Sunday, 12 June 2011

The Brief, Bright Beauty of Ellen Smith

If things had been different, I may well have been sat before you today as the author of ‘Stunner: The Ellen Smith Story’.  Ellen Smith, poor laundress of uncertain virtue, became Rossetti’s model in the 1860s after he spotted her in the street and persuaded her to come and sit for him.  George Boyce saw the sketches and fell for her, borrowing her for his own works.  She became the face of Rossetti’s art, providing a foil for the golden haired beauties that Rossetti used regularly and appearing on her own, her features recognisable and her hair a dark mass of waves.  

Joli Coeur (1867) D G Rossetti
 She could have been a Stunner Superstar.

Ellen is easy to spot in the 1860s works, just look for a brunette who isn’t Jane Morris.  Unlike the Elizabeth Siddal/Alexa Wilding/Fanny Cornforth mash-up that tended to occur, she is easy to tell apart from Jane because her features are so doll-like and sweet.  Take for example the sketch for Washing Hands, she just looks like a little darling, so tiny and delicate.

Washing Hands (1865) D G Rossetti

The most famous work she appeared in is The Beloved, where she is the front left Bridesmaid:

She also sat for the very jolly A Christmas Carol, which compares well with any of his oils from this period.

A Christmas Carol (1867) D G Rossetti
Veronica Veronese (1872) D G Rossetti

Boyce acquired pencil sketches of Ellen from Rossetti in a way reminiscent of the relationship between the two men and Fanny Cornforth.  Boyce went on to draw and paint Ellen himself in a few beautifully studied pictures.

Pensosa d'Altrui (1868-9) G P Boyce
Ellen Smith (1866-7) G P Boyce

 I love the Rossetti pastel of her from 1867, her eyes a striking blue against her dark hair. 

Ellen modelled for Rossetti throughout the 1860s, seemingly filling a role that Jane Morris would eventually fill, especially in the chalk picture of Penelope:

My Lady Greensleeves (1863) D G Rossetti
Penelope (1869) D G Rossetti

Sadly, here is where the story ends.  Ellen has the briefest mention in Jan Marsh’s Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood and Pre-Raphaelite Women, but on the whole she fairs worse than Alexa Wilding in Rossetti biographies, and that’s saying something.  Damn it, Marie Spartali Stillman gets more mentions than poor Ellen.  Thanks to George Boyce’s diary, we at least know why she suddenly disappeared from Rossetti’s art.  According to him, a soldier, who obviously objected to her beauty being admired by others, cut her face to ribbons and disfigured her so badly she could not model anymore.  She eventually married a cabbie and returned to Boyce to offer her services as a laundress.  If you think of the working-class roots of a number of the models, it’s almost a wonder that this horrible fate didn’t befall more of the women, one way or another, but Annie Miller married well, as did Jane Morris and Fanny (in a roundabout way).  Ellen Smith didn’t get the chance to use her modelling to lift her out of the position she held in life.  Thanks to the actions of one violent thug, she would always be a laundress, but in a small way those actions are defied, as her beautiful face is admired by thousands of people every day on the wall in Pimlico Tube Station just outside Tate Britain.


  1. This is so sad, really interesting to read. Makes me want to know more about her! Lesley. xXx

  2. Wow... I have wondered who the face was behind Veronica Veronese - so it was Ellen?! This is such a tragic tale. I've always felt drawn and connected to that painting (check out my blog banner and profile picture!) I would really like to know more about her... thank you for sharing this.

  3. Ah, no, Veronica Veronese is Alexa Wilding, who is the big-hitter in terms of modelling in the late 1860s. I think it's interesting to see that Ellen made it into a fair few pictures in her short career and her face is quite recognisable in comparison. It's such a shame.


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