Wednesday 27 April 2011

For the Love of Fanny

 I have pursued a woman for almost twenty years.  It is a fairly thankless task occasionally as she eludes me, but sometimes she appears to be so very beautiful you cannot look away.  My problem is that she died a good many years ago, which makes our relationship rather problematic, but on the whole Fanny Cornforth is the girl for me, so much so that I spent a decade researching and writing a biography of Rossetti’s mistress and model, which I am currently redrafting and reissuing.

So what is it about Fanny that makes her special?  Why did I choose Fanny above the more obvious charms of Jane Morris and Elizabeth Siddal?  

I first started my love affair with Pre-Raphaelite art in the undergraduate year of my degree, as part of a course on Victorian Society.  I couldn’t believe the depth of colour, the near photographic intensity of subjects and the dark romance of the scenes.  I was smitten, especially with the work of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who knocks me sideways with sheer bloody-minded vision of beauty.  I read the available material on Elizabeth Siddal and Jane Morris, even then deeply researched and adored by biographers, but wondered about the other women who populated his work, especially Fanny Cornforth and her 1860s sister, Alexa Wilding.  While Alexa has snuck by mainly unnoticed (apart from the magnificent work of Jennifer Lee), I became fascinated by Fanny Cornforth who seemed to take regular and vitriolic beatings from critics both contemporary and modern.  She was branded as a thief, a liar, an obese, illiterate prostitute and a murderess.  It was at this point I became a little obsessed.  What a woman.

Now, the charges levelled against her are both a little true and false (apart from being a murderess, which is entirely fantasy), but the fact that her critics could not move beyond calling her names, rather than seeing what she contributed to Rossetti’s life and art was fascinating.  For me, she provides a bridge between the water-coloured maidens of Lizzie Siddal’s time and the dark brooding damsels of the reign of Jane.  I think some of the paintings of her speak of the very best of Rossetti, especially The Blue Bower which is a startling expression of colour, and Bocca Baciata which reveals a very modern experience of love, shocking and lovely in equal measure.  Even after she had stopped being his primary model, replaced by Alexa Wilding and Jane Morris, Rossetti still drew her, and the collection of portraits he produced of her from 1869-1872 are stunning, especially the three later works, displaying his amazing talent with pastels.

Off the canvas, her life was no less remarkable.  Fanny escaped her life as a blacksmith’s daughter (which would have been short, if the lives of her siblings and parents is anything to go by) to come to London and be discovered by Rossetti.  She managed The Rose Tavern and The Rossetti Gallery.  Through contact with American tycoon Samuel Bancroft Jnr, she assisted in the assemblage of an extensive collection of Pre-Raphaelite art.  She travelled to Paris and saw the studios of Impressionist artists and, in London, she moved in the circles of some of the most important artists and writers of the day.  

According to Thomas Hall Caine, Rossetti’s last thoughts were of Fanny, aware that her life without his admittedly changeable protection would be fraught, but she survived for at least twenty years after his death.  She weathered the comings and goings of Annie Miller, Lizzie Siddal, Jane Morris and probably numerous other women who passed through his bed and studio and her affection did not waiver, and if Hall Caine is to be believed, neither did his.  For me, Fanny is the epitome of what it means to be a Stunner, and I only hope that in my work I do her justice.  

Monday 25 April 2011

Pre-Raphaelite Hobbits

I really should start this blog with Fanny Cornforth, as she is my overriding concern, obsession and general bore-subject in the realm of Victorian art.  However, I will start with a subject much on my mind at moment:  Men.  

Sorry, let me rephrase…I am currently obsessing over the links in visual aspects of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings Trilogy and Pre-Raphaelite art. See, when you say it like that it sounds vaguely intellectual and not like I spend my time giggling over medieval boys in armour. Honestly.

O What's That in the Hollow?
It started when I went to see the recent exhibition on Pre-Raphaelite drawing in Birmingham.  There were a cavalcade of stunning works (even though they did not get out their amazing pastels of Fanny Cornforth. You see, I am obsessed), but the picture that made me gasp was O What’s That in the Hollow? by Edward Robert Hughes (1851-1914).    

Dead One in the Dead Marsh
The reason this absolutely beautiful work made me utter a completely un-ladylike phrase in a room full of quiet intellectual types is that it could have been a still from The Lord of the Rings.  It immediately made me think of the Dead Ones in the Dead Marshes, and comparing the images I began to wonder if Tolkien was a Pre-Raphaelite fan.  

 The reason I was drawn to the image was that it is a bit of a rarity among Pre-Raphaelite art, in that it is an image of a dead man.  Now, this is a subject for another time, but thinking about it, there are very few images of beautiful, dead men.  Off the top of my head, I can think of only Chatterton by Henry Wallis (1830-1916) and Rienzi Swearing to his Brother he will call his Painting Something Shorter Next Time by William Holman Hunt (1827-1910), and possibly The Wounded Cavalier by William Shakespeare Burton (1824-1916), unlike the endless images of Ophelia, the Lady of Shalott, Elaine, Beatrice and so on.

It is generally held that the inspiration for the Dead Marshes were the fields of the First World War, and you can see how Frodo and Sam, picking their way across these haunted pastures, now sodden and steaming with cut down life seem to owe more to First World War images than Victorian Medievalising.  Hughes’ image is a corpse hidden in a forest, a ‘thin dead body which waits the eternal term’, but roses grow over the body, which has yet to decay.  Either you believe the man inserted himself very carefully among the roses before dying or he is simply not corrupting, remaining intact, his eyes still open, awaiting some further course of action, like the Dead Ones.  Peter Jackson’s Dead Ones that lure Frodo into the marsh are fairly intact at first glance, still elfin, elegant creatures, but unlike Hughes’ preserved young man, whose lack of decay could reference sainthood, the Dead Ones have become possessed of the evil of Mordor, which keeps them intact for uncertain purpose. 

Boat approaching....
...and off to another world
The words ‘Fellowship’ and 'Brotherhood' could be interchangable in the worlds of Pre-Raphaelite Art and The Lord of the Rings.  Think of images of the fallen King Arthur, being taken to the edge of the lake, then think of Boromir, set adrift in his boat, fallen but not forgotten.  In Arthur Hughes’ The Knight of the Sun, Arthur is carried to the water’s edge by his loyal knights.  In John Mulcaster Carrick’s Morte d’Arthur, Bedivere rouses the dying Arthur to assure him of his passage to eternal life, coming across the water.  Aragorn and Boromir play the same parts, only reversed with the king reassuring the erring knight that his honour is assured, the battle will be won.
Medieval Lady, white dress...
Medieval Lady, white dress....
The Lord of the Rings iconography seems to be couched in terms of the Victorian notion of medievalism and the romance of Camelot.  The still of Eowyn in her ‘bower’ could well be any number of Pre-Raphaelite maidens, shown here with The Accolade by Edmund Blair Leighton (1852-1922), with her long cuffed, girdled dress, and flowing hair.  It is not beyond argument that the designers for Peter Jackson’s films were influenced by this pictorial tradition, as it seems to have many parallels in the films, but when addressing the source material it becomes a little less clear.  

 It is a little foolhardy possibly to claim that a writer who had passed through two World Wars was overwhelmingly influenced by art of the century before, but Tolkien read William Morris’ works and found his sagas and stories of great inspiration, as did other members of his circle, the Inklings.  It is easy to see Morris’ call for a respect of craft and tradition in Tolkien’s portrayal of the Hobbits, possibly the last hope for civilization, and now I cannot think of William Morris without wondering if he would have liked a round green door on the front of Kelmscott Manor…