Whilst writing Pre-Raphaelite Girl Gang there were a couple of ladies that I really only had a passing knowledge of before researching for the book. One of those was Rosa Corder, included because her involvement with Pre-Raphaelite art was somewhat unique and she seemed to be rather an interesting person, so I started to do a bit of digging. You know me, I never take anyone's word for anything, especially when it comes to the word of people who didn't even know them. As I wrote in this post, always remember - what is it that we know for sure?
Let's start with the accepted knowledge when it comes to Miss Corder.
|Mr._ and Miss._ nervously perpetuating the touch of a vanished hand (1922) Max Beerbohm|
Rosa Corder is known primarily to Pre-Raphaelite fans as a grand faker of Rossetti pictures, peddled by her erstwhile loverboy, Charles Augustus Howell (whose naughtiness is talked about here). She is portrayed as sneaky and wicked, the moll to Howell's criminal mastermind. The description that bothered me the most came from Stanley Weintraub's 1974 biography of Whistler:
"She exuded sexual appeal, and knew it, and, in her mid-twenties, had no interest in marriage although considerable interest in men." (page 165)
Well, that's a little bit creepy. Thanks Stan.
Let's start at the beginning of Rosa's story. She was born in 1853, the daughter of London merchant and musician Micah Corder, one of six children. Her siblings were by and large successful and she seems to have been especially close to her brother Frederick with whom she took music lessons. She was also talented at languages and published a translation of Science Without God by Rev. Father Didon before she was 20 years old. Frederick went on to become a composer and a Fellow and Curator of the Royal Academy of Music but Rosa took training in painting and portraiture, studying under Felix Moscheles (painter and advocat for peace and Esperanto).
|Portrait of Rosa Corder, from an etching by Mortimer Menpes, 1880|
She continued her studies with Frederick Sandys, where she excelled as a draughtsman and copyist. Before we all jump to conclusions here, being a copyist was all part of becoming an artist (and possibly still is). Actually, making copies of famous works of art for buyers was a roaring trade legitimately - for example Sir Merton Russell-Cotes wanted a copy of Love Locked Out by Anna Lea Merritt but she refused, so he got Henry Justice Ford to do it for him, and it hangs in the collection of the Russell-Cotes in Bournemouth today. To prove how good Rosa was, we have this...
|The Marriage of St George (1870s) Rosa Corder|
The above is a copy of Rossetti's cartoon for stained glass, by Rosa. Rossetti was actually so impressed with her work he considered employing her as an assistant and it is through Rossetti that Rosa met Howell. There began a beautiful friendship (of forgery and adultery...)
|Charles Augustus Howell (1882) Frederick Sandys|
Right, just to slam on the breaks for a moment, if we take Rosa and Howell's relationship to date from the early 1870s, then Rosa was barely 20, whilst Howell was into his 30s. It is arguable that Howell saw Rosa's potential as the producer of forgeries but quite what Rosa knew of their partnership is another matter. I'm not arguing that Rosa was some unwitting rube in all this - Rosa was a very clever girl indeed, and some of the pictures that she copied were Henry Fuseli, referred to as 'objectionable' by subsequent biographers, which I think is fancy talk for 'boobs'...
|An Incubus Leaving Two Sleeping Girls (1793) Henry Fuseli|
I think we can safely say that Rosa wasn't an innocent lady painter, but making the leap from someone who was an independent spirit and broadminded to criminal is a bit harsh. Also, it seems to me that those qualities appear to be enough to condemn her rather than the forgery.
|Arrangement in Brown and Black, Portrait of Miss Rosa Corder (1878) James McNeill Whistler|
It was Howell who asked for the portrait of Rosa to be painted by Whistler. Weintraub suggests that Rosa had received some drawing instruction from Whistler and '...spent time in Whistler's studio, if not also in his bed' (p.165). Again, thanks for that. Howell offered Whistler £100 to paint their allegedly shared mistress. The artist got her to stand in a doorway - '...with the darkness of a shuttered room behind her, her firm body clothed in black and turned away from him, her face in profile, left hand on hip, a dark plumed hat in her right hand.' (p.165). Whistler took his time, with 40 sittings, or in fact standings, which took hours until she passed out. It was only when Rosa decided it was done that Whistler finally gave it up and let the poor woman go. It is an amazing portrait, with 25 year old Rosa looking self possessed and confident. In regards to Weintraub's above quote can I draw your attention to 'firm body' and 'hand on hip'. Seriously Stan, please dial it down.
|Fred Archer (c. 1880) Rosa Corder|
So, whilst being the evil temptress forger, Rosa also managed to set herself up as a painter in Newmarket. In the 1880s Rosa took over the studio of Harry Hall, an accomplished equine painter, in a town devoted to horse racing. There was a little resistance to this woman coming into what was undoubtedly a male-dominated world, but Rosa had a love of animals that drew her to her subjects both human and otherwise. It wasn't long before she fitted in completely. One firm friend was the jockey Fred Archer who Rosa painted a couple of times during his prolific career. Rosa was very close friends with Ellen Terry, who gave an account of visiting Rosa in her studio:
'"How wonderfully different are the expressions on terriers' faces," I said to her, looking at a painting of hers of a fox-terrier pup. "That's the only sort of pup I should like to have." "That one belonged to Fred Archer," Rosa Corder said. "I dare say he could get you one like it." We went to Archer and from him "Fussie" [Terry's dog] was obtained.' (from The Story of My Life by Ellen Terry)
Now, Ellen Terry actually knew Rosa and so I always like to hear the opinions of people who were there at the time, so let's see what she has to say...
|Ellen Terry, Fussie and Drummie (her terriers)|
Ellen described Rosa as 'plain-beautiful', 'so far more attractive than some of the pretty ones', she was pale with great hair and she wore 'odd clothes'. Fellow painter W. Graham Robertson described her as 'gentle and crushed looking'. None of which says sexy siren exactly... Back to Newmarket, and sporting newspapers spoke glowingly of Rosa's pictures of the race horses. Her paintings became popular engravings and she became a fixture in the town. In secret, she had given birth to Howell's daughter the same year as she had moved to Newmarket. Her love of animals also brought her into conflict with some of her potential clients and fellow Newmarket residents. She seems to have been fined regularly for refusing to muzzle her dogs in public and in 1890 she was a witness at a trial against animal cruelty.
|Mrs Charles Augustus Howell (Kitty) (1873) Frederick Sandys|
When Howell's wife Frances Kate (Kitty) died in 1888, Rosa took care of the Howell's daughter Rosalind, who grew up alongside her half-sister, Rosa's daughter Beatrice. Howell died in 1890 and it was rumoured that he had been found with his throat cut in a gutter with a sovereign between his teeth but the truth was somewhat more mundane. He developed pneumonia after a chill and was confined to a hospital where Rosa visited him daily. Rosa only outlived her mentor by a couple of years, much in the same way as Alexa Wilding and Rossetti, or Dorothy Dene and Leighton. Rosa's love of animals proved her undoing as she too developed pneumonia after taking extra time to ensure her horse was dry on a cold wet day before seeing to her own needs. She died in 1893, aged only 40.
Right then, so what is it that we can say for sure? Rosa was bright and talented with an independent spirit. This we know because of her many accomplishments and the fact that she represented herself in male-dominated art and sports worlds. She obviously loved Howell who she not only had a child with but also cared for at the end of his life. She also cared deeply for animals, proved by her willingness to stand up in court and testify against an owner who had mistreated his horses. She undoubtedly produced the forgeries that Howell sold but we don't know if the young woman knew what her lover was doing or that she felt comfortable within that relationship to object. It seems to me that in reading accounts of the whole forgery business, Rosa and Howell are seen as equal partners in the villainy. Actually, more than that, Howell is seen as a crook but Rosa is seen as a temptress, sexually promiscuous even before she meets Howell. Weintraub's casual assertion that she had probably jumped from bed to bed before ending up with Howell is a judgement not a fact. He's not the first to condemn her - in Murray Marks and His Friends (1919), G G Williamson says that Rosa lived on 'very intimate terms' with Whistler, Rossetti and Howell. When Ellen Terry refers to her friend as 'plain-beautiful' somehow there is no judgement. I don't know what it is about Rosa that makes writers want to believe she was promiscuous and immoral, where as someone like Howell can get away with being 'a bit of a rogue' or even criminal. For a woman, being criminal is not enough, she also seems to have to be slutty. I think that says far more about the biographers than it does Miss Rosa Corder.
Anyway, I think it is probably better for us to think of Rosa as an animal-loving young woman who may or may not have known what her much older lover was up to, but still stuck by him and his daughter until the end of her life.