Back in January I was thrilled to welcome Pamela Davenport, a fellow lover of all things art and literature, as a guest blogger on No wriggling. Millais – A compassionate portrait of Opheilia was such a success and, she assures me, an enjoyable experience for her, that she has written another piece about the Pre – Raphaelite Brotherhood for me to share with my readers. Perhaps it would be fairer to say this post is about one of the ‘sisterhood’ of women used (and, perhaps, abused) by the artists in that Bohemian group – one of, as Pamela says, the ‘bohemians and stunners’, Annie Miller. Once again, I must thank Pamela for all the research she does to tell us more about this fascinating period in British art.
In my previous guest blog I explored the way in which Millais, the golden boy of The Royal Academy, used inspiration from Shakespeare’s play Hamlet to produce a beautiful visual portrayal of the last moments of Ophelia’s life. The models and muses became an important part of the work of the Pre Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB). So how were these supermodels of the nineteenth century discovered? Annie Miller was there at the beginning of the Brotherhood and no doubt helped to shape their art. But how did Annie get her lucky break?
Born into poverty and orphaned as a child, she was brought up by her aunt and uncle, a laundress and a shoe maker, in the slums of London. With her wild and filthy hair and covered in vermin, William Holman Hunt, an original member of the PRB, saw a beauty to be rescued by a knight errant, from her life of poverty. Hunt wished to transform Annie, Pygmalion-style, and set about educating her. However, did he ever intend to marry her?
Annie made her first appearance as the model in The Awakening Conscience, 1853 (above). If one looks closely there are references to Annie’s relationship to William in the painting. and the sense that this woman is kept as a mistress, rather than a wife. However, there was always an ambiguity about their stormy relationship. After one of their many rifts, William repainted the face, using his wife Fanny Waugh. William considered himself Annie’s saviour, but he never proposed or showed much interest in her after a lengthy absence in the Middle-East. I like to think that she was fiercely independent; after all she came from an era when love was not a first priority, making a match was.
So what would you do if the man who pays your bills, pays for your education, and controls your life clears off to the Holy Land, with no promise that he would return, let alone marry you? In this case absence certainly did not make Annie’s heart grow fonder. Was this the wake-up call Annie needed? Apparently Annie had a mind of her own and in Hunt’s absence she was seen out socially with different men, including both Rossetti brothers, Dante Gabriel and William, and the artist George Boyce. Just as Henry Higgins lost his power and influence over Eliza Doolittle, Annie spread her wings and turned away from the staid and solid Hunt and sought a world of excitement
Although there are some Hunt images of Annie, there are admittedly more by other people, mostly Rossetti. Ah Rossetti, I wondered when we’d come to you! Although he helped her financially, Hunt also had to give his permission for her to sit for other artists, and the “bad boy” Rossetti was not one of them. Rossetti – yes there is a romantic view of him, this bohemian who probably was more exciting than the dour William Hunt;the man about town with his dark flowing hair, whose art and poetry contained sensuality and realism that captured the bohemians and stunners on his canvases.
With their voluptuous figures and loose luxuriant hair, Annie and other ‘stunners’ became an emblem of female sexuality , with a suggestion of loose morals. These breath-taking works, with their hidden secrets, high spirits and high aspirations, challenged Victorian morals and conventions. To me, Rossetti and his relationships with his muses and models became more interesting than any soap opera. In particular I found his relationship with Annie Miller fascinating. With her amazing blond hair and her curvaceous figure Annie had caught the eye and imagination of many artists and Annie soon became seduced by the glamour of the artists’ studios and the ‘reality show’ fame attached to the role. Just like Eliza Doolittle she never knew what made her role so exciting and why her heart took flight!
As with many Pre-Raphaelite women, Annie became the object of Rossetti’s infatuation and desires. He used her as a model incessantly while Hunt was away. Unfortunately Rossetti was married to Elizabeth Siddal at the time and his obsession caused arguments and friction between Lizzie and Rossetti. Whether from sexual jealously or something deeper, it is thought that Lizzie felt her role as Rossetti’s muse was threatened. Was this really a love triangle? It certainly adds an interesting dimension to the drama. After Lizzie died, in 1862 Annie posed for Rossetti for two stunning paintings, Woman in Yellow (above) and Helen of Troy, showing how she had become briefly the supermodel of the nineteenth century.
This image of Helen of Troy clearly demonstrates the Pre Raphaelite hallmark of women, with the rippling hair, full lips, the hair ornaments and jewellery. No wonder Mrs Gaskell referred to Rossetti as “not mad as a March hare, but hair mad”. The loose luxuriant hair can be viewed as an emblem of female sexuality, but did this necessary equate to loose morals?
“In wanton Arethusa’s azur’d arms; And none but thou shalt be my paramour!”
Although Annie has been immortalised on canvas there have been some critics who did not view her as the beautiful Helen of Troy. So why did Rossetti choose Annie to be his model for this radiant paining? Does the poem Rossetti wrote to complement the painting, Troy Town, provide any more insight, with its emphasis on love, desire and beauty?
Undeniably Annie came from a lowly background, so perhaps subconsciously Rossetti was elevating her status just as Holman Hunt had tried to do.
Just as the tabloid media now has a ‘field day’ with celebrities, there have been many people who viewed Annie’s lifestyle judgmentally, assuming that she was rather too free with her favours. This has been reinforced by several dramatic portrayals in the twentieth century, which included Ken Russell’s Dante Inferno in 1967, the Love School in 1975 and Desperate Romantics in 2009. Would it be more realistic to state that Annie was aware that her modelling career was short lived and that these friendships were more to do with self-preservation?
By 1863, Annie’s career was on the wane as Rossetti, ever fickle with his emotional attachments, replaced Annie with the gregarious Fanny Cornford. Finally Janey Morris, the wife of William, with her lean pale face and her mass of long dark brown hair, represented an alternative beauty to the ‘stunners’. The bohemian lifestyle was left behind as Annie chose a more sedate lifestyle and moved to Hampstead.
Like Eliza Doolittle, Annie married and settled down with Thomas Thomason, in Shoreham by Sea, employing a cook, housemaid and parlour maid. Annie and Thomas had one daughter who recalled her mother as “being lovely and ladylike, wearing exquisite handmade shoes and kid gloves”.
Annie overcame many barriers, from a Victorian childhood living in poverty with no hope for the future, to posing as the face that launched a thousand ships as Helen of Troy. Her relationship with Holman Hunt caused rifts and conflicts and eventually ties between them were severed. But Annie was assertive and she stood up to him and amazingly lived her own life on her own terms, as much as any woman in her position could do in such a restrictive and stifling era. “ I’ll never know what made it so exciting, why all at once my heart took flight, I only know when he began to dance with me I could have danced, danced, danced all night”.
Annie Miller was a fascinating woman, especially during an era when the social structure of society was different and the position of women in society was one of that being defined by the men in their lives.
What a journey Annie had travelled from the dirty unhygienic slums of London to the quiet Sussex coast. Annie lived until 1925 when she died at the age of 90.