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Siddal, ‘Lady Affixing Pennant to a Knight’s Spear’, 1856
Watercolour on Paper, 137 x 137 cm
Tate, London.

The small dimensions of this painting suggest it may have been a private, intimate piece. Perhaps it functioned as an artistic exercise, as Siddal was at this time relatively new to painting and receiving tuition. It shows a unique handling of watercolours: normally used as a thin wash, they are thickly applied almost against their original design. This technique creates radiant blocks of vivid colour, which are reminiscent of early 15th century Flemish paintings and stained glass windows.

This is a medieval scene of love and loss: a knight bids his love farewell before going into battle. She ties a favour to his spear – red scarf – as a sign of affection and luck. In these parting moments, their eyes do not meet, and instead are cast downward with a feeling of sorrow and dread. Through the doorway the knight’s squire holds the reins of a horse, ready to escort him to the battlefield. The landscape outside is barren and cold, emphasising the uncertainty surrounding the young man’s fate.

The Medieval subject explores the roles of gender within Victorian society, and intensifies the contrast between gendered spheres: the interior and the exterior. Despite this closed-off intimate setting we are reminded of the outside world through the open window and doorway. The bleak landscape holds no promise for the woman, and coldly awaits the knight’s arrival. This is emphasised by the squire readying the knight’s horse. Clearly the lovers must be separated; he will have to go without her. This exterior world is his place, not hers.

In comparison, the tight composition emphasises the woman’s place within the domestic sphere. It may serve as a comment upon the constraints women felt, relegated to the household. This is emphasised by the way the floor seems to curve upwards by the doorway, as though the room is literally enveloping the couple. The brown, red and orange hues of the interior heighten its warmth and comfort, as opposed to the cold green, blue and purple hues of the distant landscape.

The distinction between their rightful places and their impending separation are accentuated through their postures. The knight kneels with his feet pointing towards the doorway, almost revealing the path he is soon to take, whilst the woman is firmly rooted to the bench, turning her back toward the open window. She pays no attention to the outside world, and exists wholly within the confines of this interior.

It has been suggested that the painting is ‘laden with sexual symbolism’.[1] The couple’s tender embrace is brutally dissected by the large, linear shape of the knight’s spear. In one respect, this could be argued to serve as a phallic symbol, which dominates the entire composition. This adds a deeper level of meaning to the image of the couple, hinting that their relationship is sexual as well as romantic. On the one hand this may suggest that they are married, which further emphasises the anguish caused by the knight’s departure. On the other hand it could be read as moralistic: if the couple were to be having a sexual relationship out of wedlock, they would be committing a carnal sin and the knight’s departure may function as their punishment. This could additionally be interpreted as a warning from Siddal to Rossetti, who at the time of this painting’s production had been promising marriage for many years but had not yet honoured his pledge. It is unknown whether or not the two lovers had a sexual relationship at this time, but if Siddal had insisted on protecting her virginity, as it has been suggested, this painting may have functioned as something of a warning to the audacious Rossetti.[2] Finally, with reference to the gender roles previously addressed, the predominance of this linear cut through the composition, along with its phallus-like interpretation, could also emphasise male dominance, particularly regarding Rossetti’s overshadowing artistic career.

Siddal’s use of colour is suggestive, particularly in the depiction of the lady’s pennant, and furthermore her hair: long, unbound, flowing and red. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood were known to have favoured red-haired models; Siddal herself is said to have been sought out particularly for the colour of her hair.[3] Parallels have previously been drawn between the couple in this painting and the relationship between Siddal and Rossetti, and it has been suggested that this painting simultaneously functions as the artist’s self-portrait alongside the portrait of her lover.[4] While this may be convincing, the colour of the woman’s hair may serve as more than simply an identifiable characteristic. Some might say that red hair could also be associated with a fiery temperament, a passionate nature and sexual awakening, and with the Pre-Raphaelite interest in early Renaissance and Medieval works, many of which depict the eroticised bodies of redheaded women, this argument is quite compelling. Some examples include Botticelli’s Birth of Venus (1486, Florence, Uffizi) and Titian’s Woman with a Mirror (1513-15, Paris, Louvre) and Venus of Urbino (1538, Florence, Uffizi).

Botticelli, ‘The Birth of Venus’, 1486
Tempera on Canvas, 172 x 278 cm,
Uffizi, Florence.

Titian, ‘Woman with a Mirror’, 1515
Oil on Canvas, 99 x 76 cm
Musée du Louvre, Paris

While it is apparent that Siddal contributed several works to various exhibitions, it is not clear whether or not Lady Affixing a Pennant to a Knight’s Spear was ever shown in public during the artist’s lifetime. There is currently no record of this, and no published contemporary reviews of this particular painting. It has been suggested that the watercolour was later given as a gift to Burne-Jones, as it was acquired by the Tate Gallery from his son Philip in 1917, using the funds of W. C. Alexander.[5]

What is certain is that the painting was included in two exhibitions in 1947 and 1948, at Birmingham’s City Museum and Art Gallery and Whitechapel Art Gallery, London respectively. Both events served to mark the centenary of the foundation of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and that Siddal’s works were among those on display emphasises the importance of her role within the group.


[1] Upstone, Pre-Raphaelite Dream, 83

[2] J. Marsh, ‘Imagining Elizabeth Siddal’ in  History Workshop Journal, vol. 25, no. 1, (Oxford: Spring 1988),  70; 73; 76; 77

[3] M. Lutyens, ‘Walter Howell Deverell (1827-1854)’ in L. Parris (ed.) Pre-Raphaelite Papers (London: 1984), 80

[4] Upstone, Pre-Raphaelite Dream, 83

[5] Ibid., 83; W. C. Alexander was a wealthy banker, and a friend and patron to James McNeil Whistler, who became part of the later circle of artists associated with Rossetti after Siddal’s death.

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