Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Opium, Chloral, Laudanum and the PRB

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 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.


Robin said...

I believe Lizzie took the liquid form of laudanum.
It's unfortunate that the laudanum was also most like the cause of her still-born child, which of course contributed to her poor mental state.

Grace said...

Thank you ma'am! :)

Anonymous said...

I actually saw the painting (Bottles, by Rossetti) in person a couple of years ago in the Waking Dreams Exhibit. I've always had a very close kinship with this painting...knowing what I do of Lizzie's addiction and no matter what we know of Rossetti and his "womanizing", the evidence supports the fact that during his marriage to her, he was faithful.

Imagine my surprise, no it was HORROR to see the display card next to the painting identified the model as Fanny Cornforth and not Lizzie Siddal. AS soon as I read it, I glanced around...who was in charge? Who could I tell of such a mistake? No one. No one around me even knew anything of Pre-Raphaelite art, or Rossetti, or Siddal. And somehow, in the gift shop area, I ended up answering questions for visitors that museum employees could not answer. (And never once did I plug my website, than-you-very-much).

Despite the fact that the painting was labeled Cornforth (and I do like Fanny very much) I firmly believe that the model was Lizzie Siddal. Rossetti was very consistent in his paintings...his features of Siddal, Annie Miller, Fanny Cornforth, Jane Morris, etc. always appear the same. In Bottlesthe shape of her face, her mouth , her eyes, her hair, is exactly how he has portrayed Siddal on many, many pieces of art. It is Siddal, no doubt.

Thanks for this post. You are braver than I, for I have wanted to include a post on laudanum at my site for ages, but for lack of info, I have not. But, since so many of my visitors are interested, I will include a link to your post.

Anonymous said... did I miss this fascinating and informative post?!

I'd known what laudanum was, of course--but had always assumed that chloral was either just another name for it, or else some sort of derivative form of opium. Glad to have that cleared up! :D

Grace said...

Stephanie, thank you for the honor of linking to this post! I do agree that there are definitely traces of Rossetti's images of Lizzie in the way he drew the figure in _Bottles_...the downcast eyes especially. Her build, however, seems a bit more sturdy, like Fannie, so perhaps that's why people think it was supposed to be her? If I had to cast my vote, however, I'd definitely say it more resembles Siddal.

Your experience at the exhibit (which I still can't believe I missed...and it came to Ohio too...) sounds similar to mine at a concert I went to recently (Loreena McKennitt) at which I was answering questions by the merchandise booth as if I was the only one there with a clue who she was! It can be saddening when you attend something so very important to you, and it seems there are no kindred spirits nearby experiencing it with you. Rest assured, had I been there, we would have had a rousing discussion about _Bottles_ and many other works I'm sure. :)

Grace said...

Aurora, I too wasn't sure what chloral was! And my but it was a bit difficult to track it down. :)

Anonymous said...

Lizzie used the liquid form of Laudanum--I posted on Ms Pina's site the actual dosage she probably took:
two ounces of Laudanum which is the equivalent of 600 milligrams of morphine; 60 milligrams is lethal. Whether the dosage was watered by the chemist will never be known. However, the note pinned to her nightgown asking Gabriel take care of her retarded brother Harry is a definite indication she committed suicide by ingesting an unwatered dose of laudanum.

The following is an article on Laudanum on Wikipedia should you care to do further research:

and on Chloral hydrate:


Grace said...

Thank you for the information, Beau!

Was there ever "concrete proof" that there was a letter? I always read that it was never found.

Anonymous said...

Didn't Rossetti, at the inquest, say that at times she took up to 100 drops? Was that throughout the day, or in a single dosage?

Great sites, Stephanie and Grace!

Grace said...

Good lord...I'm not sure, but that certainly couldn't have been healthy! :)

Anonymous said...

The letter was most definitely found, though not mentioned at the inquest. Rossetti, and after him his brother WM Rossetti, did give funds to Lizzie's retarded brother Harry for the rest of his life, per Lizzie's final request, which most of her biographers seem to see as a reprimand.

Even if Cornforth was the model for that painting, it does not follow that Rossetti was sleeping with her at the time!! The PRB used models as models, not as prostitutes. They were highly moral individuals with religious convictions. Although Rossetti, particularly in later life, appears to have enjoyed an interesting sex life, we have no reason to believe he was promiscuous. His affairs were just that, not sleazy hook ups.

Lizzie used drops, certainly. They were far more commonly in use and more readily available.

Anonymous said...

Just did a little research on Bottles. The painting was in Cornforth's possession at her death, further suggesting that she modeled for the woman in the background. The original still life (foreground) was Rossetti's first oil painting (1848), probably done under the tutelage of Ford Madox Brown. Soon after that the PRB was founded. The figure of the woman was added in 1858. This also supports Cornforth as the model, since Lizzie and DGR were on the outs at that time. They re-connected in 1860 right before their marriage.

Grace said...

Thank you for the info, Stunner! :)

Anonymous said...

Opium dens were not hip in the US until about 1870. They really took off in the 80s, and reached the east coast of the US in the 90s.

Chloral hydrate was developed in the late 1860s as a cure for the insomnia, but was not common until the 70s, when a couple of saloon owners discovered that the taste of chloral hydrate could be (and should be) camouflaged with booze. These became "Mickey Finns" - the customer drank the spiked drink, passed out and was robbed at ease and dumped into an alley. (Wayne Bethard, "Lotions, Potions and Deadly Elixirs: Medicine in Frontier America")

Laudie, was of course the drug to use. Hashish was a brief trend known to those who had visited the mid-east at some point. Tincture of cannabis was available. They used cannabis indica, not sativa and they did not smoke it. It was used for the really hideous pains of migraines, gout rheum, &c. I have yet to see an original prescription written for it.
(Source: Henry Beasley, "2900 Prescriptions", 1855. Edward Parrish, "Introduction to Practical Pharmacy", 1860. various images of bottles labeled "Tr. Cannabis", DEA Museum).

Regarding Lizzie: she probably took the liquid form; it was the easiest to get, and that's what a tincture is - liquid, where the vegetable medicine is percolated in alcohol to preserve it so the medicine does not go bad as quickly.

Grace said...

Thank you so much, BlueMassCat, for the wonderful details! How did you find out all of your information? I find it fascinating in a macabre way to hear about the early days of prescription and non-prescription drugs :)

Grace said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
ST Spence said...

Saw an interesting docudrama about Rossetti and Lizzie called "Dante's Inferno" directed by Ken Russell. I highly recommend it in relation to this topic.

Grace said...

Hi Hopper!

Dante's Inferno is a great docudrama, and I agree it's quite fascinating to see Lizzie's descent into laudanum use "filmed"

Here's a post I did with images from the film:

Ancient Sculpture Gallery said...

I really appreciate with your information for Laudanum painting. Thanks for sharing.

Ancient Sculpture Gallery

Anonymous said...

I too have been fascinated by Lizzie S and also Laudanum to a minor degree.
Laudanum came in many strengths, the most potent, according to modern researchers was ''The Kendal Black Drop''
But any local pharmacy could make it up, by macerating Turkish or Indian opium in water, and then mixing with brandy.
There was also in England, an Opiate Confection- I was stunned to be able to buy a box of these, from about 1860, that had been discovered in an old medicine chest.

They were designed to be dissolved into wine.
They have a warm pungency with a bitter opiate smell, in ''one scruple'' wrappers.
The contents were made on the premises of a beautiful London pharmacy John Bell of oxford street. There are photos of the confection [copyright] and the box online that I posted [not knowing that they would be 'stolen' by so many sites- !]
Lizzie, in a Victorian book I read, supposedly had a note pinned to her nightgown, which was flung onto a fire after discovery.
The child she lost- It is never a good idea to partake of any drug when pregnant, but Victorian women wouldn't have known this.
Child mortality then was so high, as was the loss of mothers too.

Lizzie may well have taken laudanum for a cough,[T.B] as it stops a cough quite magically.

Seeing Lizzie's grave at Highgate Cemetery was very moving- Highate when we first visited was a wild and overgrown place, and to think that poor 'Guggums' was disturbed, for the book of poems against her cheek, in the firelight of what then was a semi rural place..very sad.

I hope Lizzie is at peace- there exists a 'photograph' of Lizzie that was found in the home of an East End woman- it shows a person very like Lizzie, but less idealised.
It too may be online, but I saw it in a fine art book on the pre Raphaelites.
Catherine M