The Essential Fanny Cornforth, a Pre-Raphaelite muse
Of all of the beautiful women who modelled for Pre-Raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Fanny Cornforth was the ultimate stunner, remaining his most loyal muse and longstanding affectionate friend.
However there was still little known about the life of Fanny Cornforth until relatively recently. Fanny seems to have been overshadowed by Rossetti’s two other renowned favourite muses, his wife Elizabeth Siddal, and his lover, Jane Morris, whose iconic beauty and ability to ‘improve’ themselves through education, gained them approval and recognition. Not for poor Fanny, whose poverty stricken background, sparse education and candid nature would hinder her progress in society.
Fanny Cornforth was a working class, country girl, who never managed to shake off that label. Rossetti valued her for her looks and her body, her comfort and devotion, but not her intellect. He enjoyed her cockney accent and her earthy vowels and did not try to Change her or refine her manners. The Rossetti family and some of his close friends where embarrassed by his relationship with Fanny and upon his death they did their utmost to taint her reputation and write her out of Rossetti’s history.
Fanny was not without her faults, she spoke loudly and lacked inhibition, she was sharp minded and enjoyed the company of men. In the eyes of most Victorians she was seen as a ‘fallen Woman’. To the Rossetti family she was not a suitable woman for their esteemed son Gabriel to consort with, let alone have in his home, even as a housekeeper, as those who disapproved presumed she was. At the time working class women were often suspected to be intent on seducing gentlemen for their money.
The life story of Fanny Cornforth has recently been extensively researched and more has been revealed by Kirsty Stonell Walker, a Victorian Academic specialising in the social history of the Pre-Raphaelites. Kirsty’s book, ‘Stunner, The Fall and Rise of Fanny Cornforth’, informed and enlightened my understanding of Fanny and what life for a poor Victorian woman entailed, giving insight into the class and gender prejudices of the time.
Jan Marsh’s well established work, ‘Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood’, also provided in-depth reading, an expertly comprehensive testimony revealing the interwoven patterns of the lives of the various women within the Pre-Raphaelite group, also their place in the path of Rossetti’s bohemian and segregated life.
An account of the Life of Fanny Cornforth
Early years in Sussex
There is some confusion over Fanny Cornforth’s early years, partly due the fact that she was named Sarah Cox at birth, but also there were two Sarah Coxs living in the same Parish. Records show another born 12 years earlier in 1823, who became a successful tobacconist in Steyning and died a spinster in her late fifties, having never left the village. The older Sarah was the younger Sarah’s aunt, but the misunderstandings that stemmed from this fact, would lead to later unjust misrepresentations of Fanny’s character as dishonest and deceitful regarding her age.
The Sarah we know as Fanny Cornforth was born in Steyning, Sussex in January 1835 to Jane Woolgar and William Cox, from a family of respected Master blacksmiths going back several generations.
William disappointed his formidable mother by marrying a woman of a lower status, a labourer’s daughter, who could not sign her name on the parish register. There had been a history of literate and commercially competent women in the Cox family and it appears that this marriage lead to an estrangement between mother and son.
When the eldest brother died the youngest brother Robert took over the smithy, not William. Compelled out of the family home, William and Jane with their young family moved to a small terrace house elsewhere in the village.
The couple had six children yet only two of them survived infancy due to poverty and disease. Sarah the eldest, as well as her second youngest sister Anne, remained relatively healthy and Sarah attended the village school for a short while. In 1846 their mother gave birth to the sixth child, their youngest sister Fanny who lived for only 11 months. Sarah would adopt her little sister’s name ten years later.
A year after the birth when Sarah was only 12 years old, her mother died of pulmonary tuberculosis, she was 32. This infectious bacterial disease caused the death of baby Fanny, Sarah’s other siblings and several further members of her family.
Obviously it would have been a traumatic time for the surviving girls and their father, who was struggling to find work due to the downturn of the rural economy and new focus on Industry.
Sarah was considered old enough to take care of her young sister and help out in the home, so she would have stopped attending school, ending her brief time in education.
In 1848 Sarah, Anne and her father moved to Brighton, where William found employment on the railways. Within a year he was married again to Harriet Maybank, a wheelwright’s daughter from Petworth. With improved resources the new family moved to 1 Railway Street, with the additional newborn baby Mary, William and Harriett’s first child.
At the age of fourteen Sarah moved out of the family home into service, which at the time, was the routine entry to working life for most young women of working-class. She went to work as a general servant for Mr and Mrs James Worger in Western Road, Brighton, where they ran a lodging house close to the seafront. While working in Brighton Sarah was able to meet other maids, who were travelling with their employers down from London. It is probable that she heard spirited and adventurous stories about London life and the possibility of earning more money in the capital, perhaps stirring within her new aspirations.
In 1854 baby Mary died and her father was very ill. This predicament meant that Sarah, now nineteen and sister Ann moved back to Steyning to live with relatives, as her employers had given up the Lodging house in Brighton. Economic necessity meant Sarah again became a maid and her work this time was much more arduous and exhausting.
With her depleted family, her sister Ann living with her grandmother and her father now dying, Sarah was determined to move away from Steyning, where life offered little opportunity and tuberculosis had claimed so many of her relatives.
London and the Artists
In 1856 aged 21 Sarah travelled to London to stay with an aunt who had invited her to join her in the festivities for Florence Nightingale’s return from the Crimean war. The huge celebration took place at the Royal Surrey Pleasure Gardens in Kennington where surviving soldiers and their nurses gathered to eat, drink and watch the firework show in the evening. In the the crowds Sarah and her aunt Ann were engaged in the excitement of it all, as fireworks dazzled and lit up the night sky.
Also enjoying themselves in the Gardens were Pre-Raphaelite artists Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones and Ford Madox Brown. The artists, always on the lookout for stunning or exceptional women, spotted Sarah’s face gazing up at the display and with that, Rossetti wandered nearer to where the women were standing. According to Sarah she remembered having her hair swiped or accidentally flicked resulting in her pins coming loose and her copper gold locks tumbling down.
Immediately smitten by her looks, Rossetti announced she was the most beautiful ‘stunner’ he had ever seen and asked if she would model for him. Quick witted, he skilfully charmed aunt Ann, who was not pleased by this dramatic intrusion, yet Rossetti, with his enchanting manners beguiled her. He told them he was a well known artist and invited Sarah to his studio the next day to sit for him, she was thrilled by his admiration and compliments and happily she accepted, but it was agreed aunt Ann would chaperone her.
The next day Sarah was accompanied by her aunt to Rossetti’s studio where she was sketched by Rossetti for the first time.
Sarah became Fanny
Soon Sarah was modelling for several Pre-Raphaelite artists in London and it was at this time that she assumed the name ‘Fanny’, a fitting new name in remembrance of her youngest sister. Her surname came a little later after meeting a fellow part time artists’ model (and future ‘part time’ husband) Timothy Hughes. His stepfather was a Mr Cornforth which Fanny decided was a respectable name, and she acquired it, possibly to hide her country girl background, although more likely to preserve a good reputation and give herself a more professional sounding name.
There were several unkind and untrue stories of how that first meeting of artist and model came about, lurid rumours whispered amongst the higher classes and some of Rossetti’s social circle would keep Fanny in her place. For many of them it was difficult to distinguish between artist’s model and prostitute. Some Rossetti biographers and a friend, William Bell Scott, branded Fanny Cornforth as a fat prostitute, a crude lower class, buxom blonde who pursued Rossetti in a predatory way, soliciting by cracking nuts with her teeth and spitting nutshells at him. This was one of the myths that circulated and unfortunately it was avidly believed, a compelling story conveniently implicating Fanny as a wanton woman and Rossetti, the reputable artist.
Fanny’s version of how they met had support from several Rossetti acquaintances who claimed that he habitually accosted women who interested him.
Edward Burne-Jones, ‘sheepishly’ admitted to ‘many expeditions of the sort’ when searching for ‘subjects and models’.
Fanny’s response to having her hair un-pinned by Rossetti, was lighthearted and she was only playfully shocked, revealing a comfortable acquiescence to male attention.
Rarely would a respectable grown up woman be seen with her hair down in Victorian Society, it would be a sight for the husband alone. To have ones hair ‘undressed’ in public would have been scandalous for the genteel woman in the 1850s, akin to clothes being torn open today.
Ironically Fanny’s first sitting for Rossetti was for the painting “Found”, in which she was depicted as a low bred, common prostitute. Meeting Fanny coincided with Rossetti moving away from his previous medieval style and subject matter of heroic knights and delicate damsels, Fanny modelled for his only painting with an underlying moral narrative, a theme popular in Victorian Britain.
Fanny’s arrival in Rossetti’s life at that moment in time was fortuitous, as it inspired a new wave of innovative work; however Rossetti struggled with his interpretation of the fallen woman in “Found”, confused by the social realities of the profession. The painting was left unfinished, despite keen interest from his patron and prospective buyers, owing to the fact that Rossetti didn’t fully believe in this artwork. It was finally made fit for sale by Edward Burne-Jones after Rossetti’s death.
The Oldest Profession
Religious opinion was that prostitutes were shameful, shabby, wretched beings with brief diseased lives, which was true for some, but others made a good living and enjoyed their work along with the independence it gave them. Professional and casual prostitution became prevalent in Victorian London as women realised they could supplemented their day jobs to make ends meet. It offered working class women, whose wages were very low in domestic service or factories, an opportunity to earn a lot of money in a relatively short time, so it was not unusual for an attractive young woman to choose this option. Prostitution even made it possible for a woman to rise in society, either through marriage to the upper ranks or moving on to a more respectable trade after a short time on the streets.
As an artists’ model, It would soon have become apparent to Fanny, that modelling alone may not be sufficient to live on and it was probable that at this time Fanny slid into nonchalant prostitution. She may have been generous with her affections, especially after fine food and drink, taking pleasure in the company of Rossetti and other artist friends.
Rossetti was smitten with Fanny, despite being secretly engaged to his first muse, the delicate and sickly Elizabeth Siddal.
It is possible that Rossetti had his first sexual experience with Fanny, as Lizzie was highly moral in her attitude to sex and marriage and often too unwell.
Rossetti’s friend George Price Boyce was another Fanny admirer, he was a successful landscape water-colourist and wealthy lover of art and women. His diaries of time spent with the Pre-Raphaelites has enabled details of their personalities to be known, including Fanny, of whom he recounted as “Interesting face and jolly hair and engaging disposition”.
Her role as Rossetti’s model and muse didn’t stop her taking pleasure in Boyce’s attention, he was affable, obliging and generous, rewarding her well for her time.
In 1859, having more financial security and Boyce as her benefactor, Fanny moved out from her lodgings in Soho to Tenison street, south of the river Thames and relatively close to the homes of Rossetti and Boyce.
Her new patrons were attentive and bountiful with gifts, giving her flowers, jewellery and sweet foods which Fanny enjoyed receiving, a pleasure which was lacking in her childhood.
Fanny’s psychological association of thinness with disease and death; poverty with starvation and insecurity, would partly explain her hearty appetite and her inclination to accept sustenance and presents as a substitute for love; it would also account for her subsequent habit of hoarding pawnable gifts for financial security.
For Fanny 1859 was a good year, she became Rossetti’s principle muse for his lavish ‘Venetian’ paintings and she had two gallant beaux competing for her affection.
Rossetti’s new painting style was inspired by early Italian literature and worked in oil, each painting featured a single sensual female figure and exerted a turning point in his career.
The art work ‘Bocca Baciata’, painted from Fanny and commissioned by George Boyce, would bring Rossetti fame and launch Fanny into the art world’s spotlight as the epitome of luscious, Pre-Raphaelite beauty. Even Fanny’s most acerbic critic, the artist’s brother, William Michael Rossetti described her as a, ‘fine looking woman, with regular and sweet features’, but he snidely added, ‘she had no charm of breeding, education, or intellect’.
His painting ‘Bocca Baciata’, or ‘The Kissed Mouth’, was an innovation. It presented female sensuality openly and luxuriant, contrary in context to the views of femininity at that time, where well-brought up conventional women were not supposed to feel sensual, or sexually aroused, but to see sex as their wifely duty.
In April 1860 a letter delivered to Rossetti would induce an upheaval in Fanny’s now fairly comfortable life. The letter was from Rossetti’s former beloved Elizabeth Siddal, who believed she was fatally ill. Loyally he immediately left for Hastings where she had taken herself to convalesce, and he found Lizzie on her ‘death bed’. She was indeed very ill with symptoms of her addiction to Laudanum, a habit she had succumbed to over the previous two years.
Lizzie had been displaced in 1858 when Rossetti discovered Fanny Cornforth, now it was Fanny who was being cast aside.
In a dramatic style true to his nature, Rossetti perched on Lizzie’s bedside and promised to marry her if she recovered. It is quite possible he didn’t believe he would have to realise his promise, but he stayed with her throughout her illness and recuperation. Incredibly Lizzie made a miraculous recovery and six weeks later on May 23rd 1860 they were married at St Clements church, Hastings.
Fanny was astonished at her sudden abandonment, initially more shocked than heartbroken, but dejected and sad by his decision to marry Lizzie.
His desertion was a blow and a rude awakening to the fact that the fanciful life to which Rossetti had initiated her, could vanish like a dream. As a woman accustomed to disappointment and misfortune, she had become resilient, knowing she would have to rely on herself in a crisis. Fanny needed to plan for her future, find an arrangement that could provide some security.
The idea included the part-time model and mechanic Timothy Hughes, a good looking man who modelled for the Pre-Raphaelites in the early days of Fanny’s time in London.
Two months after Rossetti left her, Fanny married Timothy Hughes, also known as Timothy Cornforth. The couple married at St John’s Church, Waterloo and lived nearby her former lodgings in Tenison Street.
Married life was not so unlike life as ‘Miss Cornforth’, as Fanny continued to model for Edward Burne-Jones, Rossetti and other members of the Brotherhood, making a fair living from her work, even enabling her household to take on a maid.
In the ten years that she and Timothy Hughes were married Fanny saw very little of her husband, if she wasn’t modelling she was keeping Rossetti company.
At that time Fanny was painted as one of ‘The Backgammon Players’ by Burne-Jones, (1861) and she was portrayed as ‘Fair Rosamund’, by Rossetti, ( Fair Rosamund was the mistress of Henry II and bitterly hated by Queen Eleanor.) Imagine Rossetti as King Henry and Lizzie as Queen Eleanor.
Fanny’s face appeared in several paintings and drawings by Rossetti during his marriage to Lizzie; he continued to depict Fanny as his ideal beauty, voluptuously healthy and sensual. In contrast, Rossetti’s new wife Lizzie portrayed as ‘Queen of Hearts’, in his honeymoon painting, looked anxious and anaemic.
In 1862 Elizabeth Siddal died, after a massive overdose of laudanum, it was probably suicide, as she apparently had a note pinned to her nightdress, ‘My life is so miserable, I wish for no more of it; take care of Harry’, (Lizzie’s youngest handicapped brother). The note was secretly burned to save her reputation and had only been seen by Rossetti and his trusted friend Ford Madox Brown.
16 Cheyne Walk
Rossetti moved out of his apartment where Lizzie’s deathly image haunted him and moved to 16 Cheyne Walk, an old Tudor house along the north side of the Thames. He soon returned to his bachelor life style which included the ever devoted and ‘life affirming’ Fanny who had become essential to his well being and his state of mind.
Fanny never explained how or why she left her husband and moved into the new lodgings obtained for her by Rossetti. Her life was evidently more comfortable with her wealthy lover, whom she spent most of her time with. One could wonder if her love for Rossetti was worth the risk of misery at the likelihood of being abandoned again.
Rossetti produced some of his most successful work in Tudor House, surrounded by artist and poet friends and Fanny as his muse and lover. Fanny sat for Fazio’s Mistress in 1863, where she posed plaiting her splendid golden hair for a three quarter length portrait displaying her ample beauty.
Rossetti’s Titian inspired, ‘Venetian’ style of painting noted the end of his Medieval maiden love affair and the demise of his relationship with John Ruskin, his friend and former patron, who had highly regarded Rossetti’s early watercolours and the work of Elizabeth Siddal.
The womanly curves of Fanny utterly repulsed Ruskin, who preferred early pubescent femininity with its innocently graceful contours, he was more in favour of romance from the late Middle Ages.
Rossetti made many sketches and preparatory drawings for paintings featuring Fanny over an intense period from 1862-1865 when his fascination with her reached its artistic peak.
Once again Fanny’s considerable beauty shines through in ‘The Blue Bower’, painted in 1865; fanny is set against Oriental, blue hexagon tiles with Passion flowers trailing behind her, while she plays a dulcimer.
As time moved on their relationship entered a new phase of maturity, unspoken devotion with a less passionate appreciation, one of affable acceptance. They had fond nick-names for one another, due to both of their expanding waistlines, where Fanny was often referred to as ‘Elephant’ or ‘lumpses’ and Rossetti, ‘Rhino’. No longer was Fanny a pretty young sensation, but she was still a substantially attractive woman.
Rossetti tended to portray his models in a flattering light and Fanny was no exception. His luxurious visions depict Fanny with a Venus-like serenity, yet in life she was chatty, telling stories with animated enthusiasm, her cockney sounding, Sussex accent provided great comic appeal to Rossetti and friends. She dropped all her ‘h’s and added them elsewhere, such as ‘air’ on is ‘ead’ and ‘hyebrow’ and hyelash’. With good humour Fanny created an atmosphere of convivial hilarity at Rossetti’s household gatherings; and at parties she enthralled and appalled guests in equal measure.
Tudor House at Cheyne Walk was resplendently decorated but the household was, in no doubt, eccentric. Rossetti had a menagerie of pets living inside and outside including his prized wombat who was allowed to sleep in the centrepiece of his dining table, even during mealtime. Also resident were a llama and a friendly toucan, a kangaroo, wallabies, an armadillo, a kookaburra, a chameleon, squirrels, a mole, marmot, deer, a green lizard, a raccoon and a zebu, as well as other more conventional pets.
Behind Rossetti’s charming and charismatic personality lay an emotionally unstable man, he was not always so easy to live with, but loyally and patiently Fanny attended to his needs and soothed away his tribulations.
Rossetti spent many periods of his life in a state of melancholy, brought on, to a certain degree, by critical feedback to his work. The depression was obviously intensified by his use of morphine, laudanum, and choral, often washed down with whisky, or brandy to clear the bad taste that chloral left in his mouth.
From 1865, Fanny was sketched regularly by Rossetti, often caught brushing her hair, or at a sewing task, otherwise eating grapes. These were mostly affectionate drawings for his own pleasure. However her career as a model and muse, appearing in grand oil paintings had faded, Rossetti continued to draw her face to work out new ideas, but she became his practice model, or body stand in, her face later being painted over in favour of a new stunner.
The new ‘stunner’ was aspirant actress, Alexa Wilding who had also been ‘discovered’ and approached in public by Rossetti. Initially she turned him down, but months later on a chance second encounter, Alexa was obstructed and jostled into Rossetti’s carriage, she agreed to model for him and was paid a retainer. Alexa Wilding had a colder more cat-like beauty than Fanny, her heavy lidded eyes and prominent cheekbones gave her a cool, detached allure.
Rossetti needed to re-vitalise his style and he believed Alexa’s face would be the one to re-invent and complete several unfinished canvases.
Fanny meanwhile may have felt pushed aside, but as Rossetti had no sexual interest in Alexa, she felt no threat and accepted her as one of the several women who modelled for her artist lover.
Fanny discovered a novel skill to hold Rossetti close, the new ‘science’ of the spirit world that was capturing the interest of many prominent Victorians; Charles Dickens and Queen Victoria were said to have attended a séance. Fanny, who probably sat in on a lecture given to the working classes at a working men’s institute, acted as a medium at seances held by Rossetti and his friends. She used her clairvoyant skills to talk to Lizzie after death, hoping to find answers to Rossetti’s questions and allay his mental anguish. She was successful at convincing both Rossetti and his brother of her psychic communicative ability; whether real or not, it demonstrated an astuteness that she was not given credit for
The short period of comfort and security that Fanny had experienced was terminated by the entrance of a tall dark beauty into Rossetti’s life, the captivating wife of his friend William Morris, Jane.
Between 1871 and 1874 Rossetti spent many months way from Fanny with his new friends at Kelmscott Manor in Oxfordshire, a house he and Morris rented between them as a country retreat. Here, far from public scrutiny, Rossetti could conduct his obsessive affair with Jane Morris, while her husband was away working in Iceland. Rossetti’s new work reflected Jane’s sombre beauty and grace, his portraits of her were spellbinding and mesmeric. They were in love but the relationship was difficult, Rossetti was torn because Jane was spoken for, married to his good friend Morris and mother to two little daughters.
Rossetti worked fanatically, compulsively producing many drawings and paintings of his new muse, eventually making himself ill. The artist’s sight was failing and he was suffering from a nervous breakdown; in 1872 Rossetti attempted to end his life with Laudanum in the style of Lizzie, but the bottle he swallowed wasn’t sufficient.
He awoke in a delusional and confused state, asking for Fanny, his loyal and reliably comforting mistress. Rossetti, in his agitation of illness, was grateful to Fanny and made it known to her that he would take care of her, ‘as long as there was a breath in my body or a penny in my purse’. It is possible that this could have been an empty promise, considering his mental disposition and his near bankruptcy, however on recovery he did make arrangements to help Fanny accumulate funds to buy her own home.
For Rossetti this would have also helped to maintain her position as his housekeeper in London, where, taking care of his household affairs, she was of most use to him. Nevertheless as soon as he was well enough Rossetti was back at Kelmscott, wooing and painting Jane Morris.
During his time at Kelmscott Rossetti regularly invited friends to stay, including Alexa Wilding, which intensely hurt Fanny as she herself was not welcome there. Fanny, who had been keeping his London house in order in his absence would have to rely on correspondence to keep up with Rossetti.
In his letters to her he described the progress of each new painting he was working on knowing she would understand his mental task, having been his longstanding companion and consort.
In her replies Fanny put forward reasons he might be needed at Tudor house, though never indicated that she missed him. Sadly her hints were always dismissed by Rossetti, who replied he was too busy and needed to be at Kelmscott with his work and his model.
In a moment of guilt Rossetti suggested to Fanny that she took a holiday and he gave her money to travel, but her wish to join him in Oxfordshire was absolutely refused. Consequently she went for a short holiday in Margate instead, where she made a new friend, a Mrs. Rosa Villiers.
At the end of 1872 Fanny’s estranged husband, Timothy Hughes died, once more Fanny was unencumbered and in a position to marry.
Life in Chelsea without Rossetti was lonely and unsettling, she had become acutely aware that Rossetti’s family wanted her out of his life. Also she was hearing reports from Alexa that Rossetti was infatuated with Jane Morris and Kelmscott was their ‘love-nest’.
Fanny, who felt hurt and disillusioned by this wrote to Rossetti for reassurance, but his strong denials didn’t put her mind at rest. Rossetti suffered more bouts of nervous illness and spent time recovering in Bognor, where he resumed his correspondence with Fanny and depended on her kind replies.
In 1874 Rossetti finally returned to London, Jane Morris had become disturbed by his wretched addiction to chloral and had cooled in her affections towards him. Fanny was delighted to be of service again, scampering to his every need when summoned, including modelling for some pastel drawings, that Rossetti assigned to her as probable pay-offs. Fanny’s long term commitment to him was at least acknowledged and Rossetti recognised his responsibility to help her find financial security for the longer term.
Fanny was of course pleased to have her man returned home, but she saw that he had become a shadow of his former self, a paranoid mental and physical wreck. Having once been Rossetti’s paid model and muse, then mistress and ‘kept’ woman, Fanny had now become his nurse, seeing to his most personal needs.
Some of Rossetti’s house guests and friends found their intimacy abhorrent and became disturbed at Fanny’s protectiveness of him, suspecting her of leeching his funds. Their distorted appraisal of the situation became known to the Rossetti family, who in 1877 closed ranks against Fanny and moved Rossetti to Herne bay in Kent, where he could convalesce under the watchful eyes of Mrs. Frances Rossetti and her daughter Christina.
From Herne Bay Rossetti wrote to Fanny, saying ‘take the best step in life that you can… forget about me’, but added in a hurtful way, that she should stop asking for money. As rent was overdue it was quite understandable that Fanny had to make these requests, but sadly she was seen as deceitful gold-digger by those who read her letters.
Fanny was a vulnerable woman without family, or support and only debts left to her by her dead husband. For a woman like Fanny, economic stability was a life-dependent necessity. Fanny was turned out of the house in Cheyne Walk and the keys taken from her on the Rossetti family’s behalf, supposedly unbeknown to Rossetti.
Fanny’s husband no. 2
It was through her friendship with Rosa Villiers in Margate, Fanny had become acquainted with Rosa’s brother, John Bernard Schott, a refreshments manager from a musical and theatrical family. After her eviction in 1877, Fanny sought assistance from of Mr Schott who enabled her to start a new life as landlady to the Rose Tavern at 96 Jermyn Street, in Westminster. Mr Schott secured the licence and paid the rates, but Rossetti was appalled that Fanny had sunk her savings in such a venture.
He had no comprehension of Fanny’s situation; he even wondered why she had left his house. The fact that she had been living off her savings for quite some time and now needed to take control of her life without Rossetti, hadn’t occurred to him. How could Fanny consider remaining with this unreliable, whimsical man who had left her at a moment’s notice, repeatedly, without any responsibility for her, or her feelings, but in return he expected her to respond to his beck and call.
In November 1879 aged 44, Fanny became Mrs Schott, respectably married with a business to run. In order to marry Fanny, John Schott had to divorce his first wife, (who was bigamously married to another man).
When Rossetti later returned to his home in Chelsea in better health, Fanny was yet again summoned. He was feeling lonely and unhappy and Fanny felt sorry for him.
Before long Mr. and Mrs. Schott became regular faces at Cheyne Walk, John Schott was recruited as an extra help in the household when needed and was on good terms with Rossetti.
Fanny continued to be available for personal care and special errands. The most important of these regular missions was to obtain chloral for Rossetti, Which for him was a strong motive to keep Fanny in his employment and a reason that made him unable to let her go.
Fanny was non judgemental about Rossetti’s drug habit, because he was now a desperate man and she could see for herself the calming effect chloral had on him. Whether she understood how harmful the drug was, is in doubt. Somehow Fanny was able to steer the various challenges of managing a tavern, alongside overseeing the welfare of her dearest Rossetti, as well as being a dutiful wife to John Schott.
Fanny and Rossetti’s Last year
In 1881 Fanny accompanied Rossetti on holiday to Cumbria as his nurse. They were away for a month and travelled with Rossetti’s new lodger and secretary, Hall Caine, who was a writer and journalist, appointed to write Rossetti’s biography. Caine disliked Fanny and couldn’t begin to understand their relationship, especially when Rossetti asked Caine to write up his will, wanting everything to be left to Fanny. Caine firmly rejected this idea and declined, later reporting Rossetti’s intentions to his brother, William Michael.
In a letter to John Schott, Rossetti described the fun and the laughs they’d had climbing and tumbling down hill together, so part of their holiday was a success. However Rossetti now needed chloral daily to be comfortable and Fanny saw it as her responsibility to administer it. Caine decided to experiment, substituting the drug with water in the vague hope of weaning Rossetti off chloral. Fanny exposed the scheme to Rossetti, who by now was too weak and frail to involve himself in argument.
Returning to London Fanny faced the hostility and animosity of the Rossetti family, she was replaced with a trained nurse and barred from seeing Rossetti. The Rose Tavern had failed to be a success and Fanny needed £200. Her last hope was that Rossetti could help her, having just sold a huge work to Liverpool Art Gallery; unfortunately he was too ill to write the cheque and she was dismissed. On her way out she entered Rossettis studio and picked out a large pastel drawing, which she took as settlement. Fanny probably deserved a lot more, but unfortunately this act only compounded her reputation as a thief and liar.
As Rossetti’s illness progressively worsened, he was whisked away to Birchington-on-Sea in Kent, where in the presence of his mother and sister, his will was drawn up by Hall Caine. Fanny, his long term, loving mistress was not mentioned, probably an impossibility for Rossetti to speak her name with his mother in attendance.
Later the dying artist enquired if there was any news from Fanny, Caine replied ‘nothing at all’, Rossetti asked, ‘would you tell me if you had?’ and Caine responded, ‘if you asked me, yes’.
In his despair Rossetti cried, ‘my poor mistress’, perhaps finally realising her dire situation.
Rossetti died on Easter Sunday, April 1882. Fanny had been kept in the dark, she wrote for news but by the time William Michael replied it was the day of the funeral and too late to travel.
Fanny’s New Business
Fanny was not to be quelled, she and her husband left Rose Tavern and opened a ‘Rossetti Gallery’ in Old Bond Street. The many artworks in her possession were presented as an exhibition, which included portraits of her, as well as sketches of other models, some of which had been discarded by Rossetti, but Fanny had retrieved them, having a keen eye for what would sell. Her exhibition in 1883 was quite a success and a notable contrast to the traditional Burlington Fine Arts Club or the stately Royal Academy nearby.
The Schotts moved to Kensington to a spacious new home in Drayton Gardens and Fanny happily embraced her new role as wife and mother to John Schott’s two sons, Cecil and Frederick.
Their happiness was sadly short lived as John Schott died from lung disease in 1891, leaving Fanny a widow and sole proprietor of her Rossetti art memorabilia business.
In June 1892 Fanny was visited by Samuel Bancroft, an American cotton mill owner from Delaware, who was an enthusiastic Pre-Raphaelite art collector. He found Fanny through an art gallery agent, Charles Fairfax Murray, who knew members of the Pre-Raphaelite circle. Fanny was keen to turn her remaining art works into money to support her life style and Samuel Bancroft was a wealthy and avidly interested buyer. Samuel Bancroft was also eager to discuss and record all that Fanny could recollect of her life and everyone associated with the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood. At last Fanny was recognised as an important survivor of the group, her ability to describe characters and events in fascinating detail was recorded for posterity. Throughout the 1890s Bancroft purchased items from Fanny and the two started a correspondence.
In 1893 unknown circumstances changed Fanny’s fortunes. Neglecting a pile of debts she and Fred fled from Drayton Gardens, leaving no forwarding address. When next discovered, Fanny was living in three rooms rented in Kilmarsh Road, Hammersmith, Fred was ill and Rosa Villiers was contributing to their household income. In 1898 Fred died of paralysis leaving a grieving Fanny poor and lonely.
Fanny resumed correspondence with Samuel Bancroft in 1899, bringing to his attention that her sister in law, Rosa had not contributed to her nephew’s funeral expenses. Although not asking for money, Bancroft sent Fanny £5 by return of post, a kind gesture evocative of her time spent with Rossetti.
In the 1901 census Fanny was in her mid 60s and living as a lodger in Kilmarsh Road in the household of the Squire family. Her letters to Bancroft continued to give testimonial accounts of her life with Rossetti and his friends, in return he gave her a sense of purpose and respect, their relationship was mutually rewarding. However in 1905 a letter to Bancroft from an old friend of Fanny, now 70, told him that Rosa had taken her sister in law to the coast near Brighton and Fanny had become quite confused. Two months later Bancroft received a letter from Fanny’s previous landlady, saying that Fanny’s move had been kept secret and they had some items belonging to her that might interest him in lieu of a small debt. After 1905 there was no further record of Fanny and it was assumed she had died, but there was no knowledge of where or when.
Fanny in her final years
Years later in 2015 Fanny’s name was spotted by Karen Kivlehan in the newly published Lunacy records on the Ancestry website and she alerted Steyning museum. The news excited Kirsty Stonell Walker, who examined the information and traced Fanny as having lived for a short time in Bognor Regis. Rosa relinquished any responsibility of her sister in law when she became deaf, difficult and forgetful. Dementia gradually took hold of Fanny jeopardising her ability to live independently. Finally alone and without money Fanny was taken to the district workhouse by her landlady, where she was promptly referred to Graylingwell Asylum in West Sussex.
Fanny was admitted on March 30th 1907, under the name of Sarah Hughes, the surname of her first husband. The medical records revealed that although physically healthy, she was suffering from advanced senile dementia, sleeplessness and disorientation. She was talkative but incoherent, agitated and easily excitable. In her confused state Fanny protested and struggled against her situation, breaking her arm in the wrangle.
Poor bewildered Fanny had been furious because she had thought she had been sent to the workhouse. Unfortunately her arm failed to heal after the incident, her health declined and she then contracted bronchitis.
Fanny remained at Graylingwell Asylum for nearly two years. She died of pneumonia on February 24, 1909 at the age of 74. Her body was buried in the district cemetery in a common grave paid for by the asylum. She is buried in plot 133/23, at Chichester District Cemetery.
Fanny Cornforth’s genuine misfortune in life was that she never had someone who loved her as vehemently and as sincerely as she loved Rossetti. Tragically she was alone when she most needed compassion and tenderness.
Fanny was a vital force to Rossetti’s art and to his well-being, she devoted her life to him and sacrificed her chance to have a family of her own. Her strength of character and defiant nature empowered her to be a survivor in a web of Victorian rules and prejudices that she fought against and disregarded. Fanny was an extraordinary and unforgettable woman, her face will live on through the many imposing portraits of her and her story will continue to enthral and inspire.
Marina Elphick 2019
Fanny’s letters have been preserved and along with them, the Delaware Art Museum acquired Samuel Bancroft’s Rossetti collection in 1935, founded upon Fanny’s legacy.
Other Pre-Raphaelite muses by Marina
Bibliography and Acknowledgements
Stunner The Fall and Rise of Fanny Cornforth, by Kirsty Stonell Walker, CreateSpace.com
Pre-Raphaelite Girl Gang, by Kirsty Stonell Walker, Unicorn
Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood, Jan Marsh, Published July 1st 1995 by Quartet Books
Pre-Raphaelite Women, Jan Marsh, 1987 George Weidenfeld & Nicolson
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Alicia Craig Faxon, 1989 Phaidon Press Oxford
The Kissed Mouth http://fannycornforth.blogspot.com/