Sunday, 25 September 2011

What I Want, What I Really, Really Want

To start with, apologies for the Spice Girls reference. I’m typing this in a hurry at 5.30am on Sunday morning with a head covered in curlers as I’m being a 1940s Royal Air Force lady this weekend as a favour to a friend. Anyway, that is all by-the-by, I still wanted to talk to you about Fanny Cornforth. I always want to talk to you about Fanny Cornforth. This time I want to talk to you about the one illustration I really, really wanted in the new edition of Stunner.

Choosing illustrations has been a complicated matter. I wanted not only my favourites but also ones that might not be illustrated anywhere else and ones that give you a definite sense of who Fanny Cornforth is. Further to this, I wanted to show things that might challenge a few preconceived notions of her appearance. Believe me when I say illustrations can be horribly expensive, but a few museums are being insanely generous (oh, yes, Delaware, I’m looking at you, you bunch of gorgeous people). So I have a budget of £500 and grand ambition (this won't end well, I can see that coming.  Ho hum).

I had one illustration that I felt I really needed to have. It’s a sketch that, as far as I know, has not appeared in any other publication and it is a work of beauty. Ta dah…

Fanny Cornforth (1860s) D G Rossetti
The good people of the Lyman Allyn Museum have been very generous and a joy to deal with and I look forward to using this picture in my book. The reason why I wanted it is that I think it is something a bit special...

When I think of 'non-picture' sketches of Fanny Cornforth (or in fact any of the women in his life), I think of things like this…

Fanny Cornforth (1860s) D G Rossetti
Something quiet, something domestic. One of these days, when I start my Pre-Raphaelite jewellery company, I will sell those damn earrings as she wears them all the time. That and pearl spiral brooches. Anyway, Rossetti’s sketches tend to fall into two camps: domestic or sketches for a painting. Well, the Lyman Allyn sketch isn’t very domestic, it’s a bit sexy (which is arguably the best kind of domestic, giggle). Is there anything sexy in Rossetti’s ‘homely’ pictures of Fanny?

Fanny Cornforth (1874) DGR

Fanny Cornforth (1860s) DGR

The domestic sketches of Fanny aren’t as numerous as the ones of Lizzie or Jane. I have many saucy answers for why that would be, but I will restrain myself, for once. Anyway, they tend to be much the same. She often wears a snood, she is respectably dressed and sometimes she is eating or sewing and rarely engages with the viewer. The Lyman Allen sketch doesn’t really cover any of these bases. I suppose the notable exceptions are the pastels of Fanny done in the 1870s, but these are roundly dismissed as being flattering and not realistic. So maybe it’s a sketch for a painting?

Well, the date of the Lyman Allyn picture is 1860s, Fanny’s heyday, so there is no reason to think it’s not a sketch. Maybe for Lady Lilith? Fazio’s Mistress? Monna Vanna (for which we have no sketches)? Hmmm, no, not really. Similar in ethos, but not in pose. How about this?

Woman with a Fan (1870) Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Well, the pose is similar and the ethos is the same. Both are pictures of Fanny as a saucy minx, with no other purpose than that. Two explanations occur to me: Maybe Rossetti did the sketch of Fanny in the early 1860s, when they were involved and she was at her most glorious, then turned to it in 1870 to produce the flattering pastel after Fanny’s looks had gone. This is the simplest explaination, fits in with the most narratives about Fanny and is entirely plausible. Against this are the three pastels of her from 1874, where she looks older but glamorous. These pastels don’t seem to match any finished works and therefore don’t seem to have any other purpose than to be portraits of Fanny. Another explanation is that the pencil sketch is from 1870, contemporary with the pastels. The accepted story is that Rossetti lost interest in Fanny after 1865 (or as soon as he painted her out of Lady Lilith) and therefore any sketches of her after 1865 were unrealistic, hence their scarcity. Rossetti only did a few pictures of Fanny when she was ‘past her best’, in order to buy her off. It is possible that the Lyman Allyn sketch is contemporary with these pastels and therefore brings something interesting into the equation. 
I love this sketch as it raises a few difficult questions. If it is contemporary with the pastel it resembles, then why did Rossetti draw his cast-off mistress? If he was not basing the pastels on reality then there would be no need for preparatory sketches. If Fanny was no longer attractive, why does she look so damn foxy? Yes, I know I’m Fanny-centric, but I like to think that Rossetti was honest in his art, or rather he was flattering to all his women. Looking at photographs of Jane’s brooding expression or Lizzie’s rather tortured repose, I think he had a ‘vision’ of all his models which may or may not have been the absolute truth, but I don’t think he made Fanny look outrageously different than she did.
Fanny (1870s)
If you consider that the photo of Fanny from the 1870 doesn’t show her as an enormous monster, then maybe, just maybe she looked pretty much she looked in 1860, only a bit older and a bit chubbier.  Mind you, if she was a celebrity now, that would be two huge strikes against her.
The more things change, the more things stay the same….


  1. Fascinating for me at least how you choose your illustrations. I'm sure we both wish there were more photographs of Fanny - like of Jane.

  2. What a lovely coup! Congratulations. I look forward to seeing it in the new edition.

    My first thought on looking at it is that it's a sketch for a picture that simply didn't happen. With all the juggling of ideas and commission obligations that DGR did, I can see the idea (whatever it might have ended up being) hitting him when he happened to have Fanny right there to sketch, only to end up permanently on a mental shelf. I'm actually surprised we don't have more sketches in that category.

  3. It seems that DGR sketched obsessively when the mood took him, but could be a bit sparce at other times. The fact that we have nothing relating to Monna Vanna is completely odd. His output related to Lizzie and Jane, just sketching over and over is treading the fine line between artistic and mad at times, but when the sketches are so beautiful it's hard to object...


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