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Culture – The tragedy of art's greatest supermodel – BBC News

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In the winter of 1849-1850, the artists Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Holman Hunt were painting together, when their friend Walter Howell Deverell burst into the studio. The visitor announced excitedly, “You fellows can’t tell what a stupendously beautiful creature I have found… She’s like a queen, magnificently tall.” With these words, the unlikely beauty of Elizabeth Siddal began to make history.

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Today, few people remember the artist Deverell – who died of Bright’s (kidney) disease at the age of 27 – but he was a vibrant member of the group of artists and writers that revolved around the newly formed Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. This secret society of seven young men had been founded in 1848 by Rossetti, Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais, students at London’s Royal Academy. As is being highlighted in the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition, Pre-Raphaelite Sisters, the Pre-Raphaelite movement also encompassed female models, artists and writers. ‘Lizzie’ Siddal began as a model, then learnt to paint, and also wrote poetry.

At the time of Deverell’s pronouncement, Siddal was working at a milliner’s shop, near Leicester Square, in central London. She worked long hours in unpleasant conditions, and her family was worrying about her already delicate health. Perhaps this was why Siddal’s mother made the surprising decision to permit her daughter to work as an artist’s model – something viewed as disreputable, and even as synonymous with prostitution. Deverell did not dare approach Lizzie’s mother himself. Instead he sent his own very respectable mother, in her grand carriage, to talk about the finances. Mrs Siddal was awed by the arrival of a carriage at her modest home on the Old Kent Road.

Initially, Siddal started working part-time as a model, and remained part-time at the hat shop. After Deverell painted her as Viola in Twelfth Night, Holman Hunt painted her for A Converted British Family Sheltering a Christian Priest from the Persecution of the Druids (1850), and as Sylvia in Valentine Rescuing Sylvia from Proteus (1850-1851). She modelled for Rossetti for the first time in 1850, for one of his lesser-known paintings, Rossovestita.

According to his patron, John Ruskin, throughout their ensuing relationship, Rossetti drew and painted Siddal thousands of times.

Through her modelling work, Lizzie Siddal helped change the public opinion of beauty

Although today Lizzie Siddal’s willowy build, gaunt features and lustrous copper-coloured hair are considered signs of beauty, in the 1850s being very thin was not considered sexually attractive, and red hair was described by one female journalist as “social suicide”. Through her modelling work and the success of the paintings she appeared in, Lizzie helped change the public opinion of beauty.

Within a couple of years, Lizzie was earning enough to leave the hat shop. As the model for Millais’s celebrated Ophelia (1851-1852), her face became famous. Other artists clamoured to paint her, but Rossetti, by this time recognised as her lover, became jealous and asked her to model only for him. Charles Allston Collins (younger brother of Wilkie Collins) recalled asking Siddal to sit for him, but receiving a “freezing” refusal.

The love story between Siddal and Rossetti is like that of a tortured adolescent film script: for 10 years they were ‘engaged’, but Rossetti refused to set a wedding date. Neither was easy to live with: Siddal was addicted to the drug laudanum, and Rossetti was serially unfaithful.

In 1854, Siddal’s career as an artist began. Rossetti was teaching her, and when Ruskin saw her work he proclaimed her a “genius”. Her paintings were often derided by art critics, yet Siddal had only just begun learning, whereas the men of her circle had been honing their craft, under expert tutelage, for many years. Her surprisingly quick progress shows why Ruskin took such an interest in her. He gave her an annual salary of £150 to enable her to paint. In her full-time job at the hat shop, she had earned £24 a year.

In 1857, she was the sole female exhibitor at the Pre-Raphaelite Exhibition in London, where one of her paintings, Clerk Saunders (1857), was bought by an influential US  collector, Charles Eliot Norton. Shortly afterwards, Siddal, whose health and relationship had been worsening for some time, gave up her annuity from Ruskin. Rossetti and Ruskin had been controlling her life and she wanted to escape. Using her savings, she took one of her sisters to the spa town of Matlock in Derbyshire. Then, instead of returning to London, she travelled to Sheffield, her father’s birthplace, to stay with her cousins. Siddal soon moved into a lodging house, and enrolled at the Sheffield School of Art, determined to make it as an artist on her own.

Rossetti made occasional journeys to visit her, but letters from friends in London revealed his affairs with other women, and their relationship ended in the middle of 1858. Much of what happened in her life during the next couple of years remains a mystery. Then, in the spring of 1860, she became dangerously ill. Her family contacted Ruskin and he told Rossetti, who rushed to be with her. Siddal had moved to the Sussex town of Hastings, a popular place for recuperating invalids. Rossetti arrived with a marriage licence and, as soon as she was well enough, they were married.

The beginning of the end

They took an elongated honeymoon in Paris, from which they returned with a pair of former street dogs they had adopted as their pets. Lizzie realised she was pregnant, and Rossetti contentedly painted and drew her, including the wistful Regina Cordium (1860). She  was delighted at the prospect of motherhood, but tragically she was addicted to laudanum. Perhaps this was why, on 2 May 1861, she gave birth to a stillborn daughter.

She never recovered from the depression that engulfed her following her baby’s death. Their marriage suffered, and she became convinced Rossetti was, once again, being unfaithful – although his friends claimed he was faithful to her during their marriage.

On the evening of 10 February 1862, the Rossettis went out to dinner with the poet Algernon Charles Swinburne. After they returned home, Rossetti went to teach a night class at the Working Men’s College. Before he left, he saw Lizzie settled into bed – she had taken her usual dose of laudanum and there was about half a bottle left. When he returned from work, the bottle was empty. Lizzie was in a sleep so deep he was unable to wake her – and she had written him a note. Yelling for their landlady to fetch a doctor, Rossetti hid the incriminating letter.

Despite the efforts of four doctors, Lizzie Rossetti died in the early hours of 11 February 1862. On the advice of their friend, Ford Madox Brown, Rossetti burnt her suicide note. This was to ensure she was not declared a suicide and so denied a Christian burial. At the time of her death, Lizzie was pregnant again. Perhaps she feared her baby had stopped moving and could not bear to go through a second stillbirth.

Lizzie’s story does not end with her death. Due to a macabre postscript to her life, she has become a gothic cult figure. Rossetti placed into his wife’s coffin the only copy of the poems he had written. Seven years later, he decided he wanted them back.

Many people from around the world strangely believe that Lizzie Siddal remains ‘undead’

In great secrecy, on an autumn night in 1869, her coffin was exhumed from its resting place in London’s Highgate Cemetery. Rossetti, who was by now considered ‘insane’ by some of his acquaintances, was not present. The whole operation was masterminded by his friend and self-appointed agent, Charles Augustus Howell, a flamboyant teller of tales. There were no lights in the graveyard, so a large fire was built.

Howell afterwards told Rossetti that, when the coffin was opened, his wife’s body was beautifully preserved. She was not a skeleton, he mendaciously claimed, but as beautiful as she had been in life, and her hair had grown to fill the coffin with a brilliant copper glow which shone in the firelight. Indebted to Howell’s gloriously conceived fiction is the myth of the prevailing beauty of the original supermodel, even in death – and it is a myth that ensures that, to this day, many people from around the world strangely believe that Lizzie remains undead.

A less fanciful tribute to Lizzie Siddal was written several decades later, by a former fellow student at the Sheffield School of Art. She wrote to a local paper, identifying herself only as ‘AS’: “It was a slight acquaintance I had with her, but it made a lasting impression on my memory.”

Lizzie Siddal died at the age of 32, but her extraordinary legacy continues. Her husband’s reclaimed poetry was published, to great acclaim – although the story of his poems’ provenance was kept a carefully guarded secret.

Lucinda Hawksley is the author of Lizzie Siddal, The Tragedy of a Pre-Raphaelite Supermodel, published by Andre Deutsch. Find out more via @lucindahawksley

Pre-Raphaelite Sisters is at the National Portrait Gallery in London until 26 January.

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McPherson Library art opening

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The new exhibition explores relationships and togetherness

Photo by Manmitha Deepthi.

Photo by Manmitha Deepthi.

When you walk into the McPherson Library, your first thought would rarely be about the art that’s displayed beneath it. However, tucked in the lower level is the Legacy Maltwood Gallery, a space dedicated to artists and their works.

On Nov. 25 the McPherson Library held an opening reception for Shaping Relations, Tethered Together, a new collection of art housed in the Legacy Maltwood Gallery that explores relationships and togetherness.

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The event celebrated the exhibition by emerging Edmontonian curator Mel Granley. They are Metis on their mom’s side and a fourth generation Ukrainian settler on their dad’s side. The UVic alumni, now works as a guest curator at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria.

The event began with Granley reading their curatorial statement. They spoke about how relationships hold an important place in every individual’s life. Shaping Relations, Tethered Together aims to explore this by highlighting BIPOC work, experiences, and relationships.

The exhibition was originally curated for the First People’s House in 2019, however it was delayed until early 2020 and then again due to the pandemic. Three years later, Granley was finally able to see their first show open.

A lot of the art in the exhibition is from the Legacies collection which belongs to the university. The collection includes a variety of mediums and is interdisciplinary in nature. The works range from ceramics, a video piece, and charcoal work to prints, posters, and a magazine.

Rain Cabana-Boucher, whose art is included in the exhibition, also spoke at the event. Cabana-Boucher is a Michif and British artist from Saskatoon and a recent recipient of the Takao Tanabe Prize for emerging British Columbian painters.

Cabana-Boucher’s piece French Exit was made in April 2021. The charcoal piece is about losing community spaces during the pandemic. The work was inspired by one of many parties that Cabana-Boucher attended at a friend’s apartment, where a lot of her friends during university met and interacted. These were queer parties where everyone knew each other and created a safe space. In the piece, Cabana-Boucher wanted to convey the longing she felt for those places and the feeling of isolation that queer people and everyone experienced during the beginning of the pandemic.

Granley and Cabana-Boucher also spoke about the relationship between an artist and a curator and the possibility for a power imbalance between them. The curator is an arbitrator of whose art is shown, yet their relationship is mutually beneficial. Maintaining relationships with artists is essential for curators to showcase art to their community. As well, working together to apply for grants and supporting each other has helped both Granley and Cabana-Boucher to grow in their own careers as curator and artist respectively.

Before the reception came to an end, Granley invited the crowd to ask questions. One attendee asked, “When you were looking through the collection, what were you looking for? What was attracting you to different pieces?”

“I was looking for what I can see and perceive as relationships,” Granley responded. “The show is filtered through my bias of what a relationship is.” They explained that with around 20,000 pieces in the Legacy database, finding BIPOC artists to feature in the collection was a challenge. “[They] have a lot of colonial remnants in them so it is difficult to unravel all the layers of the museum,” Granley said. They tried to not only find relationships but celebrate BIPOC relationships in a non-voyeuristic way. As a result, many BIPOC works were included without labels. Granley felt it was important to avoid imposing their voice on the work, since they can’t speak to where the artists are coming from or why they made the work.

Granley also talked about an upcoming exhibition called Symbiosis that they are working on at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria. The collection is all about mushrooms and will open in late March of 2023.

Cabana-Boucher also has a new show in the works for next year as part of her residency at the Polygon Gallery in North Vancouver. She is also an artist in residence at the Contemporary Art Gallery of Vancouver which is a research-based residency for which she is working on a podcast.

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Forgeries, frauds and Canada’s great fake art debate

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Jon Dellandrea’s new book, The Great Canadian Art Fraud Case: The Group of Seven & Tom Thomson Forgeries, was published this fall.Handout

This is a tale of two shabby containers: one a six-quart basket, the other a broken-down bankers box.

The six-quart basket belonged to Miss Winnifred Trainor of Huntsville, Ont. It held a dozen or so small paintings that were unsigned but had been given to her by her very close friend Tom Thomson.

Review: Buyer beware: Book warns Group of Seven forgeries might resurface

She kept them in the basket inside a steamer trunk on the second-floor of an old home on Minerva Street. She did not have running hot water or a proper heating system, yet she would never part with any of the paintings during her long life, which ended in 1962.

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Whenever she travelled to visit relatives in upstate New York, she would carry the six-quart basket across the street to the house of Miss Addie Sylvester, the town’s night Bell operator. Addie would stash them behind her wood stove.

Fortunately, these national treasures never caught fire.


The bankers box belongs to Jon Dellandrea of Toronto. He has spent a lifetime collecting Canadian art and publishing articles on fakes and forgeries. The box was found at a city art dealer and contained paintings and journals of William Firth MacGregor (no relation), an obscure artist who came to Canada from Scotland and failed to make his intended mark on the Canadian art scene. While his brother Charles became a successful portrait painter, Willie found no success at all as a landscape painter and turned to teaching art in Ottawa and Vancouver until he vanished.

But that is not to suggest that “Willie” MacGregor did not have an impact – at times a major one – on Canadian art.

In 2016, Dellandrea had been offered the contents of the box at a modest price but had turned it down. He couldn’t stop wondering about the contents, however – Who was this person? – and finally his wife, Lyne, sent him back to the dealer to buy the box. “If you don’t,” she told him, “you’re going to drive me crazy.”

He returned with the box and began picking through it. He was particularly taken with multiple miniature paintings by MacGregor that he thought were rather well executed. Some time later, he found himself at Waddington’s, the prestigious Toronto art auction house, where a painting entitled Study for Spring Thaw, signed by Clarence A. Gagnon and dated 1909, was up for sale, the estimated value $700 to $1,000.

“It was like seeing a ghost,” Dellandrea recalls.

He returned home, dug through the MacGregor box and found a miniature almost exactly the same as the larger painting on sale. (“I have a very good visual memory,” he says.) When he took the miniature to the auction house, the “Gagnon” was immediately removed as a fake. “They of course did the right thing,” says Dellandrea. The coincidence led to Dellandrea’s new and excellent book, The Great Canadian Art Fraud Case: The Group of Seven & Tom Thomson Forgeries, published this fall.

Jon Dellandrea is a Canadian author and art historian.Doug Nicholson/Handout

Dellandrea believes the art market is easily open to fraud. “I have long held the view that the art world is a crazy, illogical enterprise that seeks out, creates, and then celebrates a small group of ‘stars’ who are worshipped to the exclusion of artists of equal or greater talent,” he writes in his book. “Individual collectors fall prey to buying art from a name-brand artist, focusing on the signature at the bottom (or top) of the canvas rather than the quality of the art. This collective impulse to worship the stars typically has a distorting effect on the art market around the world, as it does in Canada.”

One such celebrated artist would be J.E.H. MacDonald, Thomson’s friend and a founder of the Group of Seven. At an auction held 60 years ago this month, 15 oil sketches were being offered in his name. Respected Toronto Star art critic Elizabeth Kilbourn challenged the auctioneer, standing up at one point and shouting, “They’re not J.E.H. MacDonald and you know it!”

The art dealer responded by saying that “An auctioneer’s job is to sell what is sent to him” – and the house cannot be expected to guarantee the authenticity of every painting it sells.

Thus began the great fake-art debate in Canada. Writing in Maclean’s in December, 1962, Robert Fulford contended that “… a great many who believe they own distinguished art are actually in possession of nearly worthless junk.”

Much of Dellandrea’s book concerns a dramatic Toronto court case from the early 1960s, when two shady dealers were charged and convicted of selling forgeries of Canada’s most-famous artists. A great many of those forgeries had been painted by Willie MacGregor.

In the winter of 1963, the Toronto Telegram put on an “art authentication night” at a downtown hotel, where 18 of the nearly 80 paintings brought in were declared fake by a panel of experts, including Group of Seven member A.J. Casson (who was himself a consultant in the court case).

Many powerful people were upset to have been duped, but those familiar with the art world were not surprised. As Sara Angel, executive director of the Art Canada Institute, says in a note for Dellandrea’s book, “… for decades scholars, auction houses, galleries and museums have turned a blind eye to felonies in plain sight.” The preliminary inquiry that began in November, 1962, ended on March 4, 1963, with the two shady dealers pleading guilty. They received jail terms of one and two years.

Willie MacGregor, a witness in the case, was critical to the great deception. MacGregor, who split his time between Algonquin Park and an apartment on Toronto’s Church Street, would paint pictures from books supplied by one of the dealers and thought he was just doing cheap copies that would be sold as such. He signed none of them, yet, when forged, signatures would appear. The dealers had even created two facsimiles of “TT” stamps that Thomson’s friends had created for his many unsigned works.

“There are more Tom Thomson paintings out there than he could possibly have painted in his lifetime,” says Dellandrea.

Before Casson’s death in 1992, he was interviewed extensively by artist Alan Collier; the interviews filled an entire box of tapes that Casson’s daughter, Margaret Hall, kept and gave to Dellandrea.

“We could have found another 500,” Casson believed, adding that he thought that “Willie knew what was going on, but he was smart enough that he never signed anything.”

Dellandrea disagrees. “I don’t think he knew, for a couple of reasons,” he says. “He was certainly not party to a conspiracy. He was never charged.” MacGregor would get a few dollars for his paintings, unaware that they might be sold for upward of $1,000 – big money for an artist in the early 1960s. The judge decided he was an “innocent victim.”

“He was penniless,” says Dellandrea. Willie MacGregor was later taken in by a family and lived on Toronto Island, in obscurity. He died in 1979 and is buried in Toronto’s Mount Pleasant Cemetery.

“Virtually no one has any recollection of the scandal,” says Dellandrea. He believes such fraud still goes on: “It’s everywhere. Absolutely everywhere.”

To wit: Dellandrea found an A.Y. Jackson canvas on sale earlier this year for $40,000. He went to examine it and subsequently informed the dealer that he was “100 per cent certain it was a fake.”

“They would not listen to me,” Dellandrea says.

Dellandrea maintains that the large, well-known auction houses are “absolutely fastidious about providence and authenticity.” His advice: Stay away from the smaller houses that deal only partly in art – “and never, ever buy off eBay.”


What, then, of that six-quart basket of Tom Thomson sketches?

They were not signed but were given, in person, to Winnie Trainor, who would never part with them and would eventually leave them to a nephew in the United States.

Dellandrea says there is a genuine Tom Thomson coming up in an early December auction at Cowley Abbott Fine Art in Toronto. He has no doubt it is a legitimate Thomson. The house catalogue estimates it will go for between $1.2- and $1.5-million.

Today, that six-quart basket would be worth around $18-million.

To a woman with no running hot water.

And only a creaky space heater to carry her through the winter.

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Paired exhibitions showcasing Sask. art history at MacKenzie Art Gallery

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A set of connected exhibitions opening at the MacKenzie Art Gallery are offering a window into a “critical moment” of Saskatchewan art history in the 1950s.

The two shows, titled Anthony Thorn: A Portrait, 1927–2014 and Ten Artists of Saskatchewan: 1955 Revisited, have been curated in tandem by head curator Timothy Long and open at the gallery on Thursday.

Long began conceptualizing the retrospective on Thorn first, after receiving a large number of works from the private collection of art dealer Tony Colella, including art and essays from Thorn’s later years.

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“It’s one of those opportunities we have to look back and observe a lifetime of achievement, from very early days to a painting that was sitting on his easel at the time when he died,” Long said.

Thorn is a nationally renowned abstractionist whose career began in Regina, where he was born, before continuing in B.C. as he forged a path through the evolution of Canadian contemporary art.

“He was an artist who was attached to his studio, attached to representational practices, at a time when abstraction was in its ascendancy,” Long said.

“His independence of thought really went against the grain.”

Conceptualizing Thorn’s ties to his home province led Long to thinking about the show that introduced Thorn to Saskatchewan audiences as an emerging artist: an exhibition in 1955 titled Ten Artists of Saskatchewan.

The show debuted just two years after the MAG opened, as the first public art gallery in Saskatchewan, including Thorn and other artists who would go on to similar successful prominence like Dorothy Knowles and members of the Regina Five Ken Lochhead, Arthur McKay and Douglas Morton.

Long has revived this past show, re-collecting works as close to those featured in the original show as possible, to “recreate the feel of that exhibition” in Ten Artists of Saskatchewan: 1955 Revisited.

“I’m always thinking about how to tell the story of art in this province,” Long said, about the idea.

The collection partners with the exploration on Thorn’s career, tethered by a painting titled “Moses Diptych,” which was included in the original 1955 Ten Artists show.

“Moses” is from a period when Thorn worked under Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros, before it became part of a travelling art show program in Regina the 1960s. Long had it restored specifically for the exhibition.

“It’s like a time capsule of art in Mexico City in 1955. The image of Moses — he looks like Che Guevara holding the Ten Commandments in one hand, but that hand is a fist that’s punching into the future. It’s an incredible painting.”

The MAG is approaching 70 years since opening doors, and Long said these shows are an “opportune time” to consider how contemporary art in Saskatchewan has evolved.

Historically, the ’50s were something of a precursor era, as many artists from this time are better known for works from the ’60s and ’70s, the later years of their careers.

It’s a decade that “hasn’t received a lot of attention, in terms of our history,” but Long feels offers insight into how these artists existed and grew together, as a group.

“Saskatchewan artists weren’t breaking new ground, at that point, but this was an important foundation for what they would explore in future years,” he said.

“Artists don’t work in isolation; they look at what each other and others are doing in their community, and so you get a sense of the shared effort to become modern, in terms of art in the province.”

In tying together the shows, the hope is audiences will get a sense of the province’s history, through the lens of Thorn, who revelled in the craft and had a penchant for retrospection.

“He really was an artist who followed his own internal vision, and spent more time looking back than forward,” Long said. “As we’re looking back at history, we’re looking at an artist who himself is always looking back, seeing what can be recovered, what can be brought forward from a very long history of art.”

The shows will be accompanied by a free talk on Thorn’s life and career with art historian and curator Ihor Holubizky on Saturday afternoon.

lkurz@postmedia.com

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