Lizzie Siddal: Victorian model's tragic story on stage

By Tim Masters
Entertainment correspondent, BBC News

image captionEmma West as Lizzie Siddal

In 1849, Lizzie Siddal was plucked from obscurity to pose for some of the best-known painters of the Victorian art world. Now her tragic life story is being brought to the stage for the first time.

Elizabeth Siddal has been described by one biographer as a "Pre-Raphaelite supermodel".

The most well-known story about her time as a painter's subject is when she almost died while posing in a bathtub for Sir John Everett Millais as he painted his drowning Ophelia in 1852.

It was just one extraordinary incident in Siddal's short life - she died aged 32 - which features in a new play that premieres in London this month.

"We were genuinely surprised that no-one had done it [on stage] before, because it seems like such a gift of a story," says actress Emma West, who plays the lead role in Lizzie Siddal.

The Siddal story was most recently told on TV in BBC Two's Desperate Romantics in 2009.

At the rehearsal space in south London, where the new play is taking shape, all eyes are drawn to the full-size reproduction of the Millais painting propped against the wall - with Ophelia singing as she sinks to a watery grave.

The scene, described in Shakespeare's Hamlet, is one of the best-known works of Pre-Raphaelite art and is the most popular postcard sold by the Tate, which has the original in its permanent collection.

"It's one of those paintings you can't tire of looking at - it is so vibrant and lifelike," says West.

With her red hair and pale complexion, the actress looks uncannily like the tragic figure in the picture. Indeed, she recalls how on the two occasions she has visited the Tate to see the work, complete strangers have asked her to pose in front of it.

image captionLizzie Siddal posed for Millais' Ophelia (1851-2) in a bath full of water in his studio

"The last time it was a couple of Japanese tourists who were quite freaked out [by the resemblance], it seemed to me."

So who was Lizzie Siddal?

Born in 1829, she was aged around 20 and working in a hat shop when she was "discovered" by artist Walter Deverell. She soon became a favourite model for the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood - the group of young painters who wanted to revolutionise the Victorian art world.

Over a period of several months, she posed for Millais' Ophelia in a bath full of water kept warm by lamps placed underneath. The lamps went out on one occasion and the water turned ice cold, although Siddal did not complain.

Millais was so absorbed in his work and did not notice. Siddal fell ill, and her father threatened the artist with legal action until he agreed to pay the medical fees.

Siddal also became an artist in her own right, although painting was an unusual career for a woman in those days.

She became the muse of the artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and appeared in many of his works. After a long and turbulent engagement, they married in 1860, but a year afterwards Siddal had a stillborn daughter.

Suffering depression and addicted to laudanum, Siddal died in February 1862.

"The more you read about her the more fascinating she becomes," says playwright Jeremy Green.

"Here's a woman who, with no advantages, became famous as a model; but that wasn't sufficient, she wanted to produce art and, falling in love, she wanted to be fulfilled in her love - and in pursuit of both she met tragic consequences.

"It's a play about love and death and immortality."

image captionEmma West as Lizzie and Tom Bateman as Dante Gabriel Rossetti in rehearsals for Lizzie Siddal

The idea for the play, directed by Lotte Wakeham, goes back two years when Green wrote a short film, Ophelia, about the Millais "bathtub" incident.

Emma West, who played Siddal in the film too, got a taste of what the Victorian model went through in Millais' studio.

"I had the experience of lying in the bath - the longest I did was five or six hours," she recalls.

"That's a helpful thing to have done, despite the fact that my fingers were prune-like. The crew were scooping cold water out and pouring in hot water so I was fine."

West adds: "It's tempting to think, 'How cruel of Millais', but actually there was nothing to stop Lizzie saying, 'It's getting a bit cold now'. But she didn't.

"She chose to try and be the perfect model for him. That's a fantastic clue to her psychology, because what made her attractive to these painters is that she did have a sense of understanding of what they were trying to achieve."

As well as seeing the Ophelia painting at the Tate, West also visited Lizzie Siddal's grave in the Rossetti family plot in London's Highgate Cemetery.

She was told by the cemetery guide that it is a place of pilgrimage for Lizzie Siddal devotees. "It's predominantly men, who get far more emotional than the women do!"

What were her emotions standing at the grave?

"I feel a sense of responsibility. When I knew we were going to tell her story I felt I should pay my respects in some way, just to say, 'We're taking this seriously and I hope we do you justice.'"

West, meanwhile, describes Siddal as "a trailblazer".

"She would dress differently and people would mock her sometimes and she didn't care. She was genuinely nourished by the art.

"She was the genuine article."

Lizzie Siddal is at the Arcola Theatre, London E8, from 20 November - 21 December 2013.

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