Bottles, by Rossetti
Today's topic is dark indeed, but investigating, I've found it to be fascinating in a macabre way. Throughout even the most brief summaries into the life of Rossetti and his lovely wife, Lizzie Siddal, it is stated over and over again that she died from an (arguably intentional) laudanum overdose, and as a result of his emotional imbalance over her death, Rossetti in turn developed an addiction to "chloral." All well and good. But I started to wonder, what in the world were these drugs? And let me tell you...it wasn't the easiest investigation to find out information about them, especially this thing called "chloral."
I finally found an excellent website on Victorian drug abuse...and basically no other major sources, even after several hours of google-fu. However, Victorian's Secret was an excellent resource.
First, the mysterious chloral. A shortened name for Chloral Hydrate, it was taken by the Victorian individual as a 'non-addictive' (ha!) cure for insomnia. The irony is that many of the people taking it had insomnia from alcohol abuse, and the addition of chloral addiction caused a vicious double-addiction cycle. Doses of the drug would have to be steadily increased to get the same effect. Chloral, incidentally, was also mixed with alcohol to create the infamous "Mickey Finn" rape drug, and was apparently also the cause of Anna Nicole's death just a few years ago (it's still an ingredient in some sleeping pills).
One website I found observed the progression of Rossetti's art as he became more and more addicted to chloric. When he was taking it at low doses, he created tranquil scenes, such as St. Agnes at the spinning wheel. However, as he became more addicted, his art showed "more secular, voluptuous, almost hallucinatory women." --Alex Baenninger
Rossetti also tried to follow in Lizzie's footsteps, attempting to commit suicide by swallowing an entire bottle of laudanum.
Laudanum, Lizzie's drug of choice, was created in liquid and pill form (I could not find information on which method Lizzie used). In pill form, it was nicknamed the "Stones of Immortality" and contained opium thebaicum, citrus juice, and quintessence of gold. Opium?? What a strange ingredient, you might say. With opium dens a common part of Victorian lowlife (and secret high life), how could they have thought that it was an acceptable ingredient in medicine cabinets? However, the bottom line is...they did, and they did in vast numbers. Opium, in all its many forms, was incredibly popular during the Victorian era. In 1830, Opium importation was at an all-time high, with 22,000 pounds brought into the country that year.
Symbolically speaking, the poppy flower, from which opium comes, represented death in countless Pre-Raphaelite artworks. With such prolific use, of course the Victorian audience would have recognized the flower in the art. However, there seemed to be a disconnect between the recognition of the poppy as a symbol of death, and the realization that opium derivatives in the medicine cabinet were a bad idea. In fact, in 1895, Bayer (yes, the drug company) produced a substance from poppies known as "heroin" and distributed free samples to morphine addicts in order to help them quit. Oh my!!!
Beata Beatrix, Rossetti's famous portrait of Lizzie Siddal, in which a red dove holds a white poppy in its beak.
Come back tomorrow for the yang to today's dark yin...a post on a more light-hearted side to the Pre-Raphaelites. In the mean time, I highly recommend you check out the absolutely fascinating website, Victorian Lowbrow, which sells actual antique ephemera...bottles, labels, whatnots, from the Victorian era. I spent a long time poring over their selection, giggling over labels and indications. The below bottle is from the site.