Friday 16 September 2011

Ned and Fanny


It is a word I would use to describe the beautiful creatures that populate the canvases of Edward Burne-Jones. Each pale beautiful face reflects back longing and wistful desire, yet it is occasionally only the hairstyle that reveals the gender. Not quite to the level of Simeon Solomon, where it is impossible to tell boys from girls in some paintings, but still each of Burne-Jones’ willow-stem figures radiates an ethereal, almost sexless perfection.

So how exactly did Ned Burne-Jones end up with Fanny Cornforth?

Granted, we only really have Rossetti’s vision of her as way of comparison, but there seems no more ‘fleshly’ model of the Pre-Raphaelite period. It’s not just because it’s Rossetti’s work, saucepot that he was. Even in the rather disapproving accounts of her from Rossetti’s friends, Fanny seemed to have enjoyed life, food and being a woman, and the parts she played in Rossetti’s paintings were never spiritual or ethereal. She was the mistress, the lover, awaiting your presence and you know you’ll get a damn good meal out of it.

None of Burne-Jones women look like they eat, bless them, so again I wonder how on earth Ned got mixed up with Fanny…
Well, there does need to be bad guys in paintings, and if you take Burne-Jones’ ideal woman to be the oval-faced angel in pastel drapery, then maybe Fanny is a good choice for your wicked woman.

Sidonia Von Bork (1860) Edward Burne-Jones
Oh Sidonia, you naughty girl. However, this painting ruined Sleepy Hollow for me, because as soon as I saw Miranda Richardson wearing a similar dress I knew she was a witch. Mind you, it could have just been referencing the sixteenth century source material…

Isabella d’Este (1520) Giulio Romano
Maybe this is where Fanny comes in. The dress from Romano’s painting may well have been an influence for Burne-Jones in his choice of ‘witch-garb’ and it might be that Rossetti and Burne-Jones were exploring the notion of what it meant to be ‘Venetian’, as the Romano painting does seem to hold influence for the greater part of Rossetti’s output of the 1860s, especially in such works as Monna Vanna. Also, Burne-Jones isn’t the only one to use the loopy dress motif…

Vanity (1936) Frank Cadogan Cowper
While not wishing to cast aspersions upon the character of Isabella d’Este, she does seem to have influenced the image of women who are no better than they ought to be. I always think that Vanity should be captioned ‘Due to the sudden impact with the couch, her hair-bag went off…’

So, did Burne-Jones only need Fanny for bad girls? Well, she also posed for the painting Merlin and Nimue which isn’t a ringing endorsement of her finer qualities.

Merlin and Nimue (1861) Edward Burne-Jones
The figure of Merlin seems to decrease and fade beside the sly witch, Nimue, impassively watching her magic take effect. I love the fact that the patch of dark ground she stands on seems to resemble the night sky, with the daisies becoming stars, as if to emphasise her might and power. I have often wondered if Burne-Jones identified with Merlin in his Arthurian paintings, as I have discussed with you before. Possibly any feelings of discomfort with this woman who he saw as ‘malevolent’ could manifest in his images, as if he feared her, and in particular, her size…

Susanna and the Elders Edward Burne-Jones
Caricature of a “fat lady” (1890) Edward Burne-Jones

Hmmmm, it’s too easy to say that Burne-Jones had a problem with big girls. His symbol of pomposity and vanity of society seems to be his cartoons of ‘fat ladies’, entirely occupied by themselves, and his version of Reuben’s Susanna and the Elders contains a level of mockery of the fleeing Susanna, running as fast as her plump little legs will carry her. It is true that he also caricatured himself as a thin streak of beard and limbs with little sad dots for eyes, and the rotund, jolly form of William Morris, reminiscent of Rossetti’s own cartoons, the curly topped ball of energy. The difference I feel if that they are cartoons of actual people, the fat ladies are a ‘type’, a personification of the ridiculous and self-involved element of female society, literally puffed up with foolish self importance. None of Burne-Jones’ ideal women seem to feel self-important as they appear in the pale perfection. So was it Fanny’s extra inches that caused her to be cast as female evil?

This may be an all too simple conclusion to draw, and maybe not entirely wrong, but in balance, Burne-Jones also drew Fanny in a more positive light.

Sketch for Laus Veneris (1860s) Edward Burne-Jones
Laus Veneris (1873-78) Edward Burne-Jones
The early sketch for Laus Veneris shows the reclined figure of Fanny Cornforth as Venus, awaiting her lover, who can be seen approaching through the window. I always thought that the window was actually a picture frame and the knights were a sort of meta-painting (oh, get me and my fancy terms), but Venus doesn’t seem overly bothered about much that is going on. Interestingly, Henry James thought that the figure of Venus has seen a bit more of life than Burne-Jones’ usual ‘innocent and vacant’ young women, such as her companions. It is an interesting thought that Fanny’s more worldly naughtiness may have made it through the Burne-Jones filter…

The Backgammon Players (1861) Edward Burne-Jones
Fanny Cornforth (1860s) Dante Gabriel Rossetti
I must admit to far preferring Burne-Jones’ sketch of The Backgammon Players to the resultant watercolour, as the crisp detail seems to be lost in colour. In pencil the details, not only of Fanny’s face, but also of the riot of flowers that surround their feet, are immediate and glorious. The portrait of Fanny reminds me very much of Rossetti’s sketches of her later in the 1860s.

The mood of the picture is relaxed and pleasant, and felt to reflect the life at The Red House at this time, with its air of medievalism and courtly love. The painting also graces an exquisite piece of furniture, the Back Gammon Players Cabinet.

Cabinet (1862) Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co
This beautiful cabinet was exhibited, and found a buyer, at the International Exhibition of 1862, where it was displayed in the Medieval Court. In this instance, Fanny seems to represent medieval notions of courtly love and a certain level of wistfulness and unattainability – I love that the lovers are doomed to be separated every time you want to go in the cupboard.

So is it possible that Ned could see Fanny as a wistful maiden in the way he saw other women?

Hope (1862) Edward Burne-Jones
In an alternative watercolour of 'Hope', the woman holds a ball inscribed with ‘If Hope were not, heart should break’, and I can think of no more fitting motto for Fanny during the 1860s. Again, the Venetian style of the portrait and the crinkled hair of the sitter identified her as Fanny, with the image possibly influenced by Rossetti’s Bocca Baciata. It is a reflective, unfinished piece and I lament that we will never see the completed painting as it would be a contrast to the traditional Burne-Jones single-female images.

On balance, I think that Edward Burne-Jones, in the 1860s used models that fitted his purpose, and Fanny fitted into his vision on a few occasions. The influence of Rossetti can not be underestimated at this point and she was his 'girl of the moment' and so it is almost inevitable that some of that would rub off on Ned. However tempting it is, I think it is a mistake to draw a line from the attitudes of ‘Old Ned’ to the opinions of ‘Young Ned’ as which of us still have the same opinions on everything that they had when they were young? If Ned found fat women ridiculous later in life, there is no sign of that in his portrayals of Fanny. If anything, some of the images of Fanny are slightly fearful of her power and size, rather than light-hearted mocking, but taken as a body of work, Fanny seems to have been used as a lush maiden of a medieval, Venetian type, as plush as the fabric she wore. There are worse impressions to leave…


  1. I've also heard that part of why Ned had such difficulty with larger people at a later age was because he felt Topsy's weight influenced his health problems (ironic, since he himself was rail thin and had way more heath issues over time). Perhaps that would also explain his changing opinion of Fanny somewhat?

  2. Enjoyed this as usual.I am in the middle of Fiona Mccarthy's new biography og Burne-Jones and it is a real feast.Perhaps it will throw some light on the matter. All the best Angela

  3. Maybe, Grace. I got a sense that he idolised the young, like many Victorians, and possibly saw the gain of weight to equate to losing innocence and that didn't mesh well with his fantasy land. I'm impressed that he managed to accomodate Fanny at all, as he has a very set aesthetic which is at odds to her normal image. I look forward to reading the new biography too... :)

  4. Me too...quite curious about it!!

  5. There is a quote from BJ saying he disliked the whole idea of lust and I suspect like Morris didn't go in for it much. He did admire 'bad' women though - witness the way he drew Merlin (as himself) and Nimue. I was strangely thinking of TRex and the androgynous pop groups of the 70's.

  6. I always longed to be androgynous, but lack the needed qualities, must be because I was a child of the 70s. I always thought Morris to be a very passionate man with a lot of lust, just not for women.


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