Dante comes to Hastings

By David E P Dennis

Many people know the story of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, who signed themselves cryptically as PRB. They were not Cambridge Apostle spies, but artists who wanted to break the dreary mould of English Art.

The founders of the art movement were Holman Hunt, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and John Everett Millais. Hunt was born in 1827, Rossetti in 1828, and Millais in 1829, so it is easy to see how they could share the same views.

Hunt was staid, quiet and not as talented as the other two. He was born into a humble home, saved up and managed to be accepted as a student at the Royal Academy. Rossetti was the son of an Italian poet, who fled Italy to escape arrest for being a revolutionary and then taught Italian in Oxford, as a King’s College professor. The greatest talent was Millais, who won the Royal Society of Arts Silver Medal when he was nine years old – a technically brilliant prodigy.

When they had established their principles for the new art they invited the painter James Collinson, the art critic Frederic Stephens, the sculptor Thomas Woolner and Rossetti’s brother William to join them. They wrote down their precise strategy in four principles.

PRB would:

  • have genuine ideas to express
  • study nature so as to express those ideas to the best possible standard
  • sympathise with anything in previous art that was serious and heartfelt and exclude all conventional and self-aggrandising art
  • produce excellent art and statues.

Between 1849 and on into 1851 they were screamed at, treated abominably, ridiculed and told they were acting like spoilt children. The graphic genius Millais was told his paintings were revolting. They never sold any of their art in that period.

But then in the May of 1851, John Ruskin, England’s leading art critic said – wait a minute! He wrote to The Times about PRB and their world changed overnight. By 1854 Millais had gone to the Holy Land and although the original group had broken up, many more artistic members had ‘signed up’ to the ethos of the four PRB principles.

In 1855 Rossetti began to discuss art with William Morris and Edward Burn-Jones, then on they went with Ford Maddox Brown, John William Waterhouse and Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema agreeing to the PRB ethos.

Art was all very well, but every artist has to have a life – and the more vivid, complex and busy that life is the better, for the deeper experiences produce great art.

In 1854 Rossetti was living in Hastings, East Sussex, at No 5 High Street. He had a quiet and soulful woman with him, a poet who was to become his wife – Elizabeth Eleanor Siddal. He loved her and she loved him in return. She had moved to Hastings before him.

Dante---Siddal-1                Dante---Siddal-2

From then on it is quite a story. She died in February 1862, was buried in Highgate Cemetery in London on the 17th of that month and Dante had her dug up again on the 5th of October 1869.

He dug her up seven and a half years after she died because he’d put his best poetry into a book, placed it reverently in her coffin as a token of undying love – but now in 1869 he was internationally famous and he wanted his book back!

Originally born on the 25th July 1829 in London as Siddall with two ‘l’s’ she dropped one of them much later to please Rossetti. She wrote poetry at school and thereafter, but that did not bring in sufficient to live – as most poets know.  So by 1850 she was often ill – a frail, ladylike but slightly flirty milliner’s assistant. She was 5 feet 7 inches tall with copper hair and was said to have the look of a woman from a mediaeval painting. She also began to paint.

An artist called Walter Deverell asked her to be his model at one shilling an hour. Rossetti visited Deverell in London, fell for ‘Lizzie’ – when he was 20 and she 19. Because he was very aware of the famous story of the Italian poet Dante and his unrequited love for Beatrice, he allowed himself to view his passion in the same light and placed Lizzie on a pedestal on which she could do no wrong.  He believed she was utterly perfect and worthy of adoration. He was said to be in love with love. She became his supermodel and muse. She became, via Rossetti, the Ophelia of Millais – lying in cold water for hours while she was being painted, so that she caught chill.

Lizzie was befriended by the watercolourist Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon (whose first cousin was Florence Nightingale) around 1854 and was introduced to the Hastings area with its wonderful light; a quality loved by artists who preferred to be nearer to London than down in St Ives.

Lizzie became ill, was moved to and fro between London doctors and homes because her friends thought she was dying and then she was sent down to Hastings by a homeopathic doctor, for recuperation by the sea. Rossetti visited and then stayed and the world began to look with awe at the art he was producing from modest lodgings in Hastings High Street. They would drink in the Cutter and visit Old Roar Gill waterfall, which at the time was around 50 feet high. During the period of their time together in Hastings Lizzie was hardly ever well.

She started to take opiates in wine or spirits, which in those days was fairly common and called ‘laudanum’. She painted, he painted. He met voluptuous models called Fanny Cornforth and Alexa Wilding and by 1859 he had spent one whole year away from Lizzie, though she still wanted to marry him.

By 1860 she was sure she was dying and came back to stay at No 5 the High Street, Hastings, to die. Rossetti visited her and heard her say repeatedly that she wanted to die because her illness was so awful. On 23rd May 1860 she summoned up enough energy to go to St Clement’s Church in Hastings and marry Rossetti. They managed to go to Boulogne and Paris on honeymoon.

Remarkably, Lizzie, though still very ill, became pregnant in 1861, but the baby was stillborn on 2 May 1861. Then the laudanum really took over as she used it as an antidote to post-natal depression. Dante was still seeing Fanny Cornforth.

On the 10th February 1862 she took two whole ounces of opiate laudanum and died while Dante was out – possibly seeing Fanny. He then became addicted to choral hydrate in his depression and guilt and died unhappy on 9th April 1882.

People wonder how a man could dig up his own wife to get back a book of poems. He certainly felt guilty. The little book was sodden and worm-ridden but he dried it, cleaned it and copied the poems out to the great acclaim of the literary world. The rest is history!

If you would like to read much more about poor Lizzie and Dante in Hastings, then obtain the marvellous and well-researched book, A Destiny Defined by Jenny Ridd.

To see artwork from Rossetti and the other PRB members, take a look at Pre-Raphaelite Masterpieces by Gordon Kerr, which has full colour plates of the art and much useful information.

Overall, there are hundreds if not thousands of books about these artists and their attempt to raise the game of English art to the peak of perfection.

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