Beauty in Thorns

Beauty in Thorns by Kate Forsyth

Chapter 2

Pretending to Be Drowning

Spring 1852

Lizzie floated in water, pretending to be drowning.

She had to stay absolutely still. If she moved even a little, the bath water rippled and the fabric of her silver-embroidered dress billowed. Then Mr Millais would heave a great sigh. She would hear the scrape of his palette knife, followed by a long silence, in which she knew he was staring at her, measuring her, finding her wanting.

Lizzie could not see Mr Millais. She had to look up towards the windows at the far end of the studio. He had coloured the panes so that the light fell through in shades of green and gold. She had watched those panes slowly darken, a single star pricking out in the sky above the dark geometry of rooftops. She had watched the panes turned to black, and still Mr Millais kept on painting. 

The studio was cold, the water in the bath even colder. His mother had lit candles under the bath, to warm the water, but they must have blown out. 

Lizzie could not afford to lose this job. She earned seven shillings in an afternoon, just for lying in a bath full of water. In her old job, sewing flowers on hats for twelve hours a day, six days a week, she had earned only nine shillings a week. 

Since Charlie’s death, her family needed her wages more than ever before. 

Her brother had died of consumption. In just a few months, he had wasted away and died. He had been only twenty-two years old.

Lizzie had never seen anyone die before. She had been so cold afterwards. She felt it in her bones, in the hollow of her stomach. She would have liked to crawl into bed and stay there till the bitter winter of his death had passed.

But she could not. She had to help support the family. Her younger sister Lydia was working two jobs, in her aunt’s candle shop during the day and sewing at night, helped by her mother and the two youngest girls, Mary and Clara. Her brother Jimmy was labouring with his father in his cutlery workshop, and even poor daft Harry, who was only nine, was doing what he could. 

So, two weeks after Charlie’s death, with her grief still as sharp as it had been the day her brother had died, Lizzie had written to Mr Millais and told him she was ready to come back and model for him again. He was grateful indeed, for he was keen to finish his painting in time for the Royal Academy Exhibition in April. He had nothing left to paint but her face and figure, having finished the rest of the scene down at the Hogsmill River in Surrey.

‘I don’t want to waste all that work,’ he had told her. ‘I had to stay for months, sitting on the banks of that infernal swamp, swatting away the most muscular flies you’ve ever seen. The farmer who owned the field threatened to drag me before the magistrate for walking over his hay. Then, once the hay was taken in, he put his most ferocious bull in the field, just to punish me.’ 

Lizzie had laughed, imagining the beautifully dressed young man running away from a bull, his easel and paints and brushes shoved under his arms. 

Then Mr Millais had sobered and said gravely, ‘But it is you who are the crux of my painting, Miss Siddal. Your face and your hair, and the dress billowing out into the water. All the rest of it is just there to frame you.’

Lizzie knew the painting had already been sold for an astonishing three hundred guineas. She could not let Mr Millais down. If she failed him, she would have to go back to working in that dark little hat-shop, with no hope for any other life. 

Ever since Lizzie had found a fragment of a Tennyson verse wrapped about a pat of butter as a little girl, she had loved to draw and write poetry. Her mother had not approved, thinking it a waste of time, and so Lizzie had always done her scribbling, as her mother called it, in secret. 

‘You’re a dreamer,’ her mother had scolded. ‘Bad as your pa, always building castles in the air.’ 

Mr Siddal had been born in Sheffield and trained as a cutler, but was sure he was born to better things. By rights, he said, he should have inherited the family’s ancestral home of Hope Hall, in the Peaks of Derbyshire. ‘Mr Charles Siddal o’ Hope Hall, Derbyshire, sounds right respectable!’ 

‘It’s not called Hope Hall anymore,’ Charlie would cry. ‘It’s a coaching inn called The Cross-Daggers, and if we lived there we’d be serving ale to yokels.’ 

As long as Lizzie could remember, her father had been pursuing his right to the property through the courts. One day, in a temper, Lizzie’s little sister Clara had thrown his legal papers on to the fire and her father’s dreams had gone up in smoke. After that, the Siddals had no choice but to live in the crowded slums of Southwark, breathing in the stench of the tanning yards every day. 

Perhaps, if Clara had not burned the legal papers, Lizzie would be Miss Siddal of Hope Hall instead. Sitting under an oak tree in a silk gown, painting the grand landscape of the Peaks while a butler poured her tea. 

Perhaps Charlie would not have gotten sick and died.  

One day, Lizzie heard that a delivery of hatboxes was to be made to a well-to-do lady called Mrs Deverell, and had at once begged permission to take them herself. Her employer, a sharp-faced, sharp-eyed woman named Mrs Tozer, stared at her in surprise. Messenger-boys were normally employed for such tasks. Lizzie was, however, one of her best milliners, having a real eye for how to place a silk rose, and so Mrs Tozer had unwillingly given permission. 

Instead of a bonnet, one of the hatboxes Lizzie carried contained some of her best drawings. For Mrs Deverell was married to the Secretary of the London School of Design, where women were permitted to take drawing lessons for two hours each day. Lizzie had already been to the school’s premises in Somerset House, in the hope of gaining admission, but the tuition cost one shilling and sixpence a month, which was well beyond her means. She was hoping against hope that – if she showed Mr Deverell her drawings – he would find enough merit in them to recommend her and, perhaps, even sponsor her.

It was as unlikely as her Pa inheriting Hope Hall, but Lizzie had to try. She was twenty years old already, and life was narrowing upon her. 

As she was shown into the drawing-room of the Deverells’ grand house in Kew, Lizzie’s mouth was dry and the bones of her corset seemed too tight. She showed the bonnets to Mrs Deverell and her daughters, teaching them how to tie the ribbons to best advantage. They were surprised, but pleased, at the extra service. Finally, at the very last moment, Lizzie summoned up enough courage to lift out her drawings and show them to Mrs Deverell, who raised her eyebrows in surprised affront.

‘Please, ma’am, forgive me for being so forward,’ Lizzie said. ‘I didn’t know who else to turn to. I know they’re not that good, but, indeed, I want to learn to do better.’

Mrs Deverell’s air of icy hauteur did not thaw. ‘My dear girl, what is the point? A woman cannot become a professional artist. Such a thing would not be seemly. That is why women are not permitted to join the Royal Academy schools.’

‘Which is why the School of Design began classes for women, Mama,’ Miss Deverell said. She was a round-faced young woman with a profusion of dark ringlets. ‘Remember, Papa says the school seeks to find a practical application for an artistic bent. And surely this young woman should be commended for trying to better herself.’

Her mother gave a harrumph that seemed to indicate otherwise. Miss Deverell took up the sheaf of Lizzie’s drawings. ‘My brother Walter is studying at the Royal Academy. If you like, I can show him your sketches. Perhaps he can give you some advice.’ 

On the train back to London, Lizzie sat with her gloved hands clenched, her eyes smarting with tears. She deeply regretted the loss of her sketches. She could imagine Miss Deverell forgetting all about them, and the skivvy using them to light the fire the next day. 

A few days later, Mrs Deverell swept into Mrs Tozer’s millinery shop, a handsome young man by her side. Lizzie stood behind the counter, adjusting the bow on a fetching bonnet of tulle and rice straw. Lizzie quickly put the hat back on its stand. If Mrs Tozer found out what she had done, Lizzie would lose her job and then she’d really be in the suds. 

Mrs Tozer bustled forward, begging to know Mrs Deverell’s pleasure. The young man came forward, smiling. ‘I can see by your hair that you are the girl who visited my mother this week. My sister tells me you have an interest in art.’

Lizzie gave a quick nod, not daring to glance in Mrs Tozer’s direction to see if she had overheard. 

‘Then I have a proposition for you.’

Lizzie’s colour deepened.

The young man flushed also, and said, ‘That is, I mean to say … I need a red-headed girl … to paint, I mean. I’ve had the devil of a time finding the right kind of girl. But then my sister told me about your visit and said that your hair was the most glorious shade of copper and that, really, you could easily pass as a boy if we tied it up …’

A swift procession of emotions passed through Lizzie. For a while she lost the thread of his words. 

‘… I’ll pay you, of course, and you can sit at a time that suits you, since I know you’re a working girl … I mean, a girl that works … and my sister can sit with us, to chaperone you, I mean, and maybe the extra blunt will be of use to you, in paying for your art schooling, and so on. Because, you know, it just seems like such a stroke of luck! You coming just when I was at my wits’ end …’

‘How much?’ Lizzie asked.

When he told her, she drew a deep breath and said, ‘Your ma will need to come and tell my ma that no impropriety is intended.’ 

Walter Deverell cast an unhappy look at his mother, who was looking over lace caps and stockings with a very hard-done-by air.

Lizzie said firmly, ‘My ma’s a stickler for propriety. And don’t even think of asking me to take my clothes off, because I won’t do it.’

Mr Deverell coloured to the roots of his air. ‘Of course not. I mean, it is better if we can do a life study … to try and get the drapery right, you know … but my mother wouldn’t allow such a thing anyway …’

‘When do you want me?’ Lizzie had said.

That was how she found herself modelling for Water Deverell’s painting of Viola, the heroine of Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night, who disguised herself as a pageboy to work for the man she loved. 

Then all Mr Deverell’s friends wanted her to model for them too. 

It was intoxicating – and bewildering – to suddenly be sought out by these sophisticated young men, with their quick wit, their easy manners and their strong opinions. William Holman Hunt with his button nose and sudden temper, whom the others called the Maniac. Ford Madox Brown, nicknamed Bruno, who was conducting a not-so-secret affair with one of Lizzie’s childhood friends, a plump young woman called Emma. Johnny Millais, who everyone thought some kind of child prodigy for he had been only eleven when he was admitted into the Royal Academy schools. And Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the handsomest of them all, who had tried to kiss her more than once and promised to write a sonnet to her eyes.

Being asked to model for an artist had seemed like the most remarkable chance to be part of a world where the things Lizzie loved most were celebrated. Perhaps, if she pleased them, they would show her some of their secrets. Sitting quietly in one pose after another, Lizzie had watched and listened and tried to learn. They had shown her their sketches, let her look through their folios of the work of great masters, and given her books of poetry to read. 

If she failed them, these idealistic young men would no longer wish to paint her. All the beauty, all the poetry, would be lost; the newly kindled light in her snuffed out.

So Lizzie lay in the freezing dark water and focused all her thoughts on Ophelia, the young woman she was pretending to be. Betrayed in love, her mind broken, Ophelia had wandered the water-meadows, singing and gathering weeds and wild flowers. A branch had broken. She had slipped into the river and had let herself sink away. Lizzie imagined her numb despair, the grief that dragged her down like water-weeds …

Tears seeped from the corner of her eyes and ran down her cold cheek. It was hard to breathe. The weight of the silver dress dragged at her. Everything ached, her neck, her arms, the bones of her cranium. She set her jaw, and willed herself to stay still.

Lizzie could not go back. She would not go back. 

‘Johnny, darling, should you be keeping Miss Siddal so long?’ 

Then a rush of feet, the rustle of silken skirts.

‘Johnny! The candles have gone out. Miss Siddal must be freezing.’ 

Johnny Millais jumped up. ‘The time just ran away with me. I didn’t realise how late it was …’

Water gushed all over the floor as they lifted her out. Mrs Millais wrapped her in an old blanket. Lizzie could scarcely feel the touch of their hands. Tremors shook her from head to foot. Her teeth chattered. Someone chafed her hands. ‘Look, her lips are quite blue!’

Johnny gave her a glass of something, but she could not close her fingers about the tumbler. When they held it to her lips, it clattered against her teeth.

‘Johnny, what were you thinking? Five hours she’s been in that bath!’

Nothing could warm her. Johnny ran for hot water bottles, while his mother struggled to draw off the sodden gown. 

‘That boy,’ Mrs Millais cried. ‘He forgets the world when he is painting. It’s like he’s under a spell!’

Lizzie looked at the painting on its easel. She saw her own pale face gleaming out from the dark swallowing water, the glint of the silver embroidery, the red blur of a poppy floating by her hand. Then, in the configuration of light and shade at the edge of the canvas, she suddenly saw – staring at her – the white bones and dark hollows of a skull.

Kate Forsyth
Written by

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