Spooky Stories: The Exhumation of Lizzie Siddal

Since it’s close to Halloween, I thought I would share this morbid little tidbit about Burne-Jones’s fellow Pre-Raphaelites, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Elizabeth Siddal and how he had her grave dug up so he could get the book of his poems that he had buried with her.

Rossetti was born into a family that already had a love for literature and the arts. His father was a scholar and his mother was the sister of John Polidori. Many of the children were creative types. Gabriel himself was a painter and a poet and, along with painters Walter Deverell, William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais, and other young artists of the day, started the Pre-Raphaelite movement.


Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s self-portrait. Image via Wikipedia.

Elizabeth Siddal, on the other hand, was from a working class background. She was employed in a millinery shop and was the daughter of a cutler. Rossetti and his fellow Pre-Raphaelites found her to be a very striking young woman, and she started modeling for them in 1849. She started taking drawing lessons from Rossetti, and this blossomed into an affair which lasted for years. Elizabeth began writing poetry and painting as well, but Rossetti eventually insisted that she sit only for him, though he continued to sketch other models, such as Jane Morris and Annie Miller.

elizabeth siddal self-portrait

Elizabeth Siddal’s self-portrait. Image via Wikipedia.

Elizabeth’s and Rossetti’s relationship was a tempestuous one, marked by Rossetti’s infidelity and reluctance to marry her and Elizabeth’s ill health and growing addiction to laudanum. In 1860, they finally married, but their happiness was to be short-lived. After a stillbirth in 1862, Elizabeth, who had been pregnant again, overdosed on laudanum. It is unknown whether this was suicide or an accident.

Ophelia by John Everett Millais.

Elizabeth Siddal modeled for John Everett Millais’s famous painting of Ophelia. Image via Wikipedia.

Elizabeth’s death sent Rossetti on a downward spiral of drug addiction. In his grief, he wrote a book of poems about her, which slipped beneath her hair during the burial. In 1869, Rossetti became obsessed with getting the book back so he could publish the poems. Elizabeth’s body was exhumed so the book could be obtained. The book was in remarkably good condition, as was Elizabeth’s body at the time of exhumation.

During a particularly dark moment, Rossetti destroyed all of the photographs of Elizabeth. Only two are known to have survived.

More reading about Rossetti, Elizabeth Siddal, and the Pre-Raphaelites: Desperate Romantics by Franny Moyle and Lizzie Siddal: The Tragedy of a Pre-Raphaelite Supermodel, by Lucinda Hawksley (the latter was my source).