Here we are for the last part of the virtual 1883 exhibition of The Rossetti Gallery, the gallery run by Fanny Cornforth and her husband, John Bernard Schott, and comprising of a number of the pictures that Fanny ‘acquired’ during her time with Rossetti. The exhibition served a couple of purposes; firstly, it was Fanny’s tribute to her great love, the man to whom she had dedicated her life. Secondly, it was arguably Fanny’s gesture of defiance, held just down the road from the ‘official’ exhibition at The Royal Academy. We know that William Michael Rossetti tried to cut Fanny from his brother’s life and subsequent legacy by not informing her of the funeral until after it had taken place and then attempting to reclaim pictures and silence her. Lastly, it was no doubt a money-making scheme, charging an admittance and a cost for the catalogues. The Schotts were able to live quite comfortably for many years in Kensington, so it can be argued that the scheme worked. So, on with the show…
As we saw yesterday, the latter part of the exhibition was made up of photographs of various pictures. Unlike the ‘actual’ pictures she owned, it could be argued that Fanny only needed to take what she liked when acquiring photographs because the majority of Rossetti’s work would have been available to her in this medium. What did she chose? Jane Morris.
42. Mrs William Morris
Jane Bloody Morris. Again. I have questions, I don’t know about you lot. What was she playing at? Although we don’t have it on record precisely how Fanny felt about Jane, we know that Rossetti feared Fanny’s jealousy and her accusations, which Rossetti strenuously denied. Her collection of ‘Jane’ images raise questions about the nature of their relationship. Although Jane never spoke of Fanny, and you could almost believe that Jane didn’t know of Fanny’s existence, there is evidence that Jane feared Fanny had acquired letters between Jane and Rossetti, and would make them public. As it turned out, Fanny either didn’t have them or didn’t act on them. If Fanny was as vindictive as everyone seemed to have believed, you have to ask why she displayed, without judgement, so many images of her rival.
43. The Question (or The Sphinx)
I’ve always thought this is an odd picture, but well-chosen for display as it’s a nude and Rossetti did few nudes, even fewer of them being male nudes. It shows Youth, Manhood and Old Age, all approaching the Sphinx to find the secrets of life and death. Again, it is a sketch for a picture that was never executed, a potential never realised.
44. Mrs William Morris
Looky here again. Hmmm, interesting how Jane is ‘Mrs William Morris’ but Lizzie is ‘Miss Elizabeth Eleanor Siddall’. Neither of them are linked to Rossetti by name and Jane is titled very formally, emphasising her link to another man. You do wonder how many people knew about Rossetti and Jane by 1883, how many people talked about it? It might be interpreted as a kindness by Fanny to emphasise Jane’s position as William’s wife, but I doubt there was any such thought in her head. I wonder if it was a move on Fanny’s part to establish herself as Rossetti’s mistress, alone.
45. Hamlet and Ophelia
The catalogue reads ‘Ophelia is drawn from Miss Elizabeth Eleanor Siddall, Hamlet from Charles A. Howell Esq. Both faithful portraits.’ Although Howell was known to Fanny (who allegedly nicknamed him The Owl, by the dropping of her ‘aitches), it is not clear how well Fanny knew Lizzie. Thinking about it, Fanny resumed her modelling for Rossetti after his marriage, while Lizzie was still alive, so it can be assumed that Lizzie and Fanny must have met. I wonder if this picture and the catalogue text were included to draw attention to Lizzie as Ophelia, again. It was her most famous role and here she is again, this time for her husband, being Ophelia.
46. Mnemosyne or The Lamp of Memory
Like No.22, this is another version of the famous oil of Jane being the lady with a lamp. This is the original picture, before the canvas was enlarged and the lower part of Jane was added. One of the pleasures of looking at these pictures is that Fanny managed to acquire copies of working studies, unfinished works, that give you an idea of Rossetti’s thoughts and inspirations. To start with, this was a far more intimate picture, close and intense, before Rossetti added to the canvas. Another image of Jane? Of course…
This is a busy one. Right, the description reads ‘The subject shows Cassandra prophesying among her kindred, as Hector leaves them for his last battle. They are on the platform of a fortress, from which the Trojan troops are marching out. Helen is arming Paris; Priam soothes Hecuba; and Andromache holds the child to her bosom’. Crikey, there’s a lot going on there. It's all noise and tragedy, with Cassandra foretelling doom to a man who doesn't have time to listen. I wonder if Fanny felt like it sometimes was her job to tell people what they didn't want to hear?
48. Washing Hands
49. Portrait of the Painter’s Mother
I think this is the right one, so I’m brazening it out. Of course this is the right one, ahem. The catalogue lists it as a sketch from April 28th 1853, and is a pen and ink sketch. I think this is a marvellous drawing, the strength of his mother clear to see. This is one of the earliest pictures in Fanny’s collection, and it’s a photograph, so she had chosen to acquire this image. Possibly she was trying to feel closer to Rossetti, whose mother was an important part of his life. Looking at this image, I can’t help but think that Rossetti looked ever so much like his Mum, the same large, dark eyes. Maybe Fanny saw her lover in his mother and liked the image because of it.
The catalogue says that this is an image of ‘Lucrezia, Alexander VI and Caesar Borgia watching the children dancing’. This is the third Lucrezia Borgia image in this exhibition, and this one comes from 1851, although the central figure could be said to resemble Fanny. I’m not sure why Fanny collected these images, as the only person I know that had been called ‘Lucrezia Borgia’ was Jane, by (I think) Bell Scott, who believed her relationship with Rossetti was harming the artist. This reminds me of the books Willowwood and Victorian Love Story where it is hinted that Fanny like Rossetti’s early works because there was always an interesting story going on in the picture. Well, here you go Fanny, the Borgias should be an interesting enough story for you…
51. The Beloved
This comes with the line ‘My beloved is mine, and I am his’, and this is a photograph of the oil before completion. I had lots of fun comparing the finished image and playing ‘spot the difference’. I don’t get out much. Keomi the Gypsy Lover of Frederick Sandys, on the right, needs a lot of work, and the little chap in the front is missing some flowers. I saw this picture mentioned in an article as being proof that Rossetti was a big ol’ racist. Oh Lordy, I don’t even know where to start with that…other than ‘no, dear, he wasn’t.’
Just when I thought I was out, they pulled me back in! Damn, almost at the end and she springs a final Jane Morris on me! Admittedly, this is possibly the most stunning image of Jane, utterly breath-taking in its simplicity and beauty. This is one of my favourite of Rossetti’s chalks and he was a man who was good with his chalk. Look at the light on her hair! The line of her jaw! Heavens above. This is the last picture, and it’s of Jane. All that remained in the display were some poems and a couple of pictures of Tudor House, but this is the last of Rossetti’s pictures.
Do you know what I thought when I realised that? Isn’t it odd that she didn’t finish with a picture of herself, or even of Rossetti. What’s even odder is that she finished with a picture of her rival, the woman who took away her lover and arguably his sanity. In the exhibition, around 10 of the image could be said to be pictures of Fanny, but around 14 are of Jane. That’s over a quarter, and an impressive amount to be on show. Was it Jane’s fame (or infamy) that made Fanny display them, knowing people would come and see what she had? Did she show them to imply that all fights were off, that she acknowledged Jane’s presence in her lover’s life? I wish she had left some sort of hint as to why she chose the pictures she had, what they meant to her, even if it was only money. Was Fanny so calculating that she could exploit her rival’s image in order to make money from her dead lover’s art? That’s a bleak conclusion. Maybe she wanted all the Stunner’s to be together in remembering Rossetti? No, that’s far too saccharine. No answer is totally satisfying, so maybe we’ll never know, but isn’t it interesting when you get surprised by someone you thought you understood completely?
Consider this parting thought: Fanny Cornforth, blacksmith’s daughter from rural Sussex whose siblings nearly all died in infancy and whose mother and father had died young and nastily, had amassed an art collection of national significance that would enrich museums an art galleries in at least two countries. Now that is a surprising thought, and is one of the major reasons that I love Fanny. And I do love Fanny.
Anyone who sniggered can see me after class…