Exhibition review: ‘Beyond Ophelia’


Curator Hannah Squire

Wightwick Manor in Wolverhampton is hosting an exhibition devoted to the art and poetry of Elizabeth Siddall, and, shockingly, it’s only the second exhibition to focus exclusively on Siddall. I’ve been writing about Siddall for a while now (my book My Ladys Soul: The Poetry of Elizabeth Siddall will be published in June) and while her face is familiar to many, her work less so, particularly her poetry, though her life exerts a great fascination. This exhibition makes a good attempt at redressing the balance, then: although information about Siddall’s life and Pre-Raphaelite connections is there, the focus is on her as an artist and poet. And Wightwick is the perfect place for it: they hold the second-largest collection of Siddall’s works (the first being the Ashmolean).

2018 is proving to be a year for celebrating women’s achievements, often against all odds, given that it is 100 years since women were able to vote (though this was not on equal terms until 1928). The Manders, who built Wightwick and collected Pre-Raphaelite 28276572_10154975470041315_6622862564304738970_nand Arts and Crafts works with which to furnish it, were also keen suffragists, and one room of the house is currently set up for a Suffragette meeting. Siddall’s achievements as an artist, limited by her early death and all too often viewed as dependent on her more famous husband, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, are appropriately celebrated, then. Wightwick’s collection of 12 works by Siddall are on display in the beautiful Daisy Room, framed for the first time, along with other works no longer in the collection but loaned for the exhibition. This offers a genuinely unique opportunity to consider Siddall’s work as a body (though of course there are many other works), but there is plenty here to give you a feel for her skill as an artist, with her expressive and evocative pencil drawings, 28279682_10154975470241315_2380485743337476893_nand two small and beautiful oils, St Agnes’ Eve and The Haunted Wood (above).

I’m delighted to see that the exhibition also includes some of Siddall’s poetry. A few of her poems are beautifully printed and hung on the walls alongside her artworks, and I hope that this will encourage visitors to explore her under-appreciated poetry. It’s a particular pleasure that some lines appear on the walls above the wallpaper, drawing the eye. Her work as an artist and poet, in the complex gendered environment of the nineteenth-century cultural sphere, is outlined in exhibition boards, and visitors are encouraged to see Siddall as a creator of serious art in her own right – something which, despite three decades of serious critical work on her art, and less sustained but still significant work on her poetry, is still overlooked. Both the art and the poetry demonstrates Siddall’s engagement with her cultural milieu: her illustrations for poems and ballads, and the influence of these works and forms on her own writing, bear out her deep consideration – and transformation – of other works of art.

This is a small exhibition, but it is beautiful, and the room with its fireplace and gorgeous wallpaper feels intimate and cosy. It is open from March 1st until December 24th, 2018, so there is no excuse not to go and see it! Siddall is so often remembered as the model for Millais’s Ophelia, and it is encouraging to see this exhibition encouraging us to go ‘beyond Ophelia’.



Votes for Women!

I’ve just finished a fascinating book, The Militant Suffragettes, by Antonia Raeburn. Given my occasional feminist ramblings, it’s shocking that my knowledge of the Suffragettes was basically gleaned from a couple of novels and Mary Poppins, but this book filled the void (not sure if it’s still in print though). Amazing to think that it’s less than a century since women got the vote in the UK (women, if you don’t vote EVERY time you have the opportunity, you should be ashamed of yourselves!) The book is largely based on interviews, letters and diaries and is sufficiently detailed and historical, but it reads like a novel – absolutely fascinating, and I couldn’t put it down! What particularly impressed me is the amount of damage women did to themselves in the name of suffragism. Yes, they did damage some property etc (window-smashing was particularly popular) but they went on hunger- and thirst-strikes; they were force-fed, they (in the case of Emily Wilding-Davison) threw themselves under horses and died. They chained themselves to railings, were assaulted by the police, and so on. And it struck me that, in a period when morally if not legally women were still seen as the property of men, it was a particularly apposite protest, to damage themselves (or allow themselves to be harmed) in their cause, since to men this would seem to violate a sacred image. Furthermore, it demonstrated their bravery and fitness for the vote, since they conducted their schemes as a war, and went into battle like any man. Yes, I’m aware of the arguments that they were a bit demented in allowing themselves to be harmed, and in their window-smashing etc, but looking back now, doesn’t it seem that any protest was right? Imagine if women still didn’t have the vote!