Christina was Dante Gabriel Rosetti’s sister, and along with their mother, the model for ‘The Girlhood of Mary Virgin’ (1849). The next image shows a sketch of her looking more like his usual models, but less sexy, more studious. She did actually have a visible ‘neck’/thyroid gland problem, which she later kept covered up.
This condition was recognised as ‘Graves’ Disease’ even in 1871, and was thought to be a disturbance of the heart because of the raised pulse rate, common in hyperthyroidism. Apart from enlargement at the neck (goitre), another classic sign is bulging of the eyes (exopthalmia), visible in the photograph. Although this illness is now considered auto-immune, Christina was treated with iodine amongst other things and surgery was considered.
In her famous poem ‘The Goblin Market’, the tempted sister is described thus:
Laura stretched her gleaming neck
Like a rush-imbedded swan,
Like a lily from the beck,
Like a moonlit poplar branch,
Like a vessel at the launch
When its last restraint is gone.
These are ‘stunning’ lines which well match Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s painted beauties, the so-called ‘stunners’.
Alexa (born Alice) Wilding is less well-known these days than Dante Gabriel Rosetti’s other ‘stunning’ muses, perhaps because of a lesser romantic entanglement. However, in fact she was painted more often than the others. ‘Veronica Veronese’ is believed to represent ‘the artistic soul in the act of creation’.
The artfully posed, languorous and serpentine neck was obviously becoming a source of attraction to wealthy purchasers, whether connoting sickness or not. Modern ‘re-creations’ of these pictures often miss this essential point.
Fanny Cornforth was born Sarah Cox, the daughter of a blacksmith, and had been in domestic service. The story is that she met the artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti in Surrey Gardens, Walworth, where he tweaked loose her abundant golden hair. Soon she became his model and second muse, offering more vitality and sensuality than the fading Lizzie.
Nevertheless, the neck continued to be a central focus and attraction.
Elizabeth Siddal was the muse/model/mistress and later, wife, of the Pre-Raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882). He, and others of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (she also starred as Millais’ Ophelia), were besotted with her long red hair, pale skin, slimness, languorous appearance and it seems her neck, which is somewhat swollen and frequently the central point.
She may have had tuberculosis, and died quite young, perhaps of a laudanum overdose. It has also been suggested that, coming from a poor background, she might have had a smooth neck goitre related to iodine deficiency.
Rossetti added to the morbidly gothic image by getting friends to retrieve his poems (suitably disinfected by a doctor) from her grave seven years after the burial in Highgate Cemetery. It was rumoured that she was little decomposed and that her red-gold hair filled the coffin. And yes, it is very likely Bram Stoker knew of this, as his good friend Hall Caine had been Rossetti’s secretary.
Picture from Wellcome Collection
In the Carpathian Mountain area of Transylvania Jonathan Harker noted:
Here and there we passed Cszeks and Slovaks, all in picturesque attire, but I noticed that goitre was painfully prevalent.
This perception of enlargement of the thyroid seems knowledgeable to us, but was a tourist cliché at the time. However, we are led to consider the area of the neck.
In Seymour Taylor’s ‘Index of Medicine’ (1894), ‘goitre’ defined as ‘enlargement of the thyroid gland’ is noted as ‘prevalent endemically…where the potable water is derived from the limestone foundation’, instancing the Swiss mountains and Derbyshire in England where the condition was known as ‘Derbyshire neck’. Iodine was agreed to be a possible remedy, but the cause was usually thought to be intermarriage of close relations and impurity in the drinking water.