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Fanny Cornforth
Dante Gabriel Rossetti remained devoted to her

Sarah Cox, a blacksmith's daughter from Steyning better known as Fanny Cornforth, saw Rossetti tortured by his love for other women, though he came to depend on her as the years went by.

Fanny Cornforth sketchFanny Cornforth by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1859

When Dante Gabriel Rossetti married Elizabeth Siddal in 1860, after a strange and often neglectful ten year relationship, Fanny Cornforth was devastated. It was a cruel fact that the unlikely life to which Rossetti had introduced her could vanish like a dream.

Now it was time to plan her own future. Fanny decided to marry Timothy Hughes, a man she had known from her earliest days in London. The mechanical engineer was also an artists' model, whose step father, George Cornforth seems to have inspired Fanny's assumed name. The match soon ended in separation, maybe because Rossetti's married life was tragically brief.

Elizabeth Siddal, a pale, unearthly beauty, was seriously ill. She died in 1862 from an overdose of laudanum, possibly suicide. Rossetti turned to Fanny in his grief. They began living together almost immediately after Elizabeth died and for the next ten or so years.

At Tudor House, 16 Cheyne Walk in Chelsea, Rossetti produced much of his best work. Fanny was his model and lover. To those who might disapprove, she was just his housekeeper. The cheerful, extrovert country girl was worshiped by artists who understood her bohemian appeal, although she seemed crude and offensive to others. Rossetti's brother, William, wrote that Fanny was, "a pre-eminently fine woman, with regular and sweet features, and a mass of the most lovely blonde hair - light-golden or 'harvest yellow’," but, "she had no charm of breeding, education, or intellect."

Rossetti was an emotionally damaged though charismatic man, seldom easy to live with. It must have tried Fanny's patience to conduct seances when Rossetti wanted to contact his dead wife or when he reopened the grave to retrieve a note book of his own poetry buried with her. Having hit back at a bad review of his poetry, the emotional strain of the dispute damaged his health.

At Tudor House, Rossetti kept a menagerie of animals and birds. His wombat was allowed to sleep in the center of his dining table during meals as a llama circled around the table, unconcerned by the toucan on its back. The furnishings were sumptuous and eccentric, with the ever fascinating Fanny Cornforth mesmerising and appalling his guests in equal measure.

In private, the couple had become quietly devoted. They reached a mature, if less passionate understanding as Rossetti suffered several largely self-induced crises. New models such as Alexa Wilding appeared, but the two of them aged comfortably together as Fanny's modelling career faded away. She was affectionately his 'Elephant' and he was her 'Rhino'. There was some serious trouble brewing, though.

Rossetti began to develop an obsession with the wife of William Morris, Jane. A clandestine affair between them shattered Rossetti's unstable health. He took on part-ownership of Kelmscott Manor in Oxfordshire with William Morris, his friend and business partner, spending long periods there between 1871 and 1874, particularly while Jane's husband was away. During 1872, Rossetti suffered a nervous breakdown and threatened suicide, induced by drug addiction combined with his suffering over Jane Morris.

This might seem to have been the point at which Fanny Cornforth was abandoned at last for a more intoxicating beauty. Several of Rossetti's paintings of Fanny now had her face scraped off and replaced by Jane Morris or Alexa Wilding. And yet Rossetti wrote to Fanny: "You are the only person whom it is my duty to provide for, and you may be sure I should do my utmost as long as there was a breath in my body or a penny in my purse."

Rossetti found another address for Fanny in Chelsea, although she was still much involved with Tudor House and helping to manage things while he was away. Rossetti's letters show that he was selling his art to help Fanny accumulate funds to buy her own home. He also gave her pictures, making sure that he certified her ownership. He anticipated, correctly, that Fanny would face challenges to her possession of these treasures.

Fanny's estranged husband, Timothy Hughes died in 1872. By 1877, Fanny realised that Rossetti could no longer afford to support her, besides the fact that a circle of his family and friends were determined to get her out of the way and to take him in hand. They were right to be concerned about his drug addiction and poor health. He was sinking into a reclusive, child-like state of dependency and was persuaded to let Fanny go.

The transition from paid model to kept woman was challenging enough for many to accept but Fanny Cornforth as the companion of choice for this great man in his last years, let alone his nurse, seemed hardly credible. There were some who saw Fanny as a mere leech, without even her youthful looks to recommend her now.

A publican from a musical and theatrical family, named John Schott, enabled Fanny to start a new life managing the Rose tavern in Jermyn Street, Westminster. John Schott's wife had bigamously married another man and he divorced her to marry Fanny in November 1879.

History repeated itself when Fanny responded to Rossetti's lonely cries for help, returning so often that she was all but living with him again in an effort to nurse him back to health. She even accompanied Rossetti on holiday in 1881, much to the detriment of her marriage, you might think, but John Schott seemed to understand, counting himself as a friend of Rossetti too.

Fanny was not with Rossetti when he was taken by friends to Birchington-on-Sea in Kent, where he died on 9th April, 1882. He was apparently expressing concern for Fanny to the last - "My poor mistress!" - but his family conspired to ensure she was not at his funeral, beginning the process of writing her out of his history.

It is disappointing to see Victorian propriety and class prejudice at work even in Rossetti's circle of family and friends. Fanny's loyalty and care during twenty or more difficult years was only an embarrassment to them. They pre-empted the claims she might have on Rossetti's estate with character assassination, followed by a contemptuous pay-off. As for the documents and pictures she had accumulated as her personal nest egg, Fanny was able to prove they were hers, just as Rossetti intended.

As though to make her point, Fanny and her husband opened a Rossetti gallery. They left the Rose tavern and moved to Kensington. John Schott's sons, Cecil and Frederick became the focus of their family life. Rossetti had tried to encourage Cecil Schott's artistic talents. Cecil was established at George Frederick Watts's studio until 1896. At this point he disgraced himself by unaccountably stealing from an elderly couple on the Isle of Wight, and left for a new life in South Africa.

The death of John Schott in 1891 left his son, Frederick and Fanny living together in west London. Fanny was at last recognised as the Pre-Raphaelite survivor that she was, able to discuss almost everyone associated with the brotherhood in fascinating detail.

She was visited by Samuel Bancroft Jr, a Pre-Raphaelite collector and wealthy American businessman, anxious to buy what she had left to sell and record her recollections for posterity. Her correspondence with him was preserved and in 1935 the Delaware Art Museum acquired Bancroft's Rossetti collection, founded upon Fanny's legacy.

Fanny's stepson, Frederick died in 1898. In the 1901 Census, Fanny is shown as Sarah Schott, living as a lodger at 9 Kilmarsh Road, Hammersmith. Based only on the fact that no further contact with Fanny Cornforth was recorded by anyone after 1905, she was thought to have died shortly afterwards.

It was still unknown when or how Fanny died and where she was buried, until 2015. Then Karen Kivlehan spotted her name in the newly published lunacy records on the Ancestry website and alerted Steyning Museum. Kirsty Stonell Walker followed our clues. In fact Fanny had moved to Bognor Regis on the south coast. Soon dementia began to threaten her independence. Alone and with no money left, her landlady took Fanny to the local workhouse where she was immediately referred to Graylingwell Asylum, near Chichester in West Sussex.

As Sarah Schott or Hughes, Fanny was admitted to Graylingwell on March 30, 1907. The medical records reveal intimate details. She was physically healthy, as a photograph seems to show, but her dementia was advanced. She struggled and protested against her circumstances, resulting in a broken arm which failed to set properly. Fanny's understandable fury was reported to be that she had been sent to the workhouse. Fortunately, Graylingwell offered more enlightened mental health care than might be imagined at that time.

After nearly two years at Graylingwell, having been nursed in bed with bronchitis during the winter, Fanny died of pneumonia on February 24, 1909 at the age of 74. She was buried in an unmarked communal grave, plot 133/23, at Chichester District Cemetery.

 

< See part one of this story

See part three, about the
memorial fundraising campaign>

Fanny Cornforth sketch

Steyning History
Society Blue Plaque

Fanny Cornforth Blue Plaque

The Dolls House Shop at 120 High Street in Steyning, West Sussex displays a blue plaque sponsored by the Steyning History Society. It reads:

Sarah Cox
later known as
Fanny Cornforth

Model, Companion, Nurse and
Friend to Dante Gabriel Rossetti,
Pre-Raphaelite Painter
was born here on
3rd January 1835
(date and place of death unknown)

Sarah was the model featured in
Rossetti's best known painting
"The Blue Bower, 1865"

Steyning History
Society

Links

#RememberFanny
Campaign
A fundraising drive was launched to commission a fitting memorial to Fanny Cornforth and all that she achieved in her life. See details of this GoFundMe crowdfunding campaign.

Kirsty Stonell Walker
A blog profile of the author of
Stunner: The Fall and Rise of
Fanny Cornforth
, with a link to
her blog The Kissed Mouth
and many others of interest.
The second edition of Stunner
was published in 2012 and
contained further research
by the author.

Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood
A blog for Pre-Raphaelite lovers and researchers by Stephanie Graham Piña, with an emphasis on the women of the movement, including Fanny Cornforth.

Graylingwell Heritage Project
The project is about the history of the Graylingwell Hospital and the people associated with it from 1894 onwards, now including Fanny Cornforth.

The Guardian Newspaper
From siren to asylum:
the desperate last days of
Fanny Cornforth,
Rossetti's muse. See also here.

The Rossetti Archive
Highly recommended archive of the complete writings and pictures of Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Dictionary of National Biography
An entry for Fanny Cornforth by Christopher Whittick.

Wikipedia
An entry for Fanny Cornforth with a link to Gabriel Dante Rossetti and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood

Pre-Raphaelite Ruminations
An interesting blog with a page devoted to Fanny Cornforth and Bocca Baciata by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

 



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