Sunday, 19 October 2014

Sleep Shall Fold Her Hair Round Me

Whilst looking around the Rossetti's Obsession exhibition the other week I was struck by the pen and ink sketches of Jane Morris.  It wasn't just the small, intimate beauty of them, but that Rossetti had felt compelled to capture her completely, reclining and sometimes asleep.  This led me to consider the relationship between Rossetti, his muse and sleep...

Elizabeth Siddal (1854)
The use of sleep in Rossetti's work appears in both his art and his poetry.  Whilst only one of his oils contains the themes of sleep and dreaming, countless sketches exist of his models sleeping, but not just any models.  Beginning with Elizabeth Siddal in the 1850s, Rossetti continued to draw the women he was intimately involved with as they slept, not just once, but repeatedly.  These images tended to encompass the whole sleeping form in a domestic setting.  Why did he make these images and what did they mean?

Elizabeth Siddal (1853-8)
From early in the relationship, Rossetti sketched Elizabeth as she slept.  Maybe he was trying to capture a domestic image, a moment of adult bliss, content in their home.  It is a very informal image in comparison to the art that he and his Pre-Raphaelite brothers were creating, a snap-shot of home in the midst of all the art.  As he had 'taken' Elizabeth away from the others in terms of her being their model and potential mistress/wife, it could be argued that the images are marks of ownership.

Elizabeth Siddal (1856)
I find it interesting that most, if not all, of Rossetti's images of the sleeping Elizabeth are of vertical construction, that she sleeps sitting up, as if she were alert a moment ago but has slipped into unconsciousness.  Could it be that the transformation is what he is trying to capture?  There is a tension in these pictures, that even though she slept she remained unyielding.  The 1854 image at the top shows her almost displayed, rigid and perfect, like a medieval saint. 

There is no hint of impropriety in the images; even though she is asleep she did not become so doing anything improper.  It is unsurprising that she was the original model for Beatrice, the doomed but untouched love...

Dante's Dream on the Day of the Death of Beatrice (1856)
Saintly and pure, Beatrice/Elizabeth is almost sitting up as Love kisses her.  For Rossetti, sleep and Elizabeth were linked primarily to purity and ultimately death.  Within his poetry, such as 'My Sister's Sleep', the saintly sleeper slips from life: '"God knows, I knew that she was dead." / And there, all white, my sister slept.' In 'Autumn Song', the act of sleeping is linked to death, to rest, to an end well-deserved after the seasons of beauty.  Elizabeth's own death was linked to sleep, an overdose of laudenum that induced a deathscene reminiscent of 'My Sister's Sleep' as she slipped from sleep to death before Rossetti's eyes.  By that point however, sleep had come to signify something else.

Fanny Cornforth (1862)
Reclined and dishevelled, the next woman to sleep in Rossetti's company was there for entirely other reasons.  Mirroring the sentiment of the poem 'Nuptual Sleep', the horizontal form of Fanny Cornforth is unlikely to sleep alone, even if the artist can remain conscious long enough to draw her: 'Sleep sank them lower than the tide of dreams / And their dreams watched them sink...' In another poem, the narrator watches as Jenny, a prostitute, sleeps.  The intimation in both cases is that sleep follows sexual activity and the change of position in the sketches, from vertical to horizontal changes the inference of what happened before the subject fell asleep, which raises this interesting example...

Ruth Herbert (1858)
If the women that Rossetti sketched asleep were his lovers, then was he intimate with Ruth Herbert?  She is not fully reclined, but her skirts and legs continue outside the frame.  It was no secret that Rossetti admired and desired her but her professionalism has always drawn people to the conclusion that the passion was all on the side of the artist.  Could this image be an act of longing on the part of Rossetti, that he wished to add her to his list of lovers?  Maybe it was a way of possessing her in art that he could not manage in life.

Jane Morris (1870)
Certainly the next and last woman to be drawn asleep was a deep and obsessive love.  The images of Jane supine almost outnumber the ones of her upright.  It is believed that a back complaint made it easier for her to pose for Rossetti from the comfort of a sofa, but also among the works are images of unmistakable sensuality.

Jane Morris (1873)
This maybe my favourite of his sketches, and the image is unmistakably intimate.  Contrasting with the superficially similar image of Elizabeth that I placed first, Jane's hair is scooped from her bare neck, and her pose is languid and open.  It is unsurprising that she would replace Elizabeth in Dante's Dream...

Dante's Dream (1869-72)
A tumble-haired Beatrice is pulled towards Love's kiss as she reclines, eyes shut. In many ways it is surprising Rossetti revisited the death in sleep motif of Beatrice after it so cruelly foreshadowed the death of his first love, but for love and money there was not many things that Rossetti would not revisit. Added to this, sleep, death and disappointment in love were linked in his art and poetry,and sleep was the state that he most desired.  In the poem 'Dream Land', he envisaged 'sleep that no pain shall wake' and in 'Almost Over', a man dying of a broken heart longs for the moment 'Sleep shall fold / Her hair round me'.  Sleep and Death become female, become sexual and linked to fulfillment in Rossetti art and poetry.  There are two rare instances of male sleep in his art, firstly in a panel for the copy of Dante's Dream in Dundee Art Gallery (where Dante is shown asleep, dreaming) and this image of his brother from a letter to Thomas Woolner...

William Sleeping (1853)
The awkward portrait, roughly sketched in the letter, provides a homely scene for the absent Woolner.  Little sketches and letters were sent to keep him informed of events at home and to provide comfort while he was away trying to establish a new life.  Maybe the image of the sleeping brother is simply that, a moment from home which Woolner would have been familiar with, but possibly this, and the other images Rossetti drew of unconsciousness spoke of other things.  There might be a hint of superiority, of being the one awake in the presence of very human weakness.  The artist has the strength to stay awake, to think, to draw and record.  The act of sleep is personified as feminine in his poetry despite often referring to the poet's dreams. Women sleep, men are watching, recording.

It could be that the image of his lover sleeping was a positive one, signifying satisfaction on the part of the woman.  A woman who sleeps is content, and the artist records the vision, claiming responsibility.  Also a woman (or brother) who sleeps is not complaining, not accusing, not crying.  It is no coincidence that the majority of the pictures we have of our daughter in the first year of her life are of her asleep.  Goodness knows she howled like a banshee at all other times and slept about five minutes a day.  During those five minutes we made the most of her...

Lily-Rose, about 8 years ago, extremely asleep.
Just out of shot are her exhausted and slightly unhinged parents.
A woman asleep is contained, controlled, static.  The images of Elizabeth asleep show her almost frozen, as if she simply stopped for a moment rather than slipped into relaxed unconsciousness.  The images of sleeping women are mostly whole images. During a period where Rossetti's art focused on half-length or three-quarter-length pictures of women, Jane and Fanny are wholly inside the frame of the image, from head to foot.  In a world beyond understanding and control in the wake of the death of one you love, there is a certainty in these images, every part is known and is seen.  Maybe an envy lurks in that all-seeing eye, watching his muse enjoy the peace of sleep that illudes him.  In watching others enjoy being folded into sleep, the artist vicariously enjoys the peace while repeatedly reminding himself that there would be no peace until the end. 

The sleep the artist ultimate envisages is death and possibly that was the only sleep he felt he deserved.


  1. What were all those women doing sleeping sitting up in a chair? My neck hurts just thinking about it!

  2. I know, but then people did sleep sitting up, which is my idea of Hell. I love the picture of William, I think I have slept in that position, but now I have a chaise longue to recline on, usually with my daughter and dog on top of me.

  3. My sweetie can sleep in almost any position as can my best friend. I have seen them both in one of the most uncomfortable chairs to imagine soundly asleep (snoring). I would rather recline. As someone who tried to do art, a sleeping model is easier to draw than an awake one. Maybe it was because when you are with someone and you want them awake you stare at them and draw them. Lovely picture of your daughter. Looks like it should be a Pre-Raphaelite painting.

  4. We have some amazing ones of Lily bellowing her lungs out at events such as her christening and meeting her great grandparents. You can almost hear her in the photographs.

    Thanks for your comments!

  5. What do you make of Rossetti's insomnia? Desire for not just the woman but for blesed deep sleep?

  6. Yes, I agree, that may well have been part of it. I find it interesting that he never drew Alexa Wilding asleep, although she posed for him so intensively from 1865. It does seem to be bound up with intimacy and desire.

  7. This is a beautiful and thoughtful post. Love it. And I am going to think about it for a long time. I write a lot about sleep. It's a liminal state between life and death, metaphorically speaking. You've given me a though to ponder.


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