Sunday 12 February 2012

A Tale of Two Stunners

Yesterday, I was up at the Big Smoke for the 150th Anniversary of Elizabeth Siddal’s death, and I attended a very good talk by Lucinda Hawksley at Highgate Cemetery. Miss Holman (Resting Ninja and Woman of Intrigue) accompanied me as we took a turn around the cemetery, looking at all the many fancy and amazing graves, for example…

This is the tomb of George and Ann Wombwell. Mr George Wombwell was a Managerist, and atop his giant tomb is a stone lion, a portrait of his own lion which was so tame that children could ride it. There wasn’t any telly in those days, and riding a lion was as good as it gets. Actually, it sounds pretty good. Obviously, not for the lion.

Also, look, it’s Mrs Henry Wood!

It’s easy to get a bit starstruck at Highgate as so many fabulous people are buried there, and even ‘normal’ folk got to be planted in the most outrageous graves. Look at the Egyptian Avenue….

It’s fairly mental as it is, but when it was new, they think it was painted elaborate colours. Now, that isn’t even vaguely garish and in bad taste. As it was, your average Victorian didn’t fancy being planted in anything so overtly heathen, and so preferred the rather more classical tombs that were erected later when the Egyptian ones didn’t sell.  Obviously something based on Ancient Greece is far more Christian...

Anyway, the reason we were there was that it was the 150th anniversary of Elizabeth Siddal’s death and so we wanted to see Elizabeth Siddal’s Highgate grave….

Restored and well-tended, Elizabeth resides with her in-laws in the Rossetti family plot. She’s not on the main footpath, so you are taken there by special request, but as it was the anniversary, we visited her as part of the tour. There had been a ceremony early in the day and the flowers were laid, and the area had been tended so that visitors could easily reach her. Lizzie is featured on the literature of Highgate cemetery, as one of the celebrity inhabitants and it’s obvious that the grave has been restored because of her inclusion in it. Yes, Christina Rossetti is in there with her, but she is currently the most famous and ‘important’ person in that grave. It could be argued that to the majority of people who know her name, her value lies not in her work as a poet or painter, but in her role as muse to the Brotherhood. The majority of the people on our tour did not know that much about her or the Pre-Raphaelites, but they knew she was Ophelia. She remains in her neat, respected grave, visited by adoring fans, all because of her beautiful face…

Off we go to Brompton Cemetery!

Now, I do recommend a visit to Brompton, it’s just off the tube and is filled with more stone angels than you can shake a stick at.


There are angels looking up, angels looking down, angels praying, angels weeping and angels clutching crosses. There is even an Eric Gill angel…

Very nice too. If only he’d concentrated on art, and not fiddled with his dog or his family.

There is a magnificent tomb for Leyland, the art collector and patron, designed by Burne-Jones.

But even the average stone in Brompton is pretty…

Armed with a map (and Lord knows you need a map in Brompton, it’s about two and a half kilometres long), we set off in search of our second stunner. Her face occurred over and over in Rossetti’s work and she died a fairly wealthy woman in South Kensington. By co-incidence, she resided within the same graveyard as Leyland who felt her face and Rossetti’s rendering of it was the pinnacle of his later work, her fine beauty being an aesthetic zenith. We were in search of Alexa Wilding.

Poor Alexa, dead at 37, still managed to die in a rather nice neighbourhood as we have seen in my previous post on a tour of Pre-Raphaelite hotspots. Surely, if we appreciate Lizzie for her beauty, a little of that appreciation should go to Alexa? We walked the long avenue of graves, all in neat rows, to the end of the section and a rather dense patch of brambles and snow.

‘She’s in there…’ I admit, rather guiltily, and we clambered in, apologising as we stepped over graves, attempting to read the names. In this little area, people were stuffed in, closely packed and the brambles were growing with gay abandon as my ankles and feet can testify this morning. Miss Holman and I exclaimed regularly, but it was not so much a discovery as snow in shoes, brambles round ankles or general frustration at the disrepair. We searched through all the graves without luck and we were making our way back out when the words ‘Mary Ann Wil…’ caught my eye on a very battered and flaked stone.

Mary Ann was Alexa’s grandmother, who died in the 1870s. I went back and leaned so the light struck the stone and the faded letters were casting faint shadows of their former impressions…

Alexa Wilding, died April 1884 aged 37.

We’d found her. Buried in brambles and snow, her stone flaking and worn, she remains forgotten at the back of a graveyard, not far from her home in South Kensington. While the great and the good had gathered around Lizzie’s restored and revered stone, Alexa was battling brambles with only me and Miss Holman for company. And I had snow in my shoe. And neither of us was Jan Marsh.

While I personally think it’s right that people can visit Lizzie’s resting place and pay their respects, it would be equally as fitting for the glorious face of Alexa to be remembered in a slightly less crumbly, painful manner. We need a stunner grave tour, although you’ll need a car to get to Kelmscott and God knows where Annie Miller is, let alone Fanny. Back to the records….

My thanks to Miss Holman as always. As the saying goes ‘Friends don’t let Friends disturb graves alone…’


  1. Terribly sad about Ms. Wilding. Someone should do a grave rubbing, it seems, before all traces are gone. Thanks to you and Miss Holman for braving the brambles.

  2. It was great yesterday, I enjoyed it a lot! It would be wonderful to record info and write a guide about pre-raph stunners and artits' graves!

  3. Glad you had a good talk. I've photographed in both these cemeteries and they are wonderful but wish they had more money spent to preserve them. They are such a good record of our history.

  4. The talk on Saturday evening was wonderful. I recognised you from your photographs and wanted to say hello and to thank you for your wonderful blog, but found it a bit awkward at the time (I did manage a "that was interesting" to you at the door!) Regarding Alexa Wilding, she does appear to have a much lower profile than the other models. I read in wikipedia today that in fact Rossetti painted her more often than all the others. I must admit, it's only recently that I realised that many of the paintings which I had assumed were of Jane Morris are actually of Alexa!

    1. Oh heavens! You should have come over! I'm sorry if I didn't reply, it was a ll a bit of a blur trying to get out, there were so many people and Miss Holman was attempting to get us back to Waterloo! I'm glad you enjoyed yourself, it was a good evening :) Yes, Alexa was the most, but because of no recorded relationship between them we overlook her because there is no juicy detail. There are definately times when Alexa and Jane blend, which is interesting.

  5. Thanks to everyone for your comments and fingers crossed for some more talks later in the year!

  6. Thank you for making this pilgrimage, and for your earlier post on Miss Wilding (May 6, '11) with the lovely photograph. As to the mysteries of Alexa, I just came across an amazingly detailed appendix to The Correspondence of Dante Gabriel Rossetti ('the last decade' volume), that suggests she was the lover of a wealthy world-travelling ornithologist, and possible nephew of the poet Shelley: George Ernest Shelley. Maybe she was sure to be boring around Rossetti, so that she could keep him at bay...

  7. Yes, I have that (as information for the book I'm crrently researching). See the weekend for a bit more detail... ;)

  8. What a great post! I wish I had been there with ya, too! But knowing you made the trip is just awesome.

    And yes, yes, you are a born writer. I can't wait to see what you do with Alexa! LOL!

  9. Oh, I love the idea of a stunner grave tour! And how sad about Alexa's. I feel weirdly guilty that I don't know anyone who favors her first, the way so many of our online Sisterhood do with Lizzie or Fanny or Jane. I wish we knew more about her.

  10. Thanks for the comments. Hopefully soon people will start expressing their Alexa Love first and foremost !

  11. I found this information on

    Birth: Jan. 30, 1829
    Death: Jan. 25, 1887

    Family links:
    William Cornforth (1796 - 1879)

    Robinson Cemetery
    McLennan County
    Texas, USA

    Created by: couchpotato
    Record added: Mar 29, 2009
    Find A Grave Memorial# 35318547

  12. There is a picture of Fanny Cornforth's gravestone:

  13. Hi Sarah, thanks for posting this! Unfortunately, this isn't our Fanny Cornforth (although maybe a relation of her husband Timothy Hughes/Cornforth) as Fanny, or Sarah Schott as she was by then, was still alive in the 1890s and as far as 1906 when she was in contact with Samuel Bancroft Jnr.

    The search continues....

  14. So very interesting

    Here is some more info on Alexa that you will find on my youtube chanel

    I cleaned Elizabeth Siddal’s grave up many years ago

    It was a hard job just to get to it,nice to see it looking so good.

    Thanks once again for all your hard work and sharing your info.



Many thanks for your comment. I shall post it up shortly! Kx