Elizabeth Siddal and my obsession with artificial cemetery flowers

Elizabeth Siddal

Elizabeth Siddal.  2014. 24″ x 18″. Image transfer on fabric, artificial flowers collected from cemetery dumpsters, beads. Hand and free-motion machine embroidery.


Elizabeth Siddal, (July 25, 1829 – Feb. 11, 1862) was a favorite model for several members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, including her husband Dante Gabriel Rossetti. She was from a working class family, not considered socially suitable for Rossetti who broke off their 10-year engagement several times. She wrote poetry and drew but was not taken seriously. In 1861 she gave birth to a stillborn daughter. Post-partum depression and other illness gave her access to laudanum. She became addicted and died of an overdose. Her death was ruled accidental but was likely a suicide. At the time, suicide was scandalous, illegal, and would have prevented a Christian burial.

I’ve seen many Pre-Raphaelite paintings. One of my favorites is John Everett Millais’ Ophelia. For this painting, Siddal posed in a tub of water for long winter days in 1852. She never complained, even when the heat lamp went out. This painting inspired my first performance art piece. Without moving for three hours, I posed in a claw-footed tub inside a storefront display window. The tub was filled with artificial flowers collected from cemetery dumpsters, a 21st century twist on the painting, the Shakespearean tragedy, and Elizabeth Siddal’s life. My art quilt features a photo from the performance.

As a female artist struggling in a mostly male dominated art world, Elizabeth Siddal’s life is a reminder of how artistic women are often marginalized. She inspired men who used her beauty for their own creative ends while stifling her creative impulses.

Elizabeth Siddal, detail 2

I was inspired to make this art quilt after having performed my first (and thus far … only) performance art piece.  The June 2011 performance art piece was called Ophelia and took place in a Main Street, storefront window in the Tapps Art Center in Columbia, SC.  It was a hair-brained idea, especially for a then fifty-two year old “me”.  For quite some time I’d been collecting artificial flowers from cemetery dumpsters.  I use them in various installations.  After dissecting them, I washed the fabric in my guest bathroom. The bathtub looked like all my favorite Pre-Raphaelite paintings of Ophelia, especially the one in the Tate by John Everett Millais (1851-52).  I thought about jumping in the tub, just for the fun of it.  Then, I thought about staging the vision in my head.

Ophelia by Molly Harrel, 2

After several weeks of planning, the performance art piece went very, very well.  I lay perfectly still in a rental, claw-footed antique tub wearing make-up for the first time in years.  I also donned a red wig to appear more like Elizabeth Siddal, the model for Millais’ painting.  Yet, I couldn’t have done this alone.  I had plenty of help!  I collaborated with a professional photographer, Heather Bauer.

Ophelia by Heather, 1

(Above:  Ophelia by Heather Bauer.  Model … Susan Lenz!)

A large photo was framed and suspended over the tub of flowers for the coming month.  (During the performance, a large mirror was suspended at an angle in order that viewers could peer directly into the tub.)  The wig was positioned to look as if I’d slipped below the surface.  Thus, the performance art piece was turned into an installation for the next two month … on display 24/7 in the storefront window.  Heather Bauer also created a time lapse video.

Ophelia by Joanie Battaglia, 1

I also collaborated with a local graffiti artist, Michael Krajewski, who spent over twelve hours drawing the mad rantings of a truly lovesick, suicidal teenager all over the back walls and capping it off with the giant words “I Love You Hamlet” in bright red acrylic paint.

The Last Bouquet, window installation

(Above:  The Last Bouquet, 2011. Storefront window installation.  Grave rubbings on fabric.  Free-motion stitched epitaphs on sheer chiffon banners. Framed xylene photo transfer on paper with stitched embellishments made from the tiniest artificial cemetery flowers.)

My recycled, artificial cemetery flowers have been used in other installations, including The Last Bouquet.  Above is this installation in Columbia in 2011.  Below was a later version at the Pickens County Museum of Art in Pickens, SC during the state’s invitational fiber exhibition in 2013.

The Last Bouquet, Pickens, 1

(Above:  The Last Bouquet, 2013.  43 sheer chiffon banners with free-motion embroidered epitaphs. Framed xylene photo transfer on paper with stitched embellishments made from the tiniest artificial cemetery flowers. Vintage kneeler.  Victorian photo album collaged with photos of cemetery angel sculptures.  Church offering plates filled with wrapped-and-stitched vintage wooden thread spools.)

The artificial flowers are also used when my solo show, Last Words, is on display.

Last Words, Tapps, reception, 19

(Above:  Last Words, 2014. Exhibition shot. )