The sad, tragic suicide of a nineteenth century supermodel

She did not look for notoriety—she was coaxed into it by members of the art world where she then crashed at age 32.

Laudanum is a tincture of opium containing 10% powdered opium by weight. It was both a savior and a killer to many people in the 1800s and before. It has legitimate uses as analgesic or cough suppressant. No prescription was required to purchase it until the twentieth Century. It could be sold to almost anyone and was put in most of the patent medicines of the day. One more thing: it was highly addictive.

When you consider the maladies of the time including cholera and dysentery, you can see how it gained popularity. It gave relief from pain, diarrhea, coughing and women’s complaints. It was cheaper than alcohol for those who had a tendency to self-medicate. Suicide by Laudanum was common in the nineteenth Century, either accidentally or on purpose. That brings us to our story.

When we think of super-models some of the first ones that come to my mind are Cheryl Tiegs, Colleen Corby, Twiggy or Susan Van Wyck. There were many down through the ages, long before photography, and a number of them found their way into artists’ studios, where their faces and figures became parts of famous artworks. There was a young woman who worked in a millinery, and one day in 1849 she got the accidental attention of a man who was part of the art world. Her name was Elizabeth Siddal (1829-1862). Lizzie Siddal rose from anonymity of lower classes to having one of the most recognizable faces of Victorian Britain. She posed for days in a bathtub of often-cold water for John Everett Mallais’s Ophelia. She later had an off-again-on-again romance with artist, Dante Gabriel Rosetti, and was the model for much of his work, including Beata Beatrix.

Their relationship was tempestuous—this was not helped by Rosetti’s struggle with his own demons of alcohol and drugs. Every time they approached marriage, he called it off at the last minute. Lizzie spiraled into depression and despair, and medicated herself with Laudanum. One day they did tie the knot, but this did not put an end to conflicts. After the death of their first child, a stillborn, Lizzie spiraled deeper, and when pregnant with her second child she overdosed on Laudanum.

It was most probably an intentional suicide—there was a note left behind. But since she could not receive a Christian burial as a suicide, Dante told others it was an accidental overdose. Lizzie had developed an interest in poetry, and Dante insisted that she be buried with his latest poetry manuscript. He did not make—or save—a copy of it and after she was laid to rest, he was haunted by that fact that he wanted it back. It was retrieved, but that is another dramatic story.

If you want to read more about the beautiful but sad, Lizzie Siddal, several books are waiting to accommodate you. May I suggest the one by Lucinda Hawksley, Lizzie Siddal, The Tragedy of a Pre-Raphaelite Supermodel. It is available in PB and HC, 230 pp. You will recognize the cover as Millais’s Ophelia. Lucinda describes the true story of a young woman who had the striking looks and charisma to charm the patrons of art salons of the era. She did not look for notoriety—she was coaxed into it by members of the art world where she then crashed at age 32.

An interesting fact about Lucinda Hawksley, the author, is that she is the great, great, great granddaughter of Charles Dickens himself, and is one of the best authorities on the Dickens family life. She has written twenty books.

Sara Marie Hogg is the author of Quite Curious, a collection of true stories about the unknown and unexplained. Please click HERE to purchase a copy of the book.

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