Fanny Cornforth was discovered by the Pre-Raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti as she had dinner at an event celebrating Florence Nightingale's return from the Crimean War. From that point onwards, she became one of the most divisive characters in Pre-Raphaelite art history. Rossetti's friends found her common and abrasive and his subsequent biographers labelled her a lying, thieving, illiterate sex worker whose worst crime was to become fat and old. Fanny Cornforth was actually a resourceful, compassionate woman who nursed Rossetti during his severe periods of mental illness and was generous to her fellow models. It is time to appreciate a woman who was as clever, caring and cheerful as she was beautiful.

11 artworks

1854

Found
Image credit: Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery

Study for Found

When artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti was searching for a model for his fallen woman in the painting Found, he came across Fanny Cornforth, eating dinner at Florence Nightingale’s celebration. He took hold of her hair pins and released her tumble of hair, declaring her to be beautiful. Rossetti asked Fanny to visit his studio the next day and drew her as the shamed love of a young farmer - On a trip to London to sell a white calf, the farmer sees his lost beloved and he seizes her, but she shies away from him, embarrassed of her fallen state. Fanny’s carefree, easy nature was in stark contrast to the shamed woman and possibly influenced the way Rossetti subsequently saw women's sexuality. The painting remained unfinished at his death.

Found c.1854
Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882)
Oil on panel
H 30.3 x W 35.8 cm
Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery

1860

Lucrezia Borgia
Image credit: Tate

Lucrezia Borgia

When Rossetti married fellow artist and poet Elizabeth Siddal in 1860, he promised to renounce all other models apart from her. Possibly one of his last images of Fanny before this split was this jewel-like watercolour of Fanny as Lucrezia Borgia, washing her hands as she poisons her guests. Arguably, it works such as this and Lady Lilith, the witch-wife of Adam, that led people to believe Fanny was as wicked as the parts she played.

Lucrezia Borgia 1860–1861
Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882)
Graphite & watercolour on paper
H 43.8 x W 25.8 cm
Tate

1861

The Backgammon Players
Image credit: The Fitzwilliam Museum

The Backgammon Players

When Rossetti married in 1860, Fanny sought out other artists to model for, including Edward Burne-Jones. Fanny had met Burne-Jones through Rossetti and between 1860 and 1861, Fanny frequently modelled for him in paintings such as Sidonia Von Bork and Merlin and Nimue. Despite playing the villain in many of his works, Fanny is always presented as seductive and tempting. Later in his life, Burne-Jones tended to fear and ridicule fat women which makes the year when Fanny was arguably his primary muse so interesting.

The Backgammon Players 1861
Edward Burne-Jones (1833–1898)
Black chalk with bodycolour on paper
H 60.2 x W 102.9 cm
The Fitzwilliam Museum

1861

Fanny Cornforth
Image credit: The Higgins Bedford

Study for Fair Rosamund

When Dante Gabriel Rossetti married artist and poet Elizabeth Siddal in 1860, he promised her he would not use any other model but her. Unsurprisingly, Rossetti was back using his previous models within a year of marriage. He choice the subject of Fair Rosamund for his first depiction of Fanny after his marriage.

Fanny Cornforth 1861
Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882)
Coloured chalks on paper
H 32.2 x W 25.9 cm
The Higgins Bedford

1861

Fair Rosamund
Image credit: Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales

Fair Rosamund

Fair Rosamund, or Rosamund Clifford was the mistress of King Henry II. Legend was that he built her a secret tower as a love nest where he could follow a silken thread to find her. Rossetti shows the flush-cheeked girl awaiting her lover, as she looks impatiently out of the window for him. Unfortunately for Rosamund, Queen Eleanor also followed the thread and discovered her rival, who she poisoned.

Fair Rosamund 1861
Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882)
Oil on canvas
H 51.9 x W 41.7 cm
Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales

1863

Fanny Cornforth
Image credit: The Fitzwilliam Museum

Fanny Cornforth

After Elizabeth Siddal’s death, Fanny went to live with Rossetti in his new home Tudor House, Chelsea. There he drew her as she sewed, ate and relaxed, with her glorious head of hair on display.

Fanny Cornforth
Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882)
Graphite on paper
H 38.9 x W 35.6 cm
The Fitzwilliam Museum

1863

Fanny Cornforth – A Portrait Head
Image credit: Southend Museums Service

Fanny Cornforth - A Portrait Head

In an unusually hard pencil sketch of her, Rossetti shows Fanny as pensive and determined rather than the woman of pleasure he normally painted.

Fanny Cornforth – A Portrait Head
Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882)
Graphite on paper
H 23 x W 16 cm
Southend Museums Service

Study for Venus Verticordia

Conceived during a trip to Paris, Rossetti originally intended Venus Verticordia (or Venus the Turner of Hearts) to be a painting of Fanny holding an arrow and an apple. After a few years of grappling with the subject, Rossetti decided Fanny was not commercial enough and brought in a selection of other models, including an extremely tall cook. Finally, he chose Alexa Wilding, whose face graces the oil painting owned by the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum in Bournemouth.

Study for 'Venus Verticordia' c.1863–c.1864
Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882)
Graphite on paper
H 50.5 x W 36.9 cm
The Courtauld, London (Samuel Courtauld Trust)

1863

Aurelia (Fazio's Mistress)
Image credit: Tate

Aurelia (Fazio's Mistress)

When Rossetti scraped away and repainted parts of Fazio’s Mistress in 1873, he reassured Fanny he had left the face intact as it was so like her. In the painting, Fanny plays a woman of wealth and leisure, surrounded by her luxurious objects as she plaits her hair before a mirror.

Aurelia (Fazio's Mistress) 1863–1873
Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882)
Oil on mahogany
H 43.2 x W 36.8 cm
Tate

1865

The Blue Bower
Image credit: The Henry Barber Trust, The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham

The Blue Bower

In his last major oil painting of Fanny, Rossetti painted her as a woman of luxury, in a tiled, floral bower, plucking at a koto. Her sea-green robe is fur-lined and in her hair is a comb of enamelled, jewelled metal. She is another precious object that Rossetti the collector has placed in his room, beautiful and valuable. Sadly, after this point, Rossetti's patron Frederick Leyland did not want Fanny's face in the art he bought, so Rossetti changed to the icy perfection of Alexa Wilding. However, Rossetti continued to draw Fanny in pencil and chalk up until 1874.

The Blue Bower 1865
Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882)
Oil on canvas
H 84 x W 70.9 cm
The Barber Institute of Fine Arts

2010

Fanny Cornforth II
© the copyright holder. Image credit: Southend Museums Service

Fanny Cornforth II

Fanny remains as inspirational to modern artists as she did to Rossetti. Karen Jones’s series of dreamscapes of Fanny and her trip to the seaside, combining the life of the muse with the parts she played in art. Despite being an annoyance to her contemporaries who couldn’t see how their hero Rossetti could love such a common, uneducated woman, to modern eyes, Fanny’s determination to tread her own path and follow her heart seems authentic and relatable. Her love for Rossetti, remaining by his side through his years of mental illness, shows her compassion and loyalty, despite the abuse she received from Rossetti’s friends and admirers.

Fanny Cornforth II 2010
Karen Jones (active 2010)
Acrylic on board (?)
H 100 x W 60 cm
Southend Museums Service