Today, by my best guess is Fanny Cornforth's birthday and wouldn't it be nice to spend it with her? I have often said that I should compile a list of things I need to do when I finally get my time machine. Other than bestow the gift of a punch up the chops to various well-known historic figures, I really should have some noble intentions with such an opportunity. So here it is, the start of that list. The first thing I would do would be to travel to 1883 and visit 1a Old Bond Street, home to the Rossetti Gallery, and meet Fanny Cornforth.
As I haven’t quite secured the financing on the time machine as yet, I shall do the next best thing and present to you over the next day or so a virtual version of Fanny’s exhibition. Oh, it’s like I’ve bought a Time-Charabanc and we’re off on a jolly!
Front cover of the exhibition catalogue
Now, ladies and gentlemen, perusing the actual catalogue of Fanny’s exhibition is an enlightening and surprising activity as she not only held a lot of paintings, but also a great number of the pictures were of Jane and Lizzie. These were images she had gathered over a great many years, carefully selected either as the things she thought would sell the best or else things she found attractive. I considered various ways of showing you the images but I think the best way to do this is to show them to you in the order they are in the catalogue, which presumably reflects the hang.
1. Self Portrait (1861)
Unsurprisingly, the exhibition starts with a picture of Rossetti, after all this is a collection of his work, but it is a portrait from the year of his marriage to Elizabeth, which can’t be described as a golden year for Fanny. The description in the catalogue reads ‘Drawn from a mirror, full face. Inscribed below left-hand shoulder “D.G.R.” (in monogram) and “Oct. 1861.”’ Was there something about this pencil sketch that made it special to Fanny? We can assume it is a good likeness, and I’ve always wondered at how big Rossetti’s eyes are. He still looks a young, fairly content man. Maybe that’s how Fanny liked to remember him.
2. Elizabeth Eleanor Siddall (sic) (1861)
The catalogue entry describes her as ‘The Artist’s Wife’ and this dates from June of the same year. Fanny didn’t own the original pencil sketch but a photograph of it, and this is the only portrait of Elizabeth in the exhibition, unlike another one of Rossetti’s women, as we shall see. Of all the images of Elizabeth that there are, and Lord knows there are many, this is rather a curious picture, not very flattering, and rather sad. It might be as simple as this was the only one that Fanny could get hold of, but maybe this is how she remembered Elizabeth, as an unhappy woman, turning away.
3. Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1865) G F Watts
Fanny’s ownership of this image was long contested by William Michael Rossetti. Among the things that he objected to after his brother’s death, it was Fanny’s attempts to get every penny she saw was owing to her that drove him to become somewhat of a monster. Let’s say we don’t see William at his best, but I can completely believe that Fanny was provoking, to say the least. It was this important painting that William was most angry about as it was most likely destined to become the ‘official’ portrait of the Painter Poet, by one of the most important painters of their era, and it was owned by an ex-prostitute from Sussex. William hoped to be able to ‘terrorize’ it from Fanny, boasting of such a course of action to a friend, until Fanny undid his plans by producing a slip of paper from Gabriel signing the work over to her. I think the saddest thing is the marked difference between Rossetti’s picture in 1861 and this portrait just four years later, at the age of just 37. The stress of those four years seemed to have taken quite a toll.
4. Miss Christina Rossetti (1866)
Again, this is a photograph of the original work. Why on earth would Fanny want a picture of Christina? My guess is that Christina was becoming a known poet and therefore her image would become valuable, but possibly also Fanny knew her work and liked it. I still maintain that Rossetti used Fanny as a model for his illustrations of Goblin Market. Maybe Fanny liked the idea of outwitting the goblin men…
5. Portrait of a Lady (1874)
Now here’s where all the problems with this picture start. It’s a picture of Fanny, looking a bit like Alexa, but even Fanny labels it impersonally. The explanation could be thus: it was intended as a sketch for a picture, not a portrait. For his pictures, Rossetti was far more likely to be a ‘look-to-the-side’ kind of chap, rather than a full face, which he reserved mostly for portraits. It might be just Fanny being strange, of course, as it is a sister picture to No.6…
6. Portrait of Mrs Schott (1874)
7. Frederick R Leyland (1879)
Frederick Leyland, Pre-Raphaelite patron extraordinaire, had sat for a portrait just a few years before Rossetti’s death. On completion, Rossetti had presented the picture to Leyland’s daughter, listed as ‘Mrs Stevenson Hamilton’ in the catalogue. Fanny somehow had managed to get hold of a chalk study. It is an interesting choice for her interest, unless she had met Leyland in her Cheyne Walk days.
8. Dante Gabriel Rossetti Miss Sykes
Here we have the first of the few entries I cannot find an illustration for. Described as ‘Miniature on Ivory, by Miss Sykes, encased in an old English pearl locket’, this small circular locket made its way from Rossetti to Fanny. Mind you, of all the things she ‘acquired’, as it is only 1” in diameter, it must have been easy to carry out of Tudor House…
9. Found (1853)
Now this is a bit of a strange one. The date given is too early for the image, but it makes sense that this is the image from Found that Fanny would display, after all it is her entry into the world of Pre-Raphaelite art. I can only imagine it is a mistake by someone in the preparation of the catalogue, because why would Fanny date a picture of herself as before her meeting with Rossetti?
10. The Return of Tibullus to Delia (1851)
This is the watercolour drawing, the first drawing, of the work produced a decade later. A page of the catalogue is dedicated to a description and passages of text that relate to the image and the resultant work is described as ‘important’. To start with I was a little puzzled as to why this is among the pictures, but if the work was considered ‘important’ then maybe it was a matter of reputation. However, what concerns me is the shadow of Beata Beatrix in this picture, a painting which Fanny reputedly disliked for its effect on her lover. I feel like Fanny is keeping Lizzie at a distance in this exhibition, again unlike Jane, as we shall see.
11. The Loving Cup
This is a drawing for the oil owned by Frederick Leyland, and this study features Fanny. So many versions of this image seem to exist that it’s hard to keep track of them all, but this one is Fanny in her ‘Blue Bower’ mode and the image, although undated, I’m guessing dates from the earlier phase of the drawings when Fanny was still in vogue and Alexa had yet to be discovered.
12. Robert Browning (1855)
Now here’s a puzzler. Not a great fan of poetry as far as I know, why on earth would Fanny have a picture of Browning? Money, of course. Browning was famous and his image would be obviously valuable. There is a random link between Fanny and Browning and that is the poem ‘Fifine at the Fair’ where Rossetti thought the wild gypsy was meant to be Fanny.
13. Algernon Charles Swinburne (1861)
A great companion piece to No.12, very similar in style, despite being 6 years later. Again, why would Fanny want this portrait? Swinburne hated Fanny, being more than definitely Team Lizzie. Again, I think she acquired the work for Swinburne’s reputation and fame. Maybe she just got it so she could hang it next to the superior Titian-haired stunner, No.14.
14. Portrait of Mrs Schott (1874)
I would never have dreamt of putting these two images together had the exhibition not hung them together, but they do show a continuity of style and imagery. The red and green of No.13 becomes the peach and russet of No.14 but both are recognisably flame-haired personalities, whose strength of character is emblazoned across the canvas.
15. Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1870)
Just in case you needed reminding the point of the exhibition, here he is again. Possibly the last of his self-portraits, this was drawn from a mirror and compared with the Watts portrait, I think Rossetti looks well and dapper. Look how big his eyes are, he is like the Disney-PRB.
16. Rosa Palmifera (1865)
For a moment I thought it was going to be an image of Alexa Wilding, but no, I think it’s another one of Fanny, despite the final painting, known as Sibylla Palmifera is taken from Alexa. Mind you, looking at the date, Fanny was still in vogue in 1865 and Alexa had only just been discovered. The result is this beautiful, simple pencil sketch.
17. Giotto Painting the Portrait of Dante (1853)
This unfinished watercolour shows Giotto outlining the portrait on the wall of the chapel of the Bargello, in Florence. Dante is sat in the middle holding a pomegranate. Behind him stands Guido Cavalcanti, holding the poems of Guido Guinicelli. This is an early watercolour, which despite its unfinished state would be worth quite a lot of money. It is interesting to see what few works that pre-date her Fanny acquired.
18. Lucrezia Borgia
This is a bit of a ‘gateway drug’ for people who prefer his early watercolours but want to know more about Fanny. It’s unusual for an audience to see Fanny in full-length rather than up close and personal. Fanny modelled for the role of Lucrezia, the poisoning Borgia wife, her beauty and serenity masking her evil intent. Many would have argued that the same was true of Fanny herself.
19. The Water Willow (1871)
Well, well, well, look who we have here…We only had to wait nineteen paintings and here we have Jane Morris, but not just any picture of Jane, one that has connection to Kelmscott. It is a matter of record how unhappy the Kelmscott years were for Fanny, and yet Fanny chose to acquire this sketch of Jane.
But is it the only one?
Join me again tomorrow for Part 2 of this tour, and for some very interesting pictures…