The Pre-Raphaelite Sisters – an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, London

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“Bridge of Sighs”,  Georgiana Burned-Jones

Although the aims of the Pre-Raphaelite Society were to paint in a style reflecting art before Raphael, the main attraction for me is the subject matter – both the legendary material and the women who sat for the paintings and drawings. An exhibition, then, that promised to show how these women were often artists in their own right was going to appeal to me. And to hundreds of other women, too, judging from the crowds I rubbed shoulders with. A few men peered too at the small, framed sketches and information tiles.

I set off with expectations of undiscovered or overlooked paintings by Elizabeth Siddall, Annie Miller, Fanny Cornforth and their contemporaries. “Models, artists, makers, partners and poets. Discover the untold stories of the Pre-Raphaelite Sisters,” said the website. No, it doesn’t say painters. I find it interesting how we often remember impressions rather than facts, and in this case my impressions were coloured by my own interest in paintings over tapestry and ceramics. In fact, I came away feeling there were two types of women represented here: the wives and muses, who were also creative – I saw an embroidered purse, an unfinished tapestry, an unusual bodice, and lots of paintings of these women, by men– and the women who were more famous than their husbands, such as Joanna Boyce Wells and Evelyn de Morgan. At a quick glance, what divided them was class. The women painters had the money and the encouragement from family to take their art seriously. Perhaps also their class gave them the nerve to sell, not give away. And yes, dear reader, I am aware of my latent snobbery here, looking at embroidery and clothes-making as not real art.

I’m guessing that we want to remake the women involved in the Pre-Raphaelite movement into a model that fits early twenty-first century ideals and preoccupations. “Sisterhood”, for a start, suggests these women knew and supported each other. Some of them seem to have socialised together as one half of a couple, but others were less friendly; for instance, Rossetti’s sister Christina, and wife, Elizabeth Siddal, did not really get on, even though both were poets. There’s also the narrative of how dreadfully they were treated by the men who they modelled for – pulled from obscurity then thrown to the wolves when they got troublesome – and seen as tragic saints rather than talented beings. The radio play “Unearthing Elizabeth Siddall” (Radio 3) had Siddal climbing out of her grave and demanding, “Look at me” – as a woman in her own right, not just a muse. But this exhibition showed these women’s partners as supportive of their creative talents. Whether this support was undermined by flirting and infidelity  is another matter.

The thing I took away from exhibition, and from The Legend of Elizabeth Siddal by Jan Marsh, an acquisition from the shop, was this: how two people can look at the same thing and get quite different pictures in their heads.

Exhibit A: vaguely aware of the face of Fanny Cornforth from various calendars featuring Rossetti’s paintings, I was surprised to see that the sitter for the picture on the right here is the same as the sitter on the left. Rossetti’s Fanny has the same cupid lips as all his women, giving her the soulful he clearly admired, while Holman Hunt’s Fanny has a square, almost masculine forehead and a bold gaze.

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“Thoughts of the Past”, John Roddam Spencer Stanhope  

Exhibit B: Here is Fanny again, this time painted by John Roddam Spencer Stanhope in “Thoughts of the Past.” The information panel tells us the title “invokes regret for lost innocence.” She certainly has an intense gaze, and her hands grip her hair and a hairbrush tightly. But that grip could mean a whole range of things. I rather thought she itched to brain someone with the hairbrush.

Exhibit C: a different Fanny here, Fanny Eaton. She was of Jamaican descent, daughter of a slave and a white man. Yet the roles she took in Pre-Raphaelite paintings make her, left to right, Indian, Arabian and Semitic.

I started reading The Legend of Elizabeth Siddal on exiting the gallery and am now a third of the way through it. So far it’s been fascinating. One woman, leaving little documentation of her own because of her obscure background, has been reinterpreted over and over in the decades after her death, each time to suit the obsessions of the age. Jan Marsh is quite clear that this is no attempt at a biography, rather a journey through the development of her legend.

I’ll finish this article with one observation and two pictures unrelated to my theme.

First, two designs by Georgiana Burne-Jones, called “Death and the Lady,” intended for a collection of Gothic stories that would be written and illustrated by Georgiana and by Elizabeth Siddall. They are delightfully macabre.

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Death and the Lady, two designs by Georgiana Burne-Jones

Secondly, I loved this photograph of Marie Spartali Stillman and her son, Michael. That direct stare is neither Madonna nor Magdalen, just confidence in her right to look at the looker.

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Last, a reflection on seeing “the real thing.” A quick Google search will bring up more works of art by these women than the exhibition contains, with no expense or travel. But there’s something special about seeing them face to face, so to speak. The cloakroom attendant told me he’d been most struck by the lock of hair kept from Elizabeth Siddal after death. For me, I replied, seeing a page of their own writing really brought home to me that these were living, breathing, imperfect, unique people. As are we all.