Saturday, 24 February 2018

Never the Bridesmaid

Today marks the death of Fanny Cornforth in 1909 and so I'd thought I'd display my utter Fanny-centricness (completely a word and possibly a euphemism) with yet more of my random ramblings and conspiracy theories.  It all started with this drawing...

Study of a Female Head (1865) Dante Gabriel Rossetti
I had always assumed that this was Fanny Cornforth because, well, it looks exactly like her. Not only that, I always assumed that it was a sketch for this...

The Blue Bower (1865)
It's Fanny giving a bit of side-jaw while cheekily plucking her whatsit.  I really had not given it any thought, but according to the Rossetti Archive (the holy grail of Rossetti research material) the pencil sketch is proposed to be a study for The Bride (or The Beloved)...

The Bride (or The Beloved) (1866)
That noise is me making a unladylike dismissive snort, but, as we have spoken about earlier, 1865 is a bit of a dodgy year for Rossetti.  Lizzie Siddal had died a few years previously and in the void she left, Fanny had wiggled in quite comfortably, thank you very much.  She had taken over patching up Rossetti after his wife's death, a job she would continue to do until his death in 1882.  He in turn had used her in paintings such as Fazio's Mistress to express how beautiful and necessary she was to his vision.  The problem was that he was the only one who felt like that.

Lady Lilith (before)

Lady Lilith (after)
Lady Lilith had been a work in progress ever since Rossetti did Fazio's Mistress.  The vision of a beautiful, powerful woman, dressing her hair in front of a mirror was a lovesong to Fanny and her tresses. Likewise, Lilith is a step removed from romance, but still is a woman and her hair on a pedestal.  Unfortunately for Fanny, Lady Lilith with her face was not selling so Rossetti swiped Alexa Wilding off the street and slapped her face over the top. As I postulated earlier, maybe the same occurred with Monna Vanna also from 1865.  So back to The Bride...

Marie Ford as 'The Bride'
Let's talk a bit about the construction of The Beloved: If Fanny had been intended to go in the picture, she wasn't the only substitution.  A bit like Annie Miller in (or not in) The Awakening Conscience, it is roundly believed that the Bride in the centre of the painting is a professional model called Marie Ford.  The studies of the central figure from around 1863, but the final figure, certainly after the 1872 repaint resembles Alexa Wilding, again.

The Beloved photographed during the 1872 repaint
Look at the shape of the jawline in the photograph and then in the finished oil.  There is definitely something going on there. I call 'Alexa' on that redhead. To the Bride's left is little Ellen Smith, looking all small and cute and brunette.  She is present and correct in both the finished oil and the photograph of work in progress, so we'll give her a pass.

Study for a Bridesmaid
We also have this young lady, who looks suspiciously like Aggie Manetti and may either be a study for Keomi (who we'll get to in a moment) or the back left Bridesmaid who we can't really see. Imagine sitting for Rossetti, possibly having your shoes eaten or wee-ed on by random animals in the house, and no doubt getting a scowling from Fanny, only to find out you are at the back of the wedding photo and Ellen is blocking you.  Rude.  Moving round, next to her is thought to be Fanny Eaton.

Study of a Woman (1860s)
Fanny modelled for various of the Pre-Raphaelites (and others) during the 1860s and some of her many children followed her into modelling.  It is possible that the child at the front was one of Fanny's to start with, as the little boy replaced a girl with a cherubic face and frizzy hair.

Girl with Long Hair for 'The Beloved'

Girl with Short Hair for 'The Beloved'

Boy for 'The Beloved'
As you can see the child servant changed from the little girls to a boy, reportedly called 'Gabriel' who was working as a servant, and spotted by Rossetti at the door of a hotel.  In 1865, Rossetti and Fanny had visited Paris together and it is likely that Rossetti had seen Edouard Manet's Olympia, which is supposed to have influenced him and made him add the black servant figure.  As Rossetti loathed the painters in Paris, I wonder how great an influence they were and it might just have started out as an opportunistic addition, if the child was in attendance with Fanny Eaton when she posed. Either way, Rossetti wasn't above changing his mind about who appeared in the picture.

Keomi Gray study for 'The Beloved'
So finally, over on the right-hand side is Keomi the gypsy, mistress and model of Frederick Sandys and star of such of his paintings as Medea and  Vivien among others.  If you look at the photograph of the repainting, a sizable bit of Keomi is missing, so I wondered if she had been the replacement for Fanny, if Fanny was indeed in there at all, but the drawing that exists of her is from 1865, which says to me that she was always intended for the part and that would tie in with how close Sandys and Rossetti were at that time.  So what about Fanny?

Possible study for 'The Beloved'
While we're on the subject, this sketch is also meant to be from The Beloved.  My God, is everything from The Beloved now? Mind you, there are a lot of women in that painting and apparently a fair few who weren't but might have been meant to be.  So this, I contest, is also probably Fanny and so might be the second image of her that is meant to be in The Beloved.  So what can we hypothesize from all this?

Fanny Cornforth (c.1867)
I wonder if Rossetti made the decision not to include Fanny in his salable works in 1865.  It's always been part of the official story that Rossetti dropped Fanny c.1864-5 when Lady Lilith didn't sell, he discovered Alexa, and he brought Jane Morris back into his life. However we know he produced other pictures of her in the years 1865-9 but they're informal, personal and intimate.  We also know that he made several copies of Lady Lilith but with Fanny instead of Alexa, and again these are smaller, often chalk or watercolour.  Fanny had been his partner in crime for a couple of years which had produced a lot of ideas and art that were to follow, with Fanny at the genesis.  Venus Verticordia started with a sketch of Fanny, Lady Lilith obviously and I wonder if Fanny posed for various of the figures for The Beloved.  The problem was that Fanny became bad luck.  It is undeniable that 1864-7 were rough years in terms with how Rossetti dealt with his guilt, creativity and criticism.  In my humble opinion, and this really is just my opinion, I think Rossetti was appalling at separating his art and his people.  I don't think it was a coincidence that he lusted after models and I think there is a lot of his relationship with the apparently notable exception to this, Alexa Wilding, that needs explaining.  More and more I believe Fanny hung in there with their relationship, beyond reason, and it can only be imagined how hurt she must have been when he cut her out just because other people no longer appreciated her face. 

Apparently, she was okay being Fazio's 'Mistress', but probably best not to include her in any picture with the word 'Bride' in the title or she might start getting ideas...


  1. Dear Kirsty
    I really enjoyed this post and would like to offer a huge round of applause for you and your Fanny-centricness (totally a word in my book). I much prefer Rossetti's first painting of Lady Lilith with Fanny modelling. The second is cold and in my eyes, overworked (but as I get older, I find I much prefer the drawings and preliminary works to the finished thing, despite the gorgeous colours.)
    Fanny gets my Jane Austen award for 'loving longest, when existence or when hope is gone' and I could add, in the face of many difficult people, not least Rossetti himself.
    Best wishes

  2. Great article, thanks. Insightful about Rossetti's complicated relationships with his 'models' and his art, therefore status and reputation.

  3. Thank you for this wonderful, insightful article about Rosetti and his models. One of my pipe dreams has been to be painted by Rosetti, since I first discovered the Pre-Raphaelites many decades ago. I also prefer his first painting of Lady Lilith with Fanny Cornforth. It has a delicate, dream-like quality lacking in the later, reworked one.


Many thanks for your comment. I shall post it up shortly! Kx