Thursday, 25 February 2016

Seeing Through Time (and Much Scraping)

So, we come to the penultimate post of this first Fanny-versary week and I am going to talk about Rossetti and his scraping.  He obviously isn't the only painter in the whole of art history to change his mind about a picture but I'm sure I'm not alone in my frustration that he scraped Fanny out of a number of his works.  In the same way as I would love to see the original The Awakening Conscience with Annie Miller's horror-stricken face, to be able to see Venus Verticordia or Monna Vanna in their original guise(s) would be very interesting.  Most famously, Lady Lilith was a far better painting before Rossetti took a knife to it, according to many of his biographers.  I could never get the sense of Fanny as the Lady from the watercolour; it seems a little 'muddy', rather than the crispness of the oil.  Wouldn't it be splendid to turn back the clock to before 1872-3 and see the oil painting with Fanny in place?  Well, actually, you can.

Lady Lilith (oil 1868-1873) D G Rossetti
Firstly a bit of background.  Above you can see Lady Lilith by Dante Gabriel Rossetti in its present state.  It depicts a modern version of the first wife of Adam (from the bits of the Bible we don't talk about), who is a beautiful demon and general bringer of saucy unpleasantness.  Rossetti's Lady Lilith (note the 'Lady') is there with her meaningful flowers and strangling golden hair, admiring her wonderfulness in a mirror.  She is at once gorgeous and deadly.

Aurelia (Fazio's Mistress) (1863-73) D G Rossetti
I'm not sure it is entirely focused on Fanny, but Rossetti did seem to have a thing about women and their hair.  If proof was needed that Fanny's version of their meeting, when the artist rushed up to her and grabbed her hair, was true, his repeated pictures of her brushing, plaiting and generally faffing with her hair give us ammunition. You would be forgiven in thinking that Fanny spent the whole of the 1860s doing her hair. From Aurelia through Woman combing her Hair and the infamous photograph of her from Paris with the oversized comb, Fanny and her hair were obviously a bit of an obsession for Rossetti (even his brother said she had good hair)...

Woman Combing Her Hair (1864) D G Rossetti
Fanny Cornforth, Photograph from Mayer and Pierson, Paris c.1865
By the time we reach the main work on Lady Lilith, Fanny has been brushing her hair for a good few years, and the image followed the pattern of other luxurious women in opulent interiors, such as The Blue Bower.  Frederick Leyland commissioned the painting in 1866 and Rossetti spent the next three years producing the image, completing it in early 1869.  At this point, it was the face of Fanny Cornforth that graced the canvas, despite Alexa Wilding becoming Rossetti's model in 1865 and Jane Morris beginning to appear in works of the late 1860s.  The idea that Rossetti moved from one woman to the next, cleanly severing pictoral ties, simply isn't true.  He liked to keep a number of plates spinning it seems.

Lady Lilith (watercolour 1867) D G Rossetti
Lady Lilith (chalk 1866) D G Rossetti
During the creation of the oil painting, Rossetti made a number of versions of the design, including the above watercolour and chalk pictures.  All of them give us an idea of what Fanny looked like in the role.  The watercolour especially is cited as being the 'true' idea behind Lady Lilith before Rossetti's tampering at Kelmscott. Luckily, as I said yesterday, Rossetti had a number of contemporary biographers and some of them, such as F G Stephens, had managed to see the painting before the alterations.  Despite claiming the model is Ruth Herbert (due to either idiocy or pettiness), his description of the original oil is rather nice: 'she appears in the ardent languor of triumphant luxury and beauty, seated as if she lived now, and reclining back in a modern robe, if that term be taken rightly; the abundance of her pale golden hair falls about her Venus-like throat, bust and shoulders and with voluptuous self-applause ... she contemplates her features in the mirror her left hand holds...' (F G Stephens, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, see yesterday's post for link).  Stephens claims the above watercolour shows an expression more amorous and cruel than the altered oil, which he thinks is what Rossetti intended.  Well, it might be me, but I really don't get cruel and amorous from the watercolour, however I don't get either from the imperious gaze of Alexa Wilding either.

Lady Lilith (chalk 1867) D G Rossetti
Anyway, Lady Lilith was delivered to Frederick Leyland in 1869 and then the clever fellow did a marvellous thing.  He took a photograph of his lovely new painting.   I was not aware of this photograph until I was reading Stephens as he states that the plate of Lady Lilith in Marillier is Leyland's photograph, later bought by Fanny's greatest fan Samuel Bancroft Jnr from the 1892 sale after Leyland's death (when he also bought the altered oil).  By Marillier and Stephens admissions, it's not the best photograph in the world but the fact it exists is a miracle.  And here it is...

I never really paid too much attention to it in Marillier previously as I assumed it was the watercolour but on closer inspection, even with the dubious quality, you can see it is indeed the oil painting but with Fanny's face instead of the cool hooded eyelids of Alexa.  There is a clarity to the image which is present in the oil, although you can see the many smaller replicas are based on this version of the oil. Although the 1873 repaint is beautiful, as Alexa always is, I have always found Alexa to be bordering on cartoonish evil with her cat-like expression, whereas Fanny appears to embody a vaguely melancholic concentration similar to Fazio's Mistress.  It's that same determined grooming, perfecting for a purpose not yet achieved, that I see in Fanny's expression, which tempts me to see the same in Fanny in the 1860s, so close to achieving her desire to have Rossetti all to herself yet never close enough, no matter how hard she worked.  The Alexa Lilith is more self-satisfied, someone who has achieved all the evil she needs to and now has to brush her greatest weapon, her golden hair.

Lady Lilith, altered, photographed on the right of Leyland's room (1892)
Despite not being a perfect photograph, I am immensely grateful to Mr Leyland for having the foresight to photograph his painting before the erstwhile artist could change it.  If only other patrons could have been so helpful.  In the the original we can see Fanny in one of her final roles, proud and beautiful, combing out that astonishing head of hair that ensnared the artist a decade before.  It's a hell of a finale....


  1. Her hair is the most marvellous shade of reddish gold. I don't know if I would describe it as strawberry blonde but it comes close. A great finale indeed.

  2. Dear Kirsty
    More fascinating revelations! Thank goodness for Mr Leyland indeed. Incidentally, the 1866 chalk drawing is absolutely beautiful.
    Best wishes

  3. Thank you for all your research! I love " her story" art history. And " they say" women are petty. Thank goodness for some level heads, I admire Fanny! for many reasons! xoDebi

  4. I absolutely love Rosetti's chalk drawings. I often prefer them to the finished paintings. What a draughtsman he was. I agree with your comments on how beautiful Fanny looks in her final painting, a true stunner.


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