Wightwick Manor, built by Theodore Mander , is a beautiful Aesthetic Style house in the Midlands which houses a remarkable collection of Pre-Raphaelite paintings. Most of the collection was put together by Geoffery Mander, who with his second wife Rosalie Glynn Grylls, bought paintings by artists such as Rossetti, Burne-Jones and Millais. I love this picture of Effie Ruskin painted when Millais was with her and her then husband, John Ruskin in Scotland .
They also collected work by women Pre-Raphaelite artists, and Wightwick now holds one of the largest collection of works by artists such as Evelyn de Morgan, Lizzie Siddal and May Morris. So it is fitting that the Manor is the venue for the second solo exhibition of Elizabeth Siddal’s artwork – drawn from the collection at the Manor. The exhibition is open until the end of December.
Beyond Ophelia – a celebration of Lizzie Siddal examines her work, her style and subject matter and explores how she depicted women in her painting. While she is still probably best known as a model for the artists of the first wave of the Pre Raphaelite Brotherhood – she is the model for Ophelia in John Millais’s famous picture shown below – and as the wife of Dante Gabriel Rossetti who supposedly committed suicide from a laudanum overdose, Siddal’s work is currently being reassessed and her reputation re-framed as an influential artist who overcame significant obstacles of gender and class to practice her art. The exhibition is small, but Wightwick Manor is a joy and always worth a visit.
While we have no evidence that Gaskell ever met Siddal, she certainly met Dante Gabriel Rossetti in London in the autumn of 1859, about six months before he and Lizzie were married in Hastings after their tortuous ten year courtship. She writes to Charles Eliot Norton on 25 October 1859:
I think we got to know Rossetti pretty well. I went three times to his studio, and met him at two evening parties, where I had a good deal of talk with him, always excepting the times when ladies with beautiful hair came in when he was like the cat turned into a lady, who jumped out of bed and ran after a mouse. It did not signify what we were talking about or how agreeable I was, if a particular kind of reddish-brown, crepe wavy hair came in, he was away in a moment struggling for an introduction to the owner of the said head of hair. He is not as mad as a March hare, but hair mad.
And what is the connection between Elizabeth Gaskell and Elizabeth Siddal you ask? While the barriers they faced were in many ways different, I think they would have had much to discuss about how to carve out a role as a female artist in the patriarchal world of Victorian England and how to to achieve artistic recognition as a woman.
Lesley, House volunteer