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> > > Aaron Williamson: Tales of Life Models in the Walker Art Gallery's 'High Victorian Art' Room 8


artist aaron williamson poses on a plinth in the walker art gallery, with a face covered in eyes

Aaron Williamson poses as a sculpture in the Walker Art Gallery

Commissioned by DaDaFest 2012 as part of 'Niet Normaal: Difference on Display' in association with Liverpool Biennial, Aaron Williamson has created a tour into researching the personal histories of the life models who posed for some of the Victorian painters whose work is on display in the Walker Gallery, Liverpool.

THE EAVESDROPPER - by Aaron Williamson


Disclaimer: These tales might well be true but often dip into the realm of speculation. None of them, however, are conscious invention.

Mid-19th Century English artists moved away from the classical notion of the anonymously ideal painted face and figure. Instead, artists acknowledged the allure of unusually striking faces, poses and physiques. Irregular features, (that were nonetheless appealing), became sought after. Particularly, the chosen model’s unique faces often became identifiable, in the artist’s eye at least, with the mythological or biblical figures that they posed as.

This tour is an adventure into identifying who those people were, together with some of their personal histories.

Performance at the Walker Art Gallery; November 15th 16th & 17th November 2012

This project was commissioned by DaDaFest 2012 as part of 'Niet Normaal: Difference on Display' in association with Liverpool Biennial.

Click on this link to go to Aaron Williamson Eavesdropper blog produced as part of DAOs Diverse Perspectives

Samson (1887) - Solomon J. Solomon

On the staircase of the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool

‘The Academy’ magazine reviewed this painting on its appearance at the Royal Academy in 1887, and described the figure of Delilah as being ‘half witch, half courtesan’. The reviewer couldn’t have known that, quite literally, two models were used to create Delilah.

Therese Abdullah was the daughter of an Indian cook who had the right witch-like face. Perhaps she declined to model for the body though since, by artistic convention, Delilah is usually shown (by Rubens and Van Dyck for example), with bared breasts. So an Italian model, Madeline Fionda posed topless.
The artist’s brother Philip Solomon, a keen athlete, modelled for Samson.

Click on this link to view the painting of Samson by Solomon J Solomon on the Walker Art Gallery website

Elijah in the Wilderness (1879) - Frederic Lord Leighton

In Room 8 of the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool

The muscle-bound model for Elijah was Angelo Colarossi, an Italian immigrant who arrived in London in the early 1870’s and lived in Hammersmith. He can also be seen as a figure in relief on the Albert Memorial in Kensington Gardens and leading a lion as part of Queen Victoria’s Memorial in front of Buckingham Palace.

Contemporaneous reviews of ‘Elijah’ often used the female pronoun to refer to the Angel on the left. However, ‘she’ is supposed to be male but was possibly modelled by an androgynous man, Alessandro Di Marco, who often used to pose as a woman.

An ex-organ grinder, Di Marco posed for Walter Crane (whose wife forbid him to use female models), as ‘Aphrodite’ and Leighton is said to have remarked, upon seeing the canvas, ‘my dear fellow, that is not Aphrodite - that’s Alessandro.’

Click on this link to view the painting of Elijah in the Wilderness by Frederic Lord Leighton on the Walker Art Gallery website

Study for ‘The Sleeping Knights’ (1870) - Edward Burne-Jones

In Room 8 of the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool

Again, there is gender confusion in this painting as women performed all the modelling for the ‘Sleeping Knights’. The models can be identified since, for some curious reason Burne-Jones made them recognisable as (left to right), Georgiana Burne-Jones, Maria Zambaco and Jane Morris.

At the risk of stooping to scandalous gossip, the relationships between the artist and the models in this painting are as tangled as the bushes around them. Georgiana was Burne-Jones’ wife with whom his best friend William Morris was in love; Maria Zambaco was openly in an affair with Burne-Jones and once tried to commit suicide when he would not leave Georgiana; Jane Morris was the wife of William Morris and in an affair with Dante Gabriel Rosetti at this time. (She had just started to sit for him as Beatrice in ‘Dante’s Dream’, hung just across the room).

Click on this link to view the Study for ‘The Sleeping Knights’ by Edward Burne-Jones on the Walker Art Gallery website

An Athlete Wrestling with a Python (1877) - Frederic Lord Leighton

In Room 8 of the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool

Made in the same year as ‘Elijah in the Wilderness’, the model for the sculpted athlete is Angelo Colarossi again.

I haven’t been able to establish a name for the python that modelled for this sculpture; however, there is a curious letter in the WAG archive from a man representing the ‘North Wales Reptile and Raptor Sanctuary’ who wrote to the Director in 2006 to point out that ‘the indentation along the length of the python’s body in the Leighton bronze indicates that the animal was out of condition or malnourished.’ Apparently the snake also has its tail missing: ‘another sign of the unhealthy condition of the python.’

A side-fact: Angelo Colarossi’s son, also named Angelo, was not so impressive as his father in physique – he never grew above five feet tall - but between the age of 15 and 18 he was the model for Albert Gilbert’s ‘Anteros’ in Picadilly Circus (commonly and erroneously known as ‘Eros’).

Click on this link to view the painting of An Athlete Wrestling with a Python by Frederick Leighton on the Walker Art Gallery website

William Holman Hunt (1902) - Ralph Peacock

In Room 8 of the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool

This selection is a cheat really, since Hunt is posing not as a life model but for a portrait. However, it presents an opportunity to recount the tale of his relationship with Hunt’s favourite model Annie Miller. Annie was a charwoman’s daughter and was a foul-mouthed cockney barmaid when Hunt first met her.

He was immediately love-stricken in the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood manner, but felt the need to do something about Annie’s physical dirtiness, her rude manners and ‘animal’ character. So whilst he went off on a two-year trip to the Holy Land, he paid his friend Frederic Stephens a huge sum of money to turn Annie into a lady with a view to her becoming Mrs Hunt upon his return.  Above all, Stephens was instructed not to allow Annie to sit for Rosetti and so of course she did, as well as taking up with the renowned rake Lord Ranelagh.

Annie seems to have had a ball during her betrothed’s absence although she did, apparently, apply herself to education and managed to cover up her cockney accent a little. The original model for Hunt’s ‘Sweet Idleness’, Annie may also have been the inspiration for Eliza Doolittle in George Bernard-Shaw’s ‘Pygmalion’ 50 years later (which in turn became the musical ‘My Fair Lady’).

Upon his return from the Middle East, Hunt would not commit to marrying Annie and seems to have conducted a platonic relationship with her for four further years whilst she continued with her lessons to become a lady. Finally, Annie gave up on the idea of becoming Mrs Hunt and went off to model for Rosetti again. Later, she blackmailed Hunt and sold his letters back to him for a fortune.

Click on this link to view the painting of William Holman Hunt by Ralph Peacock on the BBC website

Europa (1855 – 78) - G.F. Watts

In Room 8 of the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool

Watts would rework his paintings over long periods of time, often to the detriment of earlier versions. This painting took 23 years to ‘complete’. However, it seems that the face must have been painted around 1864-5 when Watts’ main model was Ellen Terry since ‘Europa’ can be compared to other paintings of Terry by Watts (such as ‘Choosing’). She had a round face, flaxen hair, heavy-lidded eyes and full lips. Terry was 16 when, in 1864, she married Watts (who was 46). The marriage only lasted a year.

Ellen Terry went on to become one of the most famous Shakespearean actors of all time; she managed the Imperial Theatre in London and was a patron to George Bernard Shaw and Henrik Ibsen. At the age of 60, well on the way to becoming only the second actress ever to be made ‘Dame’, she married an actor, James Carew, who was 30 years her junior.

Click on this link to view the painting of Europa by G.F. Wattson on the BBC website

Perseus and Andromeda (1891) - Frederic Lord Leighton

In Room 8 of the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool

Ada Pullen, worked as a life model under her stage name Dorothy Dene. She was one of four sisters (the others being Lina, Hetty and Edith), who were Leighton’s favourite female models. Dorothy particularly was valued for her ability to strike and hold a dramatic pose and to express emotion through her face. Here, as Andromeda, her posture looks quite painfully contorted and the artist attributed many such poses to Dene’s own design. Leighton always denied having had an affair with Dorothy (it’s uncertain if he was gay or not), yet he left her a huge sum of £10,000 in his will.

Leighton’s favourite male model was a muscular Italian man, Gaetano Valvona. Here he is as Perseus on Pegasus shooting down at the dragon wrapped around Andromeda. Critics at the time pointed out that Leighton had erred in putting Perseus on Pegasus who was actually the steed for Bellerophon.

Unusually for a life model, many of whom were illiterate, Gaetano Valvona wrote an (unpublished) autobiography, the manuscript of which was discovered in 2001. In it he describes moving to England to live in the Italian quarter around Leather Lane in Clerkenwell. From rural Italy (Picinisco), he arrived in his shepherd’s clothes and was mocked and thrown stones at by English children. Valvona describes the male English life models at the time as being ‘flabby and pasty’, so he offered his services to Lord Leighton who was suitably impressed by his physique. Leighton wasn’t so keen on the shepherd’s gear though, and so he sent Valvona out with a servant to buy a wardrobe of ‘English Gentlemen’s’ clothes to wear when he wasn’t working.

Click on this link to view the painting of Perseus and Andromeda by Lord Frederick Leighton on the Walker Art Gallery website

‘Dante’s Dream’ (1870 – 81) - Dante Gabriel Rosetti

In Room 8 of the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool

The model for Beatrice in this painting was Jane Morris, wife of William Morris, who was conducting an affair with Rosetti throughout the eleven years of this painting’s gestation. Jane’s life is well-documented and she has been the subject of several biographies. However the other models in the painting who are much less-known can also be identified.

The mourner to the left side is probably Alexa Wilding since there are sketches by Rosetti of her in this pose. Wilding was a ‘respectable’ daughter of a piano-maker who was one of the artist’s few female models who never became involved with him. Perhaps she spurned him since, although he was a vociferous admirer of her beauty, he rather tartly described her as being ‘not gifted or amusing’ and his sister, the poet Christina Rosetti, pronounced her to be ‘dull’.

The figure of Dante is said by Rosetti’s brother William (the sculptor), to be modelled on W.J. Stillman, the foreign correspondent husband of the right-hand mourner, Marie Spartali. However, the ‘Dictionary of Artists’ Models’ (see note at end) claims that the model was in fact Gaetano Meo and there is a marked facial resemblance to other paintings featuring him, who was a very popular model in this period. Meo had arrived in London from Italy in 1866 on his way to the Gold Rush in North America but immediately fell in love with and married an Irish girl, Agnes Morton. Meo met Rosetti in an Italian barber’s in London in 1870 and agreed to become his life model.  His popularity with artists was partly down to the fact that, whereas English models usually insisted on wearing G-strings and sandals, Meo was quite content to pose nude, even in the open air. He became a long-term assistant to William Blake Richmond in the late 1880s, and would pose nude for him around Chiswick.

The rather feminine figure of ‘Love’, with the arrow leading Dante to Beatrice, was in fact modelled by Sir Johnston Forbes Robertson, a celebrated Shakespearean actor. He was much garlanded and eventually played Hamlet in a silent movie version of the play in 1913.

Jane Morris modelled Beatrice, and can be compared here with her upside-down appearance in Burne-Jones’ ‘Sleeping Knights’ over the room.

The right hand mourner was modelled by another renowned figure of the time. Marie Spartali-Stillman was the daughter of the Greek Consul-General based in London. She later became a successful artist herself and there have been contemporary retrospectives of her paintings in the USA.

Click on this link to view the painting of Dante’s Dream by Dante Gabriel Rosetti on the Walker Art Gallery website

Triumph of the Innocents (1876 – 82) - William Holman Hunt

In Room 8 of the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool

Having spurned Annie Miller’s hand in marriage, Hunt married Fanny Waugh in 1865. Indeed, he painted his new wife’s face over that of Annie’s in ‘Sweet Idleness’, a painting that had already been exhibited and sold.

After only one year of marriage Fanny died and Hunt took up with her younger sister Edith who he eventually married ten years later. Marrying one’s dead wife’s sister was then illegal and so the Hunt’s spent much of their time outside of England escaping censure. Edith was the model for Mary in ‘Triumph of the Innocents’. She lived to the age of 85, when she was run over and killed by a van in Kensington High Street in 1931. She had an arm amputated but didn’t survive the accident. 

Click on this link to view the painting of Triumph of the Innocents by William Holman Hunt on the Walker Art Gallery website

Dante and Beatrice (1882 – 84) - Henry Holiday

In Room 8 of the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool

This painting was begun one year after Rosetti completed ‘Dante’s Dream’ and so spare a thought for Gaetano Meo who, having spent eight years intermittently posing as Dante for that work was immediately employed by Henry Holiday to recreate the role for this painting.

The other models are also identifiable. Eleanor Butcher who was an aristocrat and niece of Lord Trafalgar modelled Beatrice. Monna Vanna, in the red dress, was modelled by Milly Hughes the daughter of one of Holiday’s childhood friends. The girl in blue was Kitty Lushington who, forty years later, provided the inspiration for the character of Mrs Dalloway in Virginia Woolf’s literary masterpiece.

The artist Henry Holiday was an eccentric man who made himself editor of a magazine called AGLAIA, published by ‘The Healthy and Artistic Dress Union’ in 1893. The Union called upon women to abandon their use of the stifling corset. As you can see from the figure of Monna Vanna in red, she is painted to appear as though liberated from what Holiday termed ‘restrictive undergarments’.

Click on this link to view the painting of Dante and Beatrice by Henry Holiday on the Walker Art Gallery website

Mercury Stealing the Cattle of the Gods (1859) – Edward John Poynter

In Room 8 of the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool

There was an elderly life model active in the mid 19th Century known as ‘Old Coulton’. Since it was difficult to find models of a mature age at that time he managed to corner the market for posing as old men and this is quite possibly him as Apollo.

Old Coulton was the model for Madox Brown’s Lear and Wycliffe; and those painted figures certainly bear a resemblance to Apollo here.

Click on this link to view the painting of Mercury Stealing the Cattle of the Gods by Edward John Poynter on the BBC website

An Italian Crossbowman (1863) - Frederic Lord Leighton

In Room 8 of the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool

Although there is a resemblance, this painting of a medieval crossbow man is too early for it to have been modelled by Gaetano Meo as he arrived in London three years after it was completed. It is difficult to ascribe who the model was but the fashion for Victorian painters to employ Italian male models, (almost exclusively from the 1860s on), was inspired by the Mancini brothers from a family of acrobats who lived in Clerkenwell.

The pose of the crossbowman is quite stiff and originally there was a gruesome severed hand hanging as a trophy nailed to the doorway behind the warrior. This was censured and blacked out by the painting’s original owner.

I can’t quite determine the association but I’m put in mind of the fact that Leighton’s father (also Frederic), was court physician in the Russian capital of St Petersburg until he became deaf from a cold and turned to philosophy. To me, the crossbowman’s expression has the look of someone who is removed from the world of sound.

Click on this link to view the painting of An Italian Crossbowman by Lord Frederic Leighton on the BBC website

Confidences (1869) - Lawrence Alma-Tadema

In Room 8 of the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool

Alma-Tadema’s first wife, a French woman named Pauline Gressin Dumoulin modelled for a few of the artist’s early paintings in which she appeared with dark hair and kohl-rimmed eyes. She died in 1869 yet Alma-Tadema almost immediately met his second wife that year, falling in love ‘at first sight’ with Laura Theresa Epps who was aged only 17 (he was 33).

She was painted frequently thereafter by her husband and also by artists such as Jules Bastien-Lepage, and is recognisable from her copper coloured hair. The date of this painting is probably too tight for it to be her as the red-haired woman, but perhaps the ‘Confidences’ are being shared by Alma-Tadema’s past and future wives?

Click on this link to view the painting of Confidences by Lawrence Alma-Tadema on the BBC website

Venus and Anchises (1889) - William Blake Richmond

In Room 8 of the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool

By this date Gaetano Meo had moved on from working for Burne-Jones and Rosetti to become Richmond’s all-purpose studio assistant and life model. Here he is on the right as Antiches, the mortal lover of Venus.

The goddess herself is modelled by Edith Finch who Richmond was conducting an affair with at this date. She was part of the Holland Park Circle in the 1880s and, by contemporary accounts, a talented musician.

Click on this link to view the painting of Venus and Anchises by William Blake Richmond on the BBC website

Psyche (1882), On the Terrace (1889) – Edward John Poynter

In Room 8 of the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool

These two paintings appear to have employed the same model. ‘On the Terrace’ is set in the Mediterranean and the only model that Poynter used to suggest that region was Antonia Caiva.

According to Daphne Du Maurier many years later, Caiva only modelled for artists in order to clear her husband’s gambling debts. She posed for the bodies of all the figures on (Poynter’s brother-in law), Burne-Jones’ ‘The Golden Staircase’, (1880) upon which he transposed the heads of many other women.

She also posed as Andromeda for Burne-Jones’ ‘Perseus’ series and it’s possible to compare the somewhat pouting fixture of her mouth in those paintings with Poynter’s woman on the terrace who toys with a beetle using a feather, and with his ‘Psyche’.

Poverty had overtaken Anna Caiva when she wrote to Burne-Jones many years later: ‘Sir, I was always obedient to you. I am poor and ill’. There is no record of Burne-Jones’ reply.

Click on this link to view the painting of On the Terrace by Edward John Poynter on the BBC website

Click on this link to view the painting of Psyche in the Temple by Edward John Poynter on the Walker Art Gallery website


DaDaFest lightening logo

DadaFest logo

Evidently the Victorian life model provided much more than an outline for the figures in paintings. Many became friends, lovers, muses and spouses of those they sat for. Their faces were painted with life-like accuracy and represented them to such a degree that they are often identifiable across the centuries. Many were paid poorly and callously discarded; yet others made their fortunes and even took up as artists themselves. They were real people whose identities, in artistic terms, challenge the division between creator and creation.

The research material in this text was, to a significant extent, drawn from the archival dockets of files pertaining to each individual painting in the Walker Art Gallery’s collection. However, two publications were essential:
The Dictionary of Artist’s Models – ed. Jill Berk Jiminez, (2001)
Victorian Artists and Their Models – Russell James, (2011).

This project was commissioned by DaDaFest 2012 as part of 'Niet Normaal: Difference on Display' in association with Liverpool Biennial.