Monday, 21 January 2013

The Golden Stairs Shine With Tears

I want to clear one thing up right now: I do not, repeat do not own a time machine and further more, I do not travel back in time and ensure that all Stunners lead miserable, short, disaster-ridden lives.  I live in hope of one day finding a model who lives a long, happy life, filled with a loving husband and no disease or anything.

Today is not that day.

The Golden Stairs (1872-80) Edward Burne-Jones
I am slightly obsessed by this picture as so many people are listed as possible models for the descending girls.  Laura Tennant, Frances Graham, May Morris, Margaret Burne-Jones and on and on, I fully expect to read one day that I am supposed to be one of the women (I'm the one with the tambourine).  A name I had not looked into before was Edith Chester.  Like a fool, I looked her up.

Brace yourself.

The actress known as Edith Chester was born on 16 March 1864 in Russia where her father was working in the diplomatic and colonial services (he was also Advocate General of Madras).  She was plain Edith Gellibrand when she took to the stage with her sister Lina, and they both found success.  Edith was not only an actress in comedies and tragedies, she also sang mezzo soprano in light opera. It is likely that she was in her late teens when she was engaged by Burne-Jones as one of his Golden Girls.  She wouldn't be the only actress he engaged, as he used the famous Lillie Langtry for his formidable goddess in The Wheel of Fortune around the same time.  In 1885 she toured briefly in America, and returned to England to marry the improbably named Frank Murray Maxwell Hallowell Carew.

Carew had already been kicked out of the Militia when Edith married him in 1887 and he became some sort of property developer.  The couple were not very happy, not helped by an odd accident in 1888, when a rifle exploded during Carew's big game hunting expedition to Zanzibar.  Yes, really.  He sued the rifle manufacturer and won a £1000.

Two years later, Edith, now sporting the surname 'Chester' as her stage name, began divorce proceedings on the basis of cruelty and misconduct, the misconduct happening mainly with a woman called Mrs Alice Seymour, who looked very much like Edith and who was also an actress.  Apparently their likeness was utilised on stage, and off stage too (she says, raising an eyebrow).  All in all, Carew seems to have been a vile human being, violent and viscous  whose attacks on Edith were listed in the newspaper article on their divorce, including shaking her and punching her while she was pregnant.  He also appeared in the newspapers for threatening a man who insulted his wife, and 'haunting' the theatre for the purpose of 'thrashing' the critic.  What a complicated young man...

It took until 1892 for the divorce to be granted.  Edith described her erstwhile husband as a man "of loose pursuits, who favoured the companionship of prizefighters, frequenters of racecourses and loose ladies who indulged in the midnight amusements of dancing saloons".  Well!  During the divorce proceedings there was some sort of counter claim, citing that Miss Chester had been seen on a Thames House Boat called Ye Marye with a gentleman called  Loftus Earle.  Yes, really. They were sitting close together in terms of 'theatrical friendship'.  Is that what we are calling it now?  Hmmmm....

Anyhow, such a scandalous lie was thrown out and Miss Chester got her divorce.  She then went on to marry Mr Earle.  That's the theatre for you.  They were married in the January of 1894, and were blissfully happy for about 10 months, then she got typhoid and died.  Sorry about that. She left the equivalent of around £72,000 to Mr Earle, which is a pretty tidy sum for a woman of around 30, but really that is no age at all.  She packed a lot in to her short life, two marriages, two kids, a stage career and a messy, newspaper-pleasing divorce.

Damn, wouldn't it be nice if for once I found a Pre-Raphaelite model who didn't snuff it obscenely early, and at least Alexa managed to make it to 37.  Oh well, the search continues...


  1. If you're looking for a Pre-Raphaelite model who didn't have a disastrous early death, try Marie Spartali. She not only modelled for Rossetti, but became an accomplished Pre-Raphaelite painter in her own right, her favourite subjects being scenes from the poetry of Boccaccio, doubtless as a result of Rossetti's influence. She later married an American journalist, one William James Stillman, and by all accounts, the marriage was a happy one. She went on to have a daughter whom she named Euphrosyne, after one of the Three Graces (an allusion to the fact that she, along with two other Greek beauties of the era, were referred to as "The Three Graces" in London high society in the 1860s), used her influence to promote Pre-Raphaelite art to American art patrons, and went on to become one of the last of the Victorian "Grandes Dames", finally leaving this life in 1927 at the age of 83.

  2. What about Ruth Herbert? When Georgie interviewed her years later, during the research for Memorials of Edward Burne-Jones, about posing for the Pre-Raphaelites, she told her “I never saw such men, it was being in a new world to be with them. I sat to them and was there with them and they were different to everyone else I ever saw. And I was a holy thing to them – I was a holy thing to them”.

  3. Yes, and Annie Miller lived to a ripe old age, as did, in theory, Fanny and Jane. Alexa and Elizabeth are the exception in the main Stunner stakes, but it is interesting how so many of our beauties' lives contrasted with their rather more work-a-day lives, replete with illness, bad marriages and misery.

    Thanks for your comments.

  4. There's an interesting reference to Florence Farr, actress, friend of May Morris, one of the girls on The Golden Stairs (and hence an outer-circle stunner) and member of the Golden Dawn, here: .

  5. Thank you Simon, silly Blogger ate the link:

    Thanks for emailing it to me. I am slightly obsessed by The Golden Stairs now, it's such a bevy of beauties for poor old Ned to cope with!

  6. Me too! What did you make of my theory that sexual frustration, guilt, and paternal jealousy were the ingredients of the toxic rocket fuel that blasted The Golden Stairs and others among EBJs late works into the psychological outer space where they still circle our workaday globe?

  7. Picking up, once again, my obsession with the ladies on The Golden Stairs. It was generally thought that the seventh lady down, stooping, was Edith Gellibrand, aka Chester, but the sale of EBJ study drawings last year now seems to indicate that the lady is Dorothy Dene. Sold at the same time is a study believed to be Mary Stuart Wortley but to my eye it does not seem to match any of the girls on the stairs. Any thoughts?

    1. It might be that he made Frankenstein's stunners of them, a bit of one and a bit of another to build his perfect girl, so any preparatory sketches have to be taken into consideration but might not mean that just that one girl is in the figure, if you know what I mean.

    2. I do! Lillie Langtry claims to be in the picture in two places but none of the faces look anything like her; they are all very stylised (is that even a word?).


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