Memorializing the Forgotten Grave of a Pre-Raphaelite Muse
One of the most recognizable models in Pre-Raphaelite paintings was buried in a common……
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, “Bocca Baciata” (1859), oil on panel. Fanny Cornforth modeled for this painting (via Museum of Fine Arts, Boston/Wikimedia)
One of the most recognizable models in Pre-Raphaelite paintings was buried in a common grave after her death in the West Sussex County Lunatic Asylum. The #RememberFanny crowdfunding campaign is currently underway to create a memorial for Fanny Cornforth’s unmarked resting place, which was only identified in 2015. Until then, the fate of the artist’s model, known for her lush tumble of blonde hair, was unknown.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s photograph of Fanny Cornforth (1863) (via Wikimedia)
Although she modeled for other Pre-Raphaelite artists in 19th-century England, Dante Gabriel Rossetti featured her in the most paintings. She is the fallen Victorian woman in “Found,” the titular “mouth that has been kissed” in “Bocca Baciata” (1859), the rosy-cheeked “Fair Rosamund” (1861), the Holy Grail-weilding “Damsel of Sanct Grael” (1874), and, in the version now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the long-locked “Lady Lilith” (1867). She even posed nude for the voluptuous “Venus Verticordia” in 1868, only for Rossetti to replace her face with that of model Alexa Wilding.
“She has been treated quite unfairly in past commemoration of her, and is mostly remembered as being ‘lower class’ and uneducated,” Emily Turner, the writer and researcher for the campaign, told Hyperallergic. She pointed out that Cornforth was influential in establishing a major collection of Rossetti’s work through his gifts, which ultimately became part of the Delaware Art Museum. “We feel she deserves better than this, and want to commemorate her for who she truly was — a passionate, lively and caring ‘Stunner.'”
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, “The Blue Bower” (1865), oil on canvas (via Barber Institute of Fine Arts/Wikimedia)
“Stunner” was Rossetti’s term for his models, who were frequently mistresses. To be a stunner, though, was often to be on the losing side of Rossetti’s whims. He married Elizabeth Siddal while he was involved with Cornforth. Following Siddal’s suicide, Cornforth eventually moved in with Rossetti. Although she stayed with him until his death in 1882, that didn’t deter him from dalliances with Jane Morris.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, “Aurelia (Fazio’s Mistress)” (1863–73), oil paint on mahogany. Fanny Cornforth modeled for this painting (via Tate)
Cornforth seemingly disappeared in 1906. The public release of British asylum records by the National Archives led art historian Kirsty Stonell Walker to track down her burial site in 2015. The records revealed that after being committed to the West Sussex County Lunatic Asylum, Cornforth had died at the age of 74 in 1909. Like most of the hospital’s patients, she was interred in a communal grave at Chichester Cemetery. In this way, her story is similar to Audrey Munson, a favorite model of the American Beaux Arts movement, who also died forgotten in an asylum. Throughout art history, there are these women whose faces and bodies were immortalized, and their identities obscured by time.
“We are hoping to commission a local artisan to create a fitting memorial to mark the site of Fanny’s final resting place — ideally a carved bench with an inlaid stone or metal plaque with some fitting words and Fanny’s portrait,” Turner stated, adding that any additional funds will go towards another bench at the nearby Graylingwell’s Chapel. The hope is to commemorate the cemetery memorial this April 9, the anniversary of Rossetti’s death, which marked the beginning of Cornforth’s fade from public memory.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, portrait of Fanny Cornforth (1869), graphite on paper (via Honolulu Museum of Art/Wikimedia)