Pre-Raphaelite Sisters Exhibition

A gallery restores formerly marginal figures to the spotlight, reports John Westbrooke

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The National Portrait Gallery’s latest exhibition plans to tell the untold story of the women of the Pre-Raphaelite movement. Untold? The lives of models and muses may be interesting, but those who posed for the 19th-century retro avant-garde Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, providing new notions of female beauty for male artists, must be some of the best known ever.

Sure enough, though, it’s full of insights and surprises.

The story of Effie Gray is certainly well known (she was the subject of a Dakota Fanning film in 2014): she married the critic John Ruskin, but the marriage was never consummated and she ended up with his protégé, the painter John Everett Millais.

But who’s heard of Fanny Eaton? She was Jamaican, of mixed race, and appears in several paintings, generally as someone of all-purpose exotic origin: an Indian nanny, the mother of Moses. Since arriving in London she’d been a servant, married a London cabbie and had 10 children. She was almost unknown until a descendant recently began researching her history.

The exhibition features 12 women, playing many roles. Effie, for instance, produced watercolours – there’s one of a garden here – and she’s also labelled as a manager, having scouted locations, costumes and clients for her husband, along with running his household, bearing children, and eventually becoming Lady Millais.

Fanny Cornforth was a more typical Pre-Raphaelite “stunner”, with her firm jaw, bee-stung lips and “harvest-yellow” hair. Dante Gabriel Rossetti first painted her as a fallen woman but later, less judgmentally, in “The Blue Bower”, richly clad in a vaguely oriental setting, and looking straight at you.

She was his mistress (and housekeeper, of course) off and on for years, though both married others – PRB love lives were as tangled as those of the Bloomsbury set a few decades later. Some of his friends protested that she was uneducated, vulgar and in later years fat. But Rossetti put on weight too: he called her “Dear Elephant” and she called him “Rhino”.

Elizabeth Siddall is best known as the model for Millais’ “Ophelia”; she nearly caught her death lying in a cold bath to portray Hamlet’s suicidal love. (The version on display is Millais’ reworking of his own original in Tate Britain.) But she also drew and painted – a self-portrait makes her out to be plainer than male visions of her – and wrote poetry. She became Rossetti’s sole model for years, and eventually his wife.

But she was constantly ill, and suffered from depression after a stillbirth; she died in 1862 of an overdose of laudanum. Rossetti romantically placed his notebook of poetry in the coffin with her, but he hadn’t kept a copy, so he exhumed her eight years later to retrieve it.

Giving birth killed Joanna Boyce too. We may forget how risky this could be in Victorian times, even while other women had babies by the dozen (Victoria had nine). She was an artist in the early days of the PRB, and a fine one, partly trained in France. There’s a beautiful self-portrait here, done when she was only 20, and a portrait of Fanny Eaton as herself.

Noting “I have a talent and the constant impulse to employ it”, she was doubtful about what domesticity would do to her career, but she was encouraged by her father, brother and eventual husband, Henry Wells, a painter himself. None the less, she was only 30 when she died in 1861. Rossetti drew her on her deathbed, a common but slightly macabre practice.

Evelyn de Morgan too was an artist, trained at the Slade, though if she’s remembered it’s as the wife of the ceramicist William. Still, the curators point out, sales of her paintings subsidised his pottery. In “Night & Sleep”, the characters bring dusk – Night dimming the light with her cloak as they fly west through the sky, Sleep scattering poppies.

Also on display is her drawing of Jane Morris, wife of the more famous William and lover of the more famous Rossetti. Jane worked with William’s arts and crafts business, but she was also a needlewoman: there’s a richly embroidered evening bag on display, fritillary and eyebright against a dark blue background, and some of her calligraphy too. As a muse for Rossetti she was the inspiration and model for his depictions of Guinevere, Beatrice and Proserpine.

Maria Zambaco similarly inspired Edward Burne-Jones, moving from model to student to mistress. In “The Beguiling of Merlin” she’s a temptress; in “The Tree of Forgiveness” she’s revived by her husband’s embrace after being turned into an almond tree by the gods. The affair was turbulent, he was obsessed, and she created a scandal by trying to drown herself, but at the end of it she moved on to study sculpting under Rodin in Paris.

Burne-Jones went back to his wife Georgiana, also featured here. She hoped to be an artist but, engaged at 15, had little chance of following her dream. Instead, she raised a family, ran the studio, and became a local councillor. There are two portraits by her husband, though, one showing her as a mother staring rather wearily at the errant painter, the other a sketch of her learning Latin, widely thought of as an improper subject for ladies.

Annie Miller was more model than muse, another working-class girl, painted by Holman Hunt as a fallen woman seeing the light in “The Awakening Conscience”. He had her educated and planned to marry her before worrying about her morals – mainly because she also posed for Rossetti, though there’s no evidence of a relationship – and suggesting she emigrate. But she stayed on, married an officer, and did rather well for herself, dying at Shoreham-by-Sea in 1925 at the respectable age of 90.

Christina Rossetti was the sister of, and later carer for, the better known Dante, but perhaps only marginally a Pre-Raphaelite sister. She posed as Mary in her brother’s Annunciation painting “Ecce Ancilla Domini” (with added auburn hair), but she’s best known for poetry, which for the rest of the PRB was a sideline at best: “Goblin Market” and “In the Bleak Midwinter” have stood the test of time.

And that leaves Marie Spartali Stillman, a woman of many parts. She studied under Ford Madox Brown, she exhibited in London and the USA and married an American painter, she’s in a photo by Julia Margaret Cameron, her “First Meeting of Petrarch and Laura” is a proper medievalish PRB painting (red hair and all), she posed for Burne-Jones and Rossetti, and there’s even a pair of silk shoes she embroidered.

Life could be tough for women in Britain a century and more ago, with poverty and childbirth curtailing careers and lives; but what these twelve achieved makes an eye-opening exhibition.

Pre-Raphaelite Sisters is at the National Portrait Gallery until 26 January 2020. Tickets £18; over-60s £5 Monday-Wednesday 10-11am, under-25s £5 on Fridays. The gallery closes for a three-year refurbishment in June 2020.