Morris

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The Pre-Raphaelite Sisters: Muses and Artists

By Roderick Conway Morris
LONDON 15 November 2019
Tate, London
Thoughts of the Past by John Roddam Spencer
modelled by Fanny Cornford, 1859



'Professional models are a purely modern invention,' wrote Oscar Wilde in a magazine article in 1889. By that time, a number of them had become familiar faces to the gallery-going public as they were depicted again and again, in various guises, by the leading artists of the day. But the models' names remained generally unknown, as prevailing codes of female modesty associated modelling with loose morals. Nonetheless, as Wilde added: 'They usually marry well and sometimes they marry the artist.'

Of all the models of the Victorian age, those that sat for the leading Pre-Raphaelite painters - Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais, William Holman Hunt and Edward Burne-Jones - remain the most instantly recognizable today. Thanks to exhibitions and books about the Brotherhood, not only has a great deal emerged about the lives of these artists but also of the women who played such a major and increasingly acknowledged role in the movement.

Jan Marsh, one of the most dedicated researchers into the lives of these women, is now the curator of a richly revealing exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery: 'Pre-Raphaelite Sisters', which explores their contributions as models, muses, wives, partners, lovers, household and studio managers, artists, designers and decorators.

Almost all the models that feature here were of humble origins but advanced their social status through association and marriage with the artists for whom they posed. Two acquired titles - when Burne-Jones and Millais were knighted. Annie Miller, from the most impoverished background of all, married 'a very good gentlemanly fellow' and was presented at Court.

The classic Pre-Raphaelite female evolved over time. Lizzie Siddal was tall and slim, with a marked overbite and unfashionable red hair, but was described by Madox Brown as a 'matchless beauty'. She became the inspiration for the mystical, dreamy 'Florentine' type, the model for Millais' celebrated 'Ophelia' and numerous works by Rossetti, whom she eventually married. The more proletarian Annie Miller and Fanny Cornforth, with their sensual features and cascading curls, provided a voluptuous new Titianesque Venetian-courtesan type, and both were cast as fallen women in canvases such as 'The Awakening Conscience' and 'Thoughts of the Past'. And Jane Morris, as Henry James observed, was 'a grand synthesis of all the Pre-Raphaelite pictures ever made'.

Rossetti, with whom Jane had an extended affair, immortalized her as a sultry femme fatale and the goddess 'Proserpine'. But she was also a skilled needlewoman and calligrapher and (having married William Morris) ran the busy embroidery workshop of the family firm, Morris & Co.

A number of other women here emerge as artists in their own right, ripe for rediscovery. Lizzie Siddal appears already to have had artistic ambitions by the time she was asked to model. Rossetti encouraged her in her sketching and Ruskin bought all her drawings in 1854-5. She exhibited at the Pre-Raphaelite show of 1857, where her work attracted favourable comments from the poet Coventry Patmore. But suffering from depression after a miscarriage, she died at the age of 32 of an overdose of laudanum in 1862.

Joanna Boyce Wells benefited from a fuller art education, became an accomplished painter and exhibited at the RA. Well launched on a promising career, she succumbed to an obstetric infection at 29, bitterly lamented by Rossetti as 'a great artist sacrificed to bringing more kids into the world'.

Happily, others had the chance to fulfil their talents. The prosperous Greek community in London provided two first-class artists, the childhood friends Maria Zambaco and Marie Spartali Stillman. The former modelled for Burne-Jones, with whom she also studied, and who cast her in roles such as Circe, Venus and Cassandra, and painted her nude in 'The Tree of Forgiveness'. Although married to Georgiana, Burne-Jones embarked on a secret tempestuous affair with Zambaco. After the liaison ended, Zambaco went to the Slade, took up sculpture and also studied with Rodin in Paris. She exhibited at the RA, where her gifts were recognized when the British Museum snapped up four of her bronze relief busts in 1887.

However, Georgiana Burne-Jones, had her revenge. She became the most important contemporary memorialist of her husband's life and works, and of his fellow Pre-Raphaelites. The wronged wife remained resolutely silent about the very existence of Zambaco, which led to the subsequent neglect of her career and achievements, details of which are only now coming to light again.

Marie Spartali was also determined to become a professional artist. She sat for Whistler, Burne-Jones, the renowned photographer Julia Margaret Cameron and studied with Ford Madox Brown. She was at first profoundly influenced by the Pre-Raphaelites and her work was admired by Henry James, among others. She married the American journalist William James Stillman in 1871. Stillman's posting first to Florence and then to Rome as The Times correspondent allowed her to immerse herself in Italian art at first hand. The experience also encouraged her to go out into the countryside to paint landscapes. She exhibited over a hundred works over six decades, which enjoyed steady sales Britain, France and America.

The Pre-Raphaelite Sisters; National Portrait Gallery, London; 7 October 2019 - 26 January 2020

First published: The Lady

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024