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Sister Helen

Elizabeth 'Lizzie' Eleanor Siddal, Mrs Dante Gabriel Rossetti (Holborn 1829 – Chatham Place, London 1862)

Category

Art / Drawings and watercolours

Date

1860

Materials

Ink and chalk on paper

Measurements

150 mm (H); 130 mm (W); 535 mm (H); 380 mm (W)

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Collection

Wightwick Manor, West Midlands

NT 1288022

Summary

Pencil, black chalk and brown ink drawing of a young woman, Helen, kneeling before a fire, whilst in the background her brother points out of the window. Glued to white paper surround, large cream card mount.

Full description

Compositional study was known for this subject based on Dante Gabriel Rossetti's poem Sister Helen first published in 1854, in which a betrayed woman melts the image of her faithless lover (and thus forfeits her soul by employing witchcraft) while her young brother watches the mans death from the battlements. Helen, a witch, has moulded a wax figure of her unfaithful lover which she is melting in front of the fire. As the wax melts, her brother watches the man's death from the battlements. Fallen to her knees, Helen clutches her throat in solemn agony at the loss of her soul. Siddal does not draw Helen as hysterical or villainous; she has sympathy for the torture Helen is going through. Two drawings of this subject are known to have been created by Siddal. Rossetti and Siddal were partners in love and art and mutually inspired each other. Rossetti’s poetry was a source of inspiration for Elizabeth. When they first met he had published very little, but among the published pieces was Sister Helen. The subject of this poem shows she shared with Rossetti a love of the macabre and supernatural themes. The poem employs a well-known folklore motif: killing someone by destroying an effigy of the person fashioned by witchcraft. The poem, like Siddal’s drawing, creates sympathy for Sister Helen, whose treatment of her lover is both disturbing and remarkable. Poetry was a very important inspiration for Siddal's art and her drawing of Sister Helen is based on her tutor Rossetti's poem of the same name. Rossetti wrote to the poet William Allingham in 1854: 'Miss S. has made a splendid design from Sister Helen of mine. ' Although Rossetti was her tutor, it was unusual for a Victorian female artist to depict a violent female figure. Based on Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s poem Sister Helen, (first published 1854): ‘See, see, the wax has dropp'd from its place, Sister Helen, And the flames are winning up apace!" "Yet here they burn but for a space, Little brother! " (O Mother, Mary Mother, Here for a space, between Hell and Heaven!) "Ah! what white thing at the door has cross'd, Sister Helen? Ah! what is this that sighs in the frost?" "A soul that's lost as mine is lost, Little brother!" (O Mother, Mary Mother, Lost, lost, all lost, between Hell and Heaven!)’

Provenance

Lady Mander collection.

Marks and inscriptions

Smaller 15/- (written in pencil on reverse)

Makers and roles

Elizabeth 'Lizzie' Eleanor Siddal, Mrs Dante Gabriel Rossetti (Holborn 1829 – Chatham Place, London 1862), artist

References

Jacobi and Finch 2023: Carol Jacobi and James Finch (eds.), The Rosettis, exh.cat. Tate Britain, London and Delaware Art Museum, 2023, pp. 130-1.

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