Elizabeth ‘Lizzie’ Siddal and the Famous Women Dinner Service

Siddal was an English artist, poet, and artists’ model whose beauty, talents and life were recognised by Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant in their playful, yet groundbreaking project: the Famous Women Dinner Service.

Elizabeth Siddal

Today Elizabeth Eleanor Siddal (25 July 1829 – 11 February 1862), or Lizzie as she was styled and commonly known, would be celebrating her 191st birthday.

Siddal was an English artist, poet, and artists’ model whose beauty, talents and life were recognised by Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant in their playful, yet groundbreaking project: the ‘Famous Women Dinner Service’.

You may not instantly recall her name, but you will certainly know her face. Lizzie Siddal’s ethereal looks and flaming hair shaped the Pre-Raphaelites’ feminine ideal and made her one of the most famous faces of her generation. She is forever immortalised in thousands of paintings by her husband Dante Gabriel Rossetti, but is perhaps most recognised as Ophelia floating amongst untended foliage in John Everett Millais’ painting of 1852. The scene is from Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’, Act IV, Scene vii, in which Ophelia, driven out of her mind when her father is murdered by her lover Hamlet, falls into a stream and drowns.

A pivotal figure in London’s artistic world, Siddal was also an important and influential poet and artist in her own right, and the story of her life and struggles continues to resonate to this day.

In 1849, Lizzie was working in a milliner’s shop in London when she showed one of her drawings to Walter Deverell’s father. He, in turn, introduced her to his artist son. Struck by Lizzie’s fine and unconventional beauty, Walter Deverell painted her as Viola in his depiction of Shakespeare’s ‘Twelfth Night’.

Oil painting of a dead woman floating face up in a detailed gown in the river. She is surrounded by plants in the river and on the riverbank.

John Everett Millais, Ophelia, 1851-52, oil on canvas. Tate Britain;
photograph: Manon Gabet

Through Deverell, she was introduced to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and went on to model for William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais, famously catching pneumonia after lying in a bathtub to pose for the latter’s iconic ‘Ophelia’ (1852). However, it was the charismatic Dante Gabriel Rossetti who drew and painted her obsessively and to the exclusion of almost all other models. They married in 1860 but their relationship was intense and often rocky, with an informal engagement that lasted on and off for a decade.

While other women within Siddal’s social group aspired to the frills and crinolines (structured petticoats) of the rich, she defined her own style. Choosing not to wear a corset, she often made dresses out of plain fabrics and the simple shapes associated with women’s workwear.

Siddal began actively painting and drawing in 1852, with Rossetti encouraging both her artwork and poetry. Sitting side by side, the couple composed exceptional works of art. But Christina Rossetti, a writer, poet and Rossetti’s sister (who has her own Dinner Service plate), observed their relationship and Rossetti’s idealisation of Siddal as an artistic muse rather than a woman in her poetry.

‘One face looks out from all his canvases, […]

A saint, an angel — every canvas means

The same one meaning, neither more or less.

He feeds upon her face by day and night,

And she with true kind eyes looks back on him […]’

– Christina Rossetti, ‘In an Artist’s Studio’, 1896

In keeping with the predominant themes amongst the Pre-Raphaelites, Siddal chose medieval and literary subjects for her art and poetry, and illustrated a number of poems by Alfred, Lord Tennyson including ‘St Agnes’ Eve’ and ‘The Lady of Shalott’. Siddal’s works were praised and well received by her contemporaries, including Ford Madox Brown who particularly admired her poetry which often contained dark themes about lost love or the impossibility of true love.

She also secured the patronage of leading Victorian art critic John Ruskin who even subsidised her career with a £150 stipend per year. With his encouragement, she went on to study for a short period at the Sheffield School of Art.

A woman in a blue dress with long auburn hair is emerging from the woods holding the hand of a spectral figure of a woman in white.

Elizabeth Siddal, The Haunted Wood, 1856, gouache on paper. National Trust, Wightwick Manor © National Trust.

Like all of the female Pre-Raphaelite artists, Siddal’s works and contributions to the group have been overlooked. During her short life she produced many sketches, drawing and watercolours; as well as one oil painting. She also exhibited with the Pre-Raphaelites at the summer exhibition of 1857 at Russell Place and was the only female artist included out of 30 in Tate’s 1984 Pre-Raphaelite show. Today, significant collections of her artworks can be found at Wightwick Manor and the Ashmolean Museum. Most of modest scale and materials, they emphasise the constraints on her life and output, but remain important to this day and help us to understand how her style and skill might have developed had she lived longer.

Throughout her life, Siddal suffered from poor health and depression. Her illnesses gave her access to laudanum, an opioid, to which she became addicted. In 1861, her first pregnancy ended with the birth of a stillborn daughter. She became pregnant for the second time the same year, but overdosed on laudanum and died in February 1862, probably by suicide.

In Siddal’s Victorian England addiction was a taboo and little was known about postpartum depression. Her life became dominated by illness, addiction and grief, with no adequate means to help her.

While she was one of the fortunate few women who was able to pursue a creative outlet and follow her chosen mode of self-expression, her story has been overwritten by her addiction, tragic death and Rossetti’s macabre exhumation to retrieve his poetry manuscript nine years after her burial.

Famous Women Dinner Service

All 50 plates of the Famous Women Dinner Service lined up in rows. Portraits of different women are on each plate painted in shades of white and blue.

Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell, The Famous Women Dinner Service, 1932 – 34. The Charleston Trust © The Estates of Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell, DACS 2021

In 1932 Sir Kenneth Clark (1903-1983), a prominent art historian and close friend and patron to both Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, commissioned the pair to create a dinner service. Their choice of theme fell on famous women throughout history.

The Famous Women Dinner Service is a set of 50 hand-painted blank Wedgwood ceramic plates, each depicting a portrait in the central section, the name of the subject and a decorative, repeating motif running around the edge.

The plates are decorated in four sets of twelve, with carefully selected female historical figures for the following four categories: queens, women famed for their beauty, writers and performers. The final two plates depict Bell and Grant, the only man in the series.

In the Famous Women Dinner Service, women are invited to sit at the head of the table, so to speak. Their lives, achievements and accomplishments become the focal point of the conversation.

A closer look at the list of women whom Bell and Grant have chosen to include in the Dinner Service reveals their profound understanding of the importance of female histories and stories which are often untold, suppressed, or erased completely.

In October 1931, Vanessa Bell somewhat offhandedly wrote to Roger Fry that the project ‘ought to please the feminists’. And indeed, the Famous Women Dinner Service follows in the footsteps of her sister Virginia Woolf’s 1929 essay ‘A Room of One’s Own’, but also anticipates contemporary feminist politics.

In her writing, Woolf argues for the existence of a secret history of women which, for centuries, has been suppressed by men. She speaks for female achievements throughout history that remain unnamed, unknown, hidden, forgotten or forever lost — ‘Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman’. (Virginia Woolf, ‘A Room of One’s Own’)

Many of the “famous women” celebrated in the plates led complex and unconventional lives, resisting tradition and societal expectations in favour of individual freedom. Some used stage names and pseudonyms to follow their chosen professional paths. Others had to do so in order to express an alternative sexual identity. The group includes unexpected feminist icons, but as noted by Hana Leaper, ‘there is an overlapping strength of character’. (Hana Leaper, ‘The Famous Women Dinner Service: A Critical Introduction and Catalogue’)

The set of 50 plates were decorated by Bell and Grant during their time at Charleston, and miraculously survived wartime bombing and several house moves by the Clark family. Upon the death of Clark’s second wife, Nolwen de Janzé-Rice, the service was sold at an auction in Germany. For the next 30 years its whereabouts remained a mystery.

In 2017, the set reemerged, intact and in its original condition. It was acquired by The Charleston Trust the following year to join five prototype plates and drawings already in the Collection. In 2018, the Famous Women Dinner Service was shown for the first time in a museum setting in the Spotlight Gallery at Charleston, and is now on permanent display in the Outer Studio.