Pre-Raphaelite Sisters

Most people have heard of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a group of young British artists active in the nineteenth century who aimed to return to the style of art produced in Italy before the High Renaissance – i.e. before Raphael (1483-1520). Their artworks are recognised by the use of bright colours and young women with long, (usually) red hair dressed in flowing garments. The question is, who were these women and how did they come to be models for the Pre-Raphaelite Brothers? What were they like in real life? How were they related to the painters? What were their lives like? This year, the National Portrait Gallery decided to find out, resulting in a major exhibition that looks at the lives of twelve women who fulfilled various roles including model, muse, studio manager, housekeeper, wife and even artist.

Pre-Raphaelite Sisters examines the type of role the women depicted in paintings and how this compared to their status in real life. A Pre-Raphaelite wife tended to assist her husband in a variety of ways, both at home and in the studio. Some men looked for women elsewhere to inspire them, often resulting in romantic affairs. On the other hand, a few men became supporters of wives or sisters who worked as artists alongside the Pre-Raphaelite movement. The National Portrait Gallery looks at each of these women in turn, celebrating their importance.

Effie Gray Millais (1828-97) Model, Wife, Manager

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Effie Ruskin by Thomas Richmond

The first woman in the exhibition is Euphemia (Effie) Gray who was born in Perth, Scotland and was encouraged by her father to marry family friend John Ruskin in 1848. Unfortunately, the couple’s personalities clashed and Effie was often ignored by her husband who preferred to concentrate on his solitary studies. To relieve her boredom, Effie modelled for the artist John Everett Millais (1829-96) who used her for the Scottish woman securing the freedom of her wounded Jacobite husband in his painting The Order of Release 1746. She had previously modelled for the artist Thomas Richmond (1802-74) at the request of her father-in-law. As a result, Millais was invited to visit the Ruskin’s in Scotland where he and Effie became close friends.

After five years of marriage, Effie Ruskin was still a virgin, her husband having put off consummating the marriage to allow him to concentrate on his studies. Due to the lack of common ground, Effie decided to have their marriage annulled and eventually married Millais in 1855. She became Millais’ business partner, which involved sourcing clients, costumes, locations and keeping a record of payments. She also dabbled in watercolour painting.

Millais and Effie had a happy marriage, which resulted in eight children: Everett (1856), George (1857), Effie (1858) Mary (1860), Alice (1862) Geoffrey (1863), John (1865) and Sophie (1868). Their youngest son John went on to become a notable artist. Throughout the marriage, Effie also sat for many portraits.

Due to her annulment from Ruskin, Effie and Millais were barred from any event involving the presence of Queen Victoria. Being a rather socially active couple, they were disheartened by this, however, when Millais was dying, the Queen relented and awarded him a baronetcy, thus giving Effie the title Lady Millais.

Christina Rossetti (1830-94) Poet, Sister, Model

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Christina Rossetti – Rossetti

Christina Georgina Rossetti is a fairly well-known poet in her own right who was also connected to the Pre-Raphaelite movement. Born in London to the Italian poet Gabriele Rossetti (1783-1854), Christina was brought up in a creative atmosphere and her two older brothers went on to become founding members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Her most famous brother Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-82) is known for the typical paintings associated with the Brotherhood. William Michael (1829-1919) Rossetti, on the other hand, was a writer and critic who ran the Pre-Raphaelite magazine The Germ, in which Christina had several poems published. Christina’s older sister Maria Francesca (1827-76) was also a writer but became a nun in later life.

Christina sat for many of her brother’s artworks, including a quick sketch when she was sixteen and, most famously, as the Virgin Mary in Ecce Ancilla Domini! Dante also produced a cartoon based on one of his sister’s tantrums, which were quite frequent as a child.

In 1858, Christina began working at a home for girls who were considered to be sexually “at risk”. The experience inspired her famous poem and masterpiece Goblin Market, for which Dante provided a couple of illustrations. Christina also produced a handful of illustrations herself, designing some of the pages of poems and devotional writings she had written.

From her thirties onwards, Christina spent most of her time looking after family members whilst also suffering from a thyroid disorder. Dante needed a lot of attention, often suffering from mental ill-health. During his worst periods, focusing on drawing portraits of his mother and sister aided his recovery and return to the art world. Whilst Christina was a blessing to her family, her health began to deteriorate rapidly after a near-fatal heart attack in the early 1870s. In 1893, she developed breast cancer and, although the tumour was removed, she died the following year.

Elizabeth Siddal 1829-62 Model, Artist, Poet

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Ophelia [detail] – John Everett Millais

Elizabeth “Lizzie” Eleanor Siddal is mostly recognised for her portrayal of Ophelia in John Everett Millais’ painting of the same name. She is also remembered as the wife of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and for being an influential poet. After leaving school, Lizzie began working at a dressmakers and millinery shop in Cranbourne Alley, London and produced drawings and poems in her spare time. On one occasion whilst at work, Lizzie’s drawings were seen by a man who put her in touch with his son, Walter Deverell (1827-54). As a result of this meeting, Lizzie became a model for Deverell who introduced her to other members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. She became a model for a couple of other artists, including Millais, eventually becoming Rossetti’s model and muse.

As well as helping Rossetti with his paintings, Lizzie practised art alongside him, producing a handful of sketches, drawings and paintings. John Ruskin subsidised her art career by paying her £150 per year in exchange for all the work she produced. Her artwork was inspired by a variety of different poets, including Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809-92), Shakespeare (1564-1616) and Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832).

During this period, Lizzie also wrote many poems, often on the theme of heartbreak. For Lizzie, however, heartbreak was far from her mind when Rossetti, who particularly admired Lizzie’s verses, proposed and married her in 1860. Besotted with each other, the couple became rather anti-social, however, Lizzie’s health soon began to deteriorate. There are several suggestions for the cause of her frailness, such as tuberculosis, an intestinal disorder, anorexia or addiction. Another idea is the prolonged effects of pneumonia, which she contracted after posing for Millais in a bath of cold water for his painting Ophelia.

Whether as a result of her poor health, Lizzie gave birth to a stillborn daughter in 1861, which led to severe post-partum depression. In February the next year after overdosing on laudanum, Lizzie passed away. Shortly after her death, Rossetti discovered several draft poems that may have been an indication of the state of her mental health leading up to her suspected suicide.

O Mother, open the window wide And let the daylight in;
The hills grow darker to my sight
And thoughts begin to swim.
And Mother dear, take my young son, Since I was born of thee
And care for all [its] little ways
And nurse it on your knee.
And Mother, wash my pale pale hands And then bind up my feet;
My body may no longer rest
Out of its winding sheet.
And Mother dear, take a sapling twig And green grass newly mown,
And lay it on my empty bed
That my sorrow be not known.

At Last, by Elizabeth Siddal

Annie Miller (1835-1925) Model, Muse

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Annie Miller – Rossetti

Annie Miller was a popular model for the Pre-Raphaelites who first posed for William Holman Hunt at the age of 18 for his The Awakening Conscience. Before she began modelling, Annie was a barmaid and had a fairly lowly upbringing as the daughter of a wounded soldier and a cleaner. As well as providing Annie with a job as a model, Holman Hunt planned to marry her and arranged for her to be educated in literacy. During this time Holman Hunt needed to travel to Palestine and left Annie under the care of other artists, such as Millais, who she could sit for in his absence.

The Pre-Raphaelite artists loved using Annie as their model, however, Holman Hunt believed she had become frivolous and wilful, so broke off their engagement. Shortly afterwards, Annie became engaged to Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas Heron Jones, 7th Viscount Ranelagh (1812-1885) who she married in 1863. The couple had two children, Annie Helen and Thomas James, and moved to the south coast, thus ending her time as a model with the Pre-Raphaelites. She lived to the age of 90 and is a prime example of someone who had risen significantly on the social scale, beginning in poverty and ending in comfort.

Fanny Cornforth (1835-1909) Model, Lover

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The Blue Bower by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Sarah Cox, who renamed herself Fanny after her sister who died in infancy, was the daughter of a blacksmith from Surrey. Whilst visiting the Surrey Pleasure Gardens in London, Fanny met Rossetti, Ford Madox Brown and Edward Burne-Jones (1833-98) who took a liking for her appearance. She became Rossetti’s model in 1856 and there are rumours she may also have been his mistress. Fanny married Timothy Hughes, a mechanic, in 1860 but the marriage did not last long. For reason’s unbeknownst to anyone, she adopted the surname of her ex-husband’s step-father, Cornforth.

When Rossetti’s wife died, Fanny moved in as his housekeeper and lover. For over a decade, she sat for Rossetti’s paintings, often posing as a fallen woman. Rossetti was also able to support Fanny financially during this period, however, after he became seriously ill, she was forced to move out by his family. Fortunately, Rossetti was well enough at the time to purchase a house for Fanny and gave her several of his paintings.

No longer Rossetti’s lover, Fanny married the publican John Schott who ran the Rose tavern in Jermyn Street, Westminster. After Rossetti’s death, she and her husband opened a gallery in his honour to sell some of the works he had given her. After John’s death in 1891, Fanny lived with her stepson until he died in 1898 when she moved to Sussex to stay with her in-laws. Unfortunately, Fanny was soon diagnosed with dementia and forced into a Workhouse in West Sussex against her will. Following this, she was admitted to the West Sussex County Lunatic Asylum where she remained for the rest of her life.

Joanna Boyce Wells (1840-61) Artist

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Elgiva – Joanna Boyce Wells

As the name of the group suggests, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood were predominantly male artists, however, there were a couple of female painters who were just as accomplished. Joanna Boyce Wells became a successful artist after her painting Elgiva, which was modelled by a family friend, was displayed at the Royal Academy of Arts in 1855.

Joanna was the sister of the watercolour painter George Boyce (1826-97) and the wife of the Pre-Raphaelite painter Henry Tamworth Wells (1828-1903). Despite these connections to the art world, Joanna worked hard to become an artist in her own right, studying at Francis Cary’s (1808-80) art academy at the age of 18 before studying at the atelier of Thomas Couture (1815-79) in Paris.

Although Joanna and her husband created an artistic partnership in Britain, many considered Joanna to be the head of the firm. She painted emotional scenes, such as a mother bidding farewell to her young sons as they leave on a crusade to Jerusalem, and exquisite, imaginative portraits, such as a child depicted as an angel.

Joanna gave birth to three children, the first Sidney (1859-69) whose portrait she painted during his first year. Sidney did not live past the age of ten, however, Joanna never got the chance to see any of her children grow up, having succumbed to obstetric fever after the birth of her third child, Joanna Margaret.

Fanny Eaton (1835-1924) Model

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Portrait of Mrs Fanny Eaton – Simeon Solomon

Considering the period the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was active, it is unsurprising that there was a lack of black women in their paintings. Fanny Matilda Eaton née Entwistle is the only black woman featured in the exhibition. Originally born in Jamaica, Fanny came to England with her mother during the 1840s where they found work as domestic servants. At some point, Fanny met the London horse-cab driver James Eaton who she married in 1857. They had a long and happy marriage, resulting in ten children.

The Eaton family were not well off, which led Fanny to seek modelling work to take on alongside her job as a charwoman. Her distinctive features and ethnicity were sought after by artists wanting to depict female characters from the Bible or Egyptian, Indian and other “exotic” scenes. Her children often featured in paintings alongside Fanny, for example, as baby Moses in The Mother of Moses by Simeon Solomon (1840-1905).

In her later years, Fanny worked as a seamstress and a domestic cook until around 1911 when she settled in Hammersmith with her daughter Julia and her family. She eventually passed away in 1924 at the age of 89 from dementia and syncope.

Georgiana Burne-Jones (1840-1920) Model, Artist, Wife

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Georgiana Burne-Jones with Philip and Margaret – Burne-Jones

Georgiana Burne-Jones née Macdonald became engaged to Edward Burne-Jones at the tender age of fifteen. As well as being a model for her husband, Georgiana became an artist, studying briefly at the Government School of Design in South Kensington before having lessons from Ford Madox Brown. Her artwork mainly consisted of small illustrations and woodcuts and she was never as successful as her husband.

Georgiana put her art to one side after the birth of her son Philip in 1861. Her daughter Margaret was born in 1866, which coincided with her husband’s affair with one of his models. Nonetheless, Georgiana focused on being a good mother and continued to help run the home and studio until her husband repented and returned to her.

As well as being focused on her home life, Georgiana assisted the local community by supporting the South London Art Gallery, voicing her opposition of the Boer war and working as a parish councillor in Sussex. She also made major contributions to the Pre-Raphaelite movement, writing a biography of her husband and helping her son-in-law put together the Life of William Morris.

Maria Zambaco (1843-1914) Model, Muse, Sculptor

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Study for Head of Cassandra – Burne-Jones

Maria Zambaco, born Marie Terpsithea Cassavetti, was the model with whom Edward Burne-Jones conducted an affair. Maria had been born into a wealthy Anglo-Hellenic family and was the niece of the Greek Consul patron of art Alexander Constantine Ionides (1810-90). In 1861, Maria married Paris-based physician Demetrius Zambaco and moved to France, however, the marriage had broken down by 1866 despite having two children. On her return to London, her mother arranged for her to pose for Burne-Jones, which sparked a three-year affair.

Despite her pleas, Burne-Jones refused to leave his wife and their affair ended. Following this, Maria threw herself into her artwork, studying at the Slade School under the French painter Alphonse Legros (1837-1911) and the sculptor Auguste Rodin (1840-1917). Some of her most successful works include portrait medallions, which were exhibited at the Royal Academy and the Paris Salon.

Although she was working as an artist and no longer in a relationship with Burne-Jones, Maria still modelled for some of his paintings. Some of Burne-Jones’ biggest and well-known paintings feature images of Maria, for example, The Beguiling of Merlin and The Tree of Forgiveness.

Jane Morris (1839-1914) Model, Muse, Craftsperson

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Study for ‘The Hour Glass’ – Evelyn De Morgan

Jane Burden is best known for being the wife, model and muse of the British painter and craftsman William Morris (1834-96). Born into poverty in Oxford, Jane did not have much of a future ahead of her until she met the Pre-Raphaelite painters who were decorating a chamber at Oxford University. She quickly became the prized model of many painters and was considered the embodiment of beauty.

Jane and Morris married in 1859 and she became a partner in the decorative arts firm known as Morris & Co. She undertook a few embroidery commissions for the company and experimented with calligraphy and bookbinding.

After the birth of her daughters Jenny and May, Jane began modelling again, particularly for Rossetti, with whom she embarked on an affair until his mental breakdown in 1876.

Since she was one of the Pre-Raphaelite painters’ favourite models, Jane appears in many artworks and has posed as a whole range of literary and mythical characters including Iseult, Queen Guinevere, Pandora, Beatrice and Proserpine.

Marie Spartali Stillman (1844-1927) Model, Artist

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Marie Spartali – Madox Brown

Marie Euphrosyne Spartali is another female painter associated with the Pre-Raphaelites. She was born to a wealthy Greek family in London and was introduced to the art world by the photographer Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-79) who wished to take her photograph. Marie then set her sights on painting and became the student of Ford Madox Brown in 1864. By 1867, her artworks were already being exhibited and she began to pursue painting as a professional career.

Against her parents’ wishes, Marie married the American journalist William J. Stillman (1828-1901) who worked for The Times. His career meant the couple needed to travel regularly to Greece and Italy whilst also bringing up their three children and the three from Stillman’s previous marriage.

Despite the unsettled lifestyle, Marie was able to keep in contact with her Pre-Raphaelite friends and developed a distinctive style of painting. Her artwork featured mainly female figures from the writing of Shakespeare, Petrarch and Dante as well as Italian landscapes. She took part in several exhibitions and also sent some of her work to the USA.

Evelyn De Morgan (1855-1919) Artist

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Jenny Morris – Evelyn De Morgan

As the granddaughter of the Earl of Leicester, Evelyn Pickering did not need to worry about earning a living, however, she was determined to become a professional painter. Following in the footsteps of her uncle, the Pre-Raphaelite painter J.R. Spencer Stanhope (1829-1908), Evelyn became a prize-winning art student and exhibited works alongside Marie Spartali.

In 1887, Evelyn married ceramicist William De Morgan (1839-1917) and used her earnings to support her husband’s pottery business.

Evelyn’s works were typically figural and brightly coloured, often resembling Baroque-style art. She focused on a range of subjects, including medieval and classical legends, allegories and the afterlife. Her passions and experiences were often reflected in her artwork, for example, her support of the suffrage movement and life during the First World War.

Arguably, Evelyn De Morgan is one of the best Pre-Raphaelite painters, although she is constantly overlooked on account of her gender. Particularly impressive paintings include Queen Eleanor and Fair Rosamund, which is based on a medieval legend about Henry II and his lover, and the allegorical piece Night & Sleep.

“YET if you should forget me … do not grieve …
Better by far you should forget and smile,
Than that you should remember and be sad”

‘Remember’ by Christina Rossetti

The National Portrait Gallery successfully provides an alternative insight into the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. In recent years, the PRB has come back in favour and their paintings have proved to be popular at other exhibitions in which they have featured. Pre-Raphaelite Sisters, however, reveals there is far more involved with the artwork than meets the eye. The female artists have every right to be remembered and respected as their male counterparts. The other women in the exhibition deserve to be commended for tirelessly standing by the artists whilst they drew, painted and attempted to establish themselves.

With many famous paintings on display, Pre-Raphaelite Sisters is a fantastic exhibition for art lovers, particular fans of the Pre-Raphaelite movement. Alongside the well-known works are the lesser-known paintings by women and visitors are almost certain to leave with a new favourite painting in mind. Coinciding with the recent centenary of woman’s suffrage, this exhibition is the perfect way to celebrate the women who did not receive the acknowledgement they deserved during their lifetime.

Pre-Raphaelite Sisters is on display until 26th January and tickets are priced between £17 and £20. For more information, visit the National Portrait Gallery website.

2 thoughts on “Pre-Raphaelite Sisters

  1. Thank you for this insight into the lives of these women. What wonderful paintings some of them produced. At least as good if not better than their male counterparts. At last they get the credit for their work.

  2. The pre-Raphaelites are my favourite artists so this article was particularly interesting for me.
    Hazel once again you write with a light touch and yet full of authority. It was a really enjoyable read. Thank you for sharing your talents.

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