Who were those women who sat for the Pre-Raphaelite painters? Muses to an exclusively male genius, of tragic stature and uncertain health – were they indeed as passive as their portrait painters and their critics contrived to suggest? Jan Marsh reveals the actual lives behind the myth of the Pre-Raphaelite women: Elizabeth Siddal, Emma Brown, Annie Miller, Fannie Cornforth, Jane Morris and Georgina Burne-Jones. A meticulous testimony, this book at last records the rare vitality of these gifted and ambitious women. Delivering them from a century of masculine misrepresentation, Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood is a fascinating tribute to their spirit of independence in circumstances which conspired to suppress it. It includes an intriguing set of photographs as well as reproductions of the paintings and studies they inspired.Jan Marsh’s classic Pre Raphelite Sisterhood is an interesting and engaging book that stands the test of time as one of the most beloved books on the Pre Raphelite art movement. Marsh’s novel is scholarship in the best possible form.
She weaves the very social structure of the Victorian era into her novel in a refreshing way by discussing how Victorian expectations and etiquette affected the lives of some of the most fascinating artist’s muses. She talks about marriage, morality, medievalism, and sexism in the context of Pre Raphelite art.
Marsh chronicles the lives of Elizabeth Siddall, Jane Morris, Emma Brown, Annie Miller, Fannie Cornforth, Jane Morris and Georgina Burne-Jones which is no easy feat. She manages to covey all of them as complex and independent woman worthy of respect. Jan Marsh writes about their lives not as shadows behind the male artists of the Pre Raphelite Brotherhood but as real people with strong motivations that broke the confines of rigid Victorian society.
Many of these women, notably Lizzie Siddal and Jane Morris where successful and talented artists in their own right. Due to 19th century and modern sexism in the art fields, their talent has been belittled and not held up to the same standards as their male counterparts.
For example, Lizzie was an accomplished poet and painter yet her story is firmly planted in the world of myth. Her legacy and that of many other Pre-Rpahelite muses are only researched and understood in the context of the men in their life. Jan Marsh successfully plucks these women out of this outdated outlook and into a more refreshing viewpoint.A drawing of Lizzie painting by Dante Gabriel Rosetti
Jane Morris and her daughter May Morris where also artists, being skilled embroiderers and designers. They helped make Morris & Co one of the bestselling wallpaper and printed textiles businesses that is still thriving today. Many of their original designs are still used.Embroidery work by May and Jane Morris
Jan Marsh’s novel is written in an extremely easy to read manner. Although some background on the Pre Raphelite Brotherhood is helpful before reading this book it is not a necessity. She crafts a successful and engaging book that has paved the way for a new generation of art historians. It is no surprise that Marsh’s novel has remained a cult classic for over thirty years.
I had two small issues with Marsh’s book. One was how she discussed Effie Gray, John Everett Millais’ wife. Marsh made the conscious decision to not include Effie as one of the women chronicled in her book. This was due to Marsh’s (and the publics) belief that Effie is at fault for Millais’ departure from Pre Rapheltism and his relationships with other members of the brotherhood.
In reality, Effie Gray was integral to Millais’ success as an artist. She was exceptionally good at using her social and finical skills to introduce Millais into new circles and potential patrons which helped propel his career into stardom.
Millais’ departure was also mainly due to his shifting values and desire for a more finically feasible career which was not only influenced by his expanding family but a multitude of other factors. The Victorian era’s strict etiquette rules also made it more difficult for a married man like Everett to spend as much time with his Bachelor friends in the brotherhood. I do not think that Effie Gray should be blamed for a social structure she was born into but did not create.
If you want a more in-depth view of Effie Gray, Suzanne Fagence Cooper’s biography, The Passionate Lives of Effie Gray, John Ruskin and John Everett Millais is one of the best non-fiction books I have read in a long time.An albumen print photograph of John Everett Millais and Effie with their daughter Mary from 1865. The image is signed “Effie C. Millais.”
That being said, everyone’s views of historical figures are different and it did not take away from my enjoyment of the book and Marsh’s talented scholarship and in-depth research.
My second issue is that Jan Marsh does not discuss Lizzie Sidall’s drug addiction in depth enough. Some parts of her book are visibly lacking any information of this extremely important part of Sidall’s life. Without any further knowledge of Lizzie, Marsh’s introduction of her addiction, which appears near the 100th page of the book could come across as harsh and surprising. Marsh does not integrate this part of her life into her book as well as it could have been.
That being said, one thing Jan Marsh also did phenomenally well was transitioning between the different historical figures. When writing about seven different lives it can be difficult to transition from one person’s story the other without alarming and confusing the reader. Marsh effortlessly crafted her story to make it very easy for the reader to know who she was talking about. This is no easy feat!
Overall, Pre Raphelite Sisterhood is a very detailed and well-researched book on the lives of seven amazing women. Her book has rightfully remained the go-to source for information on Pre Raphelite muses. If you are interested in the Victorian area, Pre-Raphelitism or woman’s social history I recommend Marsh’s book!
Star Rating: 4.5/5
I highly recommend Stephanie Graham Pina’s blog, Pre Raphelite Sisterhood as an amazing and frequently updated source of information on the Pre-Raphelites and their circle: http://preraphaelitesisterhood.com/
If you are looking for a biography solely on the life of Elizabeth Siddall, Lucida Hawksley’s book Lizzie Siddal: The Tragedy of a Pre-Raphaelite Supermodel is definitely the most recent and reliable biography on her life. Having read this book, I find it extremely inferior to Jan Marsh’s book. Hawksley does not discuss the social reasoning behind some of Lizzie’s decisions, making her come across as weak and unreasonable. Hawksley also takes some myths about Lizzie as fact which I found extremely problematic and alarming. Her biography does go into more detail than Marsh’s about Siddall’s laudanum addiction which was a nice and important touch. I would rate Lucida Hawksley’s biography a 3/5.
The William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow, London is currently having an exhibition on May Morris entitled, May Morris Art and Life. I have never been to this exhibit since I live in the United States but if you live or are visiting England, it is definitely worth a visit! http://www.wmgallery.org.uk/whats-on/exhibitions-43/may-morris
Some more places you can go to learn about the Morris’ is Red House, Jane and Williams Morris’ gorgeous gothic inspired home currently owned by National Trust: https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/red-house
If you live in the United States, The Deleware Art Museum has a stunning (no pun intended!) collection of Pre-Raphelite art including notable works like Lady Lilith and Veronica Veronese by Dante Gabriel Rosetti as well as Lizzie Siddal’s 1856 piece Holy Family.