Historic Trends and Supermodels // The Story of Elizabeth Siddal

Do you ever find yourself flicking through Instagram, or a magazine, or TV or any form of media ever and just thinking “I wish I looked like her.” Other people are just gorgeous aren’t they? Be it Kardashians, superheroes, supervillains, actresses, models and more, thanks to social media, it’s now easier than ever to compare yourself to others and try whatever fad is trending to get the look. Sucks being a millennial right? I bet they didn’t have to deal with this shit 200 years ago? Nope. Turns out that throughout history women have been trying to “get the look,” often in dangerous ways. As someone who’s interested in medicine and health as well as fashion and beauty, the case of Elizabeth Siddal is simply fascinating.


Born in 1829, Elizabeth wasn’t a typical Victorian beauty. Pale skin and gangly red hair wasn’t really in vogue, and yet her modelling career began aged 20 when she was noticed by Walter Deverell, and thus she was introduced to the Pre-Raphaelites. The Pre-Rapaelites were a group of English artists, painters, poets and critics who were active from the mid 1800’s, and massively influenced art throughout the world. Early members, Dante Rossetti, John Everett Millais, and William Holman-Hunt started the “brotherhood,” in Millais’ parents house (how cute), and they shared a similar passion for art and its creative process.

Elizabeth was painted by numerous members of the brotherhood and associated artists. Her first modelling job was for a painting scene in Twelfth Night by Deverell. He needed to find a girl who could dress as a boy, and Lizzie was perfect. He described her beauty as

“…like a queen, magnificently tall … and a face of the most delicate and finished modelling.”


As her modelling career kicked off she maintained a part-time job at a millinery (fancy word for hat shop) and began a tumultuous relationship with Dante Rossetti. Their ten year engagement began in 1850 and was called off multiple times. As a working class girl, Elizabeth faced some pretty harsh criticism from Rossetti’s higher class family, and Rossetti was known to be having multiple affairs with multiple women. Rossetti initially tried to block other brotherhood members from using her as a model as he wanted to use her exclusively, but as their relationship worsened, so did her prominence in his paintings.


That being said, Elizabeth is probably most known for modelling in Ophelia (1852), by John Everett Millais. The painting is one of the most popular postcards at the Tate Modern, and shot Elizabeth up into supermodel status, however the shoot was difficult, to say the least. Elizabeth posed in a full bathtub which was heated with oil lamps. Halfway through the process the lamps went out; Millais was too engrossed in his art to notice, and Elizabeth felt that she couldn’t speak up, so she lay in a cold bathtub for hours. This would be enough to make anyone feel under the weather now but this being Victorian times, it basically shattered her. She was initially diagnosed with a severe cold however her poor health became even poorer as she was left with some sort of chronic condition. Differential diagnosis included:

  • TB

  • Pneumonia

  • Anaemia

  • Intestinal absorption disorder

Elizabeth also became severely depressed and started misusing laudanum (mixture of alcohol and morphine. Victorian era medications went hard). She was also suspected to have arsenic poisoning, as a dilute solution of arsenic supposedly cleared your complexion right up. I hate spots as much as the next person but arsenic seems a bit much.

All in all, Elizabeth was not a well lady. Luckily for her, ill was the new black as her pale sickly complexion shot her into superstardom. Fort Maddox said of her new diseased appearance:

“[she is] looking thinner and more deathlike and more beautiful.”


Young women were dying to emulate the deathbed aesthetic, and beauty publications were more than happy to help. Tips included cutting down on sleep, drinking vinegar to keep the weight off, and dropping belladonna in your eyes for the glazed morphine-addicted aesthetic. Of course, morphine was another way to get the look.


Elizabeth eventually passed in 1862 after drinking half a bottle of laudanum. Her final years became tragic, as she sadly gave birth to a still-born daughter and suffered from severe post-partum depression. Following her death, she became better known for her own paintings and poems which were all published posthumously. Personal favourites include her self-portrait, (pictured) and Early Death. Her poems are all genuinely beautiful, and I’d highly recommend checking them out.

Elizabeth Siddal is so interesting to me because I’d never really considered the link between health and beauty, and how this would in turn affect trends. Even in recent history ill health has been a beauty trend with the heroin chic aesthetic of the 90s. Throughout history, beauty trends, beauty goals and beauty icons have been around, sometimes to dangerous effects. Morphine addiction, chronic illness and belladonna really does put crazy contouring in a much more flattering light.

(but seriously guys, cool it with the contouring)

Read More:

Exploring Elizabeth Siddal

The Pre-Raphaelite Society

FacePaint: The Story of Make Up by Lisa Eldridge