LONDON - The week that witnessed Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Proserpine sell for a staggering £3,274,500, more than double its estimate, also saw the opening of a new play that focuses on the favourite model, and wife, of the most famous of the Pre-Raphaelites.

Lizzie Siddal, which opened on 20 November at the Arcola Theatre, presents the story of the ‘supermodel’ of the Pre-Raphaelite age. Emma West, who is playing Siddal, talks about the role:

Emma West as Lizzie Siddal. Photograph by Rebecca Pitt.

What is the play about and how did you come to get the role of Lizzie Siddal? 

The play tells the story of an extraordinary young woman, Lizzie Siddal. She was a seamstress who became a model for the Pre-Raphaelite painters, notably John Millais, William Holman Hunt and (her future husband) Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Lizzie however, took the unprecedented step of becoming an artist and poet in her own right. 

I had worked with the playwright, Jeremy Green, before and given my striking resemblance to Lizzie, we started exploring her life and became fascinated by it. I feel incredibly lucky to have been involved from such an early stage. 

Prior to this production how much did you know about Lizzie Siddal? What most attracts you about Lizzie's character?

Prior to the project, I knew nothing about Lizzie as a person, but, like so many, had unknowingly admired her face in many Pre-Raphaelite paintings. Lizzie was a remarkable woman.  She genuinely did not seem to care what people thought of her and she challenged perceptions not only of who could be an artist’s model, but also of what a woman at that time could achieve.  She became an independent artist in her own right, at a time where women had few rights or opportunities.  She strove to live her own life, on her own terms. 

How complicated was the nature of her relationship with Rossetti? How difficult is it to separate the true life of Lizzie from the mythologized version of her life with Rossetti?

Their relationship was complex. Not only were they individually both passionate, and sometimes volatile, people, but they came from differing social standings and walks of life.  When coupled with an unconventional lifestyle and the pressures of what society demanded from them, it is not unsurprising that they had a tempestuous relationship. 

From my point of view, as an actor portraying a real person, I try to start with the facts, which naturally draws you away from the mythologized version of someone's life. I was delighted to read poems and letters written by Lizzie and discover in her a great sense of humour and wit.  I think a lot of the mythology surrounding her came out of her suffering for the painting of Ophelia and, of course, her tragic end, yet these were but two events in what was a short, but eventful life.   

Did you appreciate the work of Rossetti before the play? Do you have a favourite depiction of Siddal?

Ironically before this project, of all the Pre-Raphaelite painters, it was Rossetti's works I was least familiar with, or perhaps I didn't know that they were his.

My favourite depiction of Lizzie is a close-up sketch of her face that John Millais did in preparation for Ophelia. It is rumoured to be the truest likeness of her and for that reason I find it compelling.

How did you prepare for your part in this play? Have you ever been an artist's model?

The first thing I did was visit Lizzie's grave in Highgate Cemetery.  I felt it was important to somehow pay my respects to her.  I then tried to read and look at all that I could get my hands on.  By far the most helpful has been anything written by Lizzie, as I feel that is the biggest clue to her psychology.

I have been an artists' model, and I was grateful to have had that experience going into this play.  It's an incredibly singular feeling being scrutinised the way that an artist needs to scrutinise you.  I found it at once slightly uncomfortable and very freeing.  I loved the fact that, in that moment, your one and only job is to sit.