Thursday, 20 June 2013

Week Twenty-Four - Jeanette

Lizzie Siddal: The Tragedy Of A Pre-Raphaelite Supermodel by Lucinda Hawksley (2004)
Recommended by Suzanne

What’s a model to do when she (overwhelmingly she) is fast becoming the David Seaman of the catwalk?

First go-to is often acting. While you could argue that Elle McPherson in Batman And Robin constituted ‘turning up on a film set’ rather than acting, we do have Cybill Shepherd in Taxi Driver. There’s also singing: Carla Bruni made a decent fist of smouldering bluestocking on her 2006 album No Promises. Tyra Banks is an endearing and skilled TV host, and seems genuinely happy to help out her protégées on America’s Next Top Model. For the less talented, there is always the general look-at-me puff of perfumes and keep-fit videos. And, if you’re really top of the self-delusion class, there’s writing a novel.

I’d argue that it’s not only at the end of a career that modelling is one sorrowful job. Without even going into the sexism, body dysmorphia, rejection and boredom endemic to the profession, it must be hard, really fucking existentially hard, to have your worth measured in the finite resource of your looks. Shepherd, Bruni and Banks strike me as intelligent women who realised this early on and tackled it, developing other aspects of themselves while still modelling. Campbell, on the other hand, didn’t. Her projects failed because they were poorly thought-out rubbish grafted on in her twilight modelling years. She seems to me like she’s raging against time itself: unable to hit back at it, she tyrannically flails at a series of assistants and journalists instead.

While there’s a sniff of marketing in the subtitle of this excellent biography, Lizzie Siddal’s rise, career and decline does indeed foreshadow the forlorn path of many modern models. Born into a poor, if not destitute, London family, Lizzie Siddal was almost freakish to look at in the everyday world: tall, skinny, with acres of burning red hair. Yet Walter Deverell, the first artist to request a sitting from her, saw these qualities as very special indeed.

It was a shock to this previously unfêted young woman to be singled out and offered quite bluntly such an unusual proposition. Although deeply flattered, Lizzie was wary of the offer and uncertain of exactly what it entailed – in the 1840s modelling for an artist was perceived as being synonymous with prostitution.

Siddal was soon in enormous demand from the ‘Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood’ – a group of artists, centered on Dante Gabriel Rossetti, which saw itself as saving art or something.

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was a society set up by seven very idealistic young men who were passionate about art, depressed by the current, very conventional state of the art world, and idealistically desirous of bringing about dramatic changes.

Yes. They weren’t a kind set of very idealistic young men, though. While Rossetti was über-sensitive about Siddal in art – producing gorgeous works like Elizabeth Siddal in 1855…

…he acted pretty disgracefully toward her in real life. The pair were in a relationship, and Rossetti trumpeted this when it suited him, but denied it when it didn’t. Like many people who go on and on about how unconventional they are, Rossetti had a deeply conservative side, and didn’t admit his relationship with the socially and economically ‘inferior’ Siddal to his family for years. This hurt Siddal as much as, if not more than, his refusal to marry her, his emotional cruelty, and his parade of other lovers.

Yes, Hawksley generally writes on Siddal’s ‘side’, but I don’t think she’s unfair to Rossetti. Two of Hawksley’s tiny asides tell you what a callous twat he was:

Rossetti had a passion for animals, although his love for them was not matched by an understanding of how best to look after them. […] He had a lifelong passion for wombats, of which he bought a couple; he also possessed an armadillo, a couple of kangaroos, a raccoon, a dormouse and a peacock. These unfortunate animals – and others – appeared randomly, and often expired with equal rapidity.

He made the two girls laugh by pretending to be an invalid, lolling his head mockingly from side to side as they wheeled him around in a Bath chair.

Hawksley is also not too soft on the manipulative Siddal. Someone at the wrong emotional end of a Rossetti-type may well experience a personality change, becoming ill-natured and calculating, and this certainly happened to Siddal. She embraced laudanum and frequently refused food for days on end. Yes, much of this was desperate despondency, but it had the desired effect of gaining Rossetti’s attention whenever she felt neglected, and eventually of emotionally blackmailing him into marriage.

Also covered in Lizzie Siddal are the model’s forays into art and poetry. Hawksley does a half-hearted job of defending it, but to my tastes its pretty useless stuff. Her poetry is stuck at I-hate-myself-and-want-to-die teenage level. Her painting is rudimentary at best (to be fair, though, it’s never going to look good sat alongside works like Rossetti’s breathtaking Helen Of Troy). However, some of Siddal’s drawings are interesting: this is her 1853 The Lady Of Shalott.

Suzanne, who has the distinction of being my oldest friend involved in Two Readers, is an artist herself. I have a few of her works, from a re-interpretation of Rodin’s The Eternal Idol to a flattering caricature of yours truly, drawn to mark my voyage from Norwich to London. Although Suzanne recommended a few books to me (including a Zola I’m dying to read), I picked this one. Re-evaluating a creative and tragic woman with a maligned reputation seems so very Suzanne: high passion, artistic temperament, and deep inner strength.

We met at secondary school (our first discussion was about Madonna) and, if a friendship endures like that, you understand and forgive the good and bad in one other. Look at us, age sixteen! We never had any money and we’d buy our clothes from jumble sales (I think we’re both ‘sporting’ our finds, here).

That photo was taken in a sixth form classroom. I remember Suzanne coming round my house later that year. It was the afternoon my mother died. We sat in my bedroom. I don’t recall what we talked about (or even looking at her). But I will always know that she was there.