5 famous muses of British artists

Kathleen Bondar 25 May 2021

Everyone knows about the artists but what about their muses? Kathleen Bondar takes a look at the muses behind some of the best selling artists of all time

In Greek mythology, muses were goddesses of inspiration for artists and poets. Over the centuries the muse took the human form mostly female (commonly mistresses) painted by men. Increasingly, exceptions to the rule emerged, and UK artists have led the way, including men as muses and women as artists.

Muses have appeared as lovers, family, friends and acquaintances. One thing these muses have in common, is to be depicted again and again by the besotted or curious artist. Here are five top muses who have captured the attention of British artists over the centuries.

George Romney (1734-1802) / Emma Hamilton (1765 – 1815)

Emma Hamilton by George Romney

Emma Hamilton by George Romney - Waddesdon (Rothschild Family) - On loan since 1995 / Wikimedia Commons

Son of a Northern cabinet maker, George Romney moved to London in 1762 to join the Free Society of Artists where he forged his reputation as a portrait painter. His muse, Lady Emma Hamilton began life as a maid and then mistress to a string of wealthy men including Lord Nelson.

Emma was lively, beautiful and savvy. Romney painted his muse as mythological heroines: Emma as a Sibyl c1785; Emma as a Bacchante 1785, and Lady Emma Hamilton, as Cassandra. Eventually, Emma married Sir William Hamilton, British ambassador to Naples, where she lived and befriended the exiled French Queen, Marie Antoinette, no less.

Romney returned to his wife Mary Abbot, after an absence of 40 years, when he became ill in 1799 and required nursing.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828 - 1882) / Elizabeth Siddal (1830 - 1862)

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Dante Gabriel Rosetti - Wikimedia Commons

While working for a milliner, the striking Elizabeth (Lizzie) Siddal had a chance encounter with the artist, poet and progeny of Italian nobility, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB) artists’ circle. The PRB included Everett Millais who famously painted Siddal as Orphelia, 1852.

Siddal became Rossetti’s muse and wife. She also became an accomplished artist in her own right. When Rossetti took on other muses (notably William Morris’s wife Jane Morris), and a series of lovers, Siddal was tormented by jealousy. She was an opium addict and, at the age of 32, she died from an overdose.

Elizabeth Siddal

Elizabeth Siddal, circa 1860 - Wikimedia Commons

By that time Rossetti had captured Siddal in several paintings such as Ecce Ancilla Domini (1849-50), Regina Cordium (The Queen of Hearts) (1860), and Beata Beatrix (c. 1864–70). Her stunning looks and cascading auburn locks became synonymous with the term “Pre-Raphaelite”. The bereaved Rosetti buried his poems with Siddal but, on reflection and a little unhinged, retrieved them later.

Eileen Agar (1899-1991) / Joseph Bard (1892 – 1975)

Eileen Agar

Eileen Agar - Wikimedia Commons

The British Surrealist, Eileen Agar was fascinated with the idea of the artist’s muse which she subverted in many ways. Turning things on its head, she painted Muse of Construction, 1939 making the great Picasso her muse, when it would usually have been vice versa. 

However, Agar’s personal muse was the Hungarian writer, Joseph Bard whom she met at the beginning of her career in London in 1926. They married in 1940, although they always lived separately and unconventionally. Her early works are achieved, it seems, in one sweep, as if the pencil or brush never leaves the paper (indeed, she became a master of spontaneous painting, “automatism”).

Sleeping Head of Joseph 1929 was one of her earliest oil paintings of Joseph Bard and, although Agar moved away from representational painting in favour of surrealism and cubism, it is a fine contribution to figurative art.

Francis Bacon (1909 -1992) / George Dyer (1934 -1971)

Francis Bacon

"Francis Bacon" by alvaro tapia hidalgo is licensed with CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

The myth bandied around and dramatised in the 1998 film Love is the Devil in which Francis Bacon is played by Derek Jacobi and George Dyer by Daniel Craig, is that they met when Dyer broke into Bacon’s apartment. In fact, they met in a Soho bar. Dyer, 33 years younger than Bacon, came from London’s criminal East End and mixed with the likes of the notorious Kray gangsters.

George Dyer

George Dyer in the early '60s - Wikimedia Commons

The relationship was known to be intense, stormy and substance driven. Bacon’s 40 portraits of his beloved Dyer include the triptych Three Studies for a Portrait of George Dyer, painted in 1963. It was once owned by Roald Dahl and sold for $51.8 million by Christie’s in 2017.

Lucian Freud (1922 - 2011) / Sue Tilley (Born 1957)

Lucian Freud

Lucian Freud in 2005 - Wikimedia Commons

Lucian Freud (1922 -2011), grandson of Sigmund Freud the founder of psychoanalysis, was influenced by surrealism as a young artist but soon moved seamlessly towards realism and portraiture for which he became renowned. He used techniques like impasto (thick strokes) and focussed on the unglamorous, naked flesh of a person producing larger than life size paintings of his models.

His first wife Kitty Garman, Francis Bacon, a nude of the model Kate Moss and, in 2001, a portrait of the Queen can be included in his works. However, one of Lucian Freud’s most famous muses happened later in his career and turned out to be a benefits supervisor. Sue Tilley, an exceptionally large woman, fulfilled Freud’s fascination with the naked flesh in her abundance. Freud was introduced to Tilley at his friend Leigh Bowery’s Taboo night club in the 1990s. Freud’s paintings of Tilley were numerous.

Sleeping Benefits Supervisor

'Benefits Supervisor Sleeping' - Wikimedia Commons 

The painting Benefits Supervisor Sleeping sold for $33.6 million in 2008 and in 2015, Benefits Supervisor Resting sold for $56.2 million at Christie’s. In 1997, “Big Sue” published Leigh Bowery: The life and times of an Icon in which Freud gets more than a mention, unsurprisingly, because Bowery posed for Lucian Freud too.

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