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1. Her name wasn’t really Fanny Cornforth
Born Sarah Cox in 1835, the woman who became known as ‘Fanny Cornforth’ was the daughter of a blacksmith in a small Sussex village. Her family slowly died off through lung disease, so young Sarah took the opportunity to escape to London to visit her aunt. She decided that she would prefer to take her chances in the big city so adopted the modelling persona ‘Fanny’, which became ‘Fanny Cornforth’ after marrying Timothy Cornforth (who actually preferred to be known as Timothy Hughes). In her lifetime, Fanny was also known as Sarah Hughes and Sarah Schott, after she married for the second time to John Bernard Schott. It appears that none of her contemporaries ever referred to her as ‘Fanny Cornforth’, a pseudonym devised and embraced by her twentieth century biographers and critics.
2. The Most Famous Story About Fanny is Utter Nonsense
If you have heard any stories about Fanny Cornforth, then it is likely you have heard how she met the Pre-Raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti. According to numerous biographers, Fanny was working as a prostitute in the Strand in London, cracking nuts between her teeth and spitting the shells at men she fancied. Rossetti caught her eye and so she spat shells at him, and he was so enchanted he rushed her away to his studio to paint her as the fallen woman in his morality piece Found (1854-1881). This story was devised by a fellow painter, William Bell Scott, after Fanny had embarrassed him during a party by loudly expressing her concern at his alopecia. As it turns out, the truth was far less dramatic; Fanny and Rossetti had met during a celebration for Florence Nightingale’s return from the Crimea and Rossetti had pulled the pins from her hair. Instead of being shocked by this afront, Fanny was flattered and agreed to be Rossetti’s model, remaining by his side for the next 25 years.
3. Fanny Changed Rossetti’s Art Forever
Before Fanny appeared in his life, Rossetti’s art revolved around medieval romance and water-coloured virgins, predominantly modelled for by his wife, fellow artist and poet Elizabeth Siddal. After that fateful meeting in 1856, Rossetti was inspired to change his medium to oil paint and his subject to luxurious women of pleasure, beginning with the iconic portrait of Fanny, Bocca Baciata (The Kissed Mouth) (1859).
4. Fanny Visited the Impressionist Artists in their Studios in Paris
Before they reached their superstar levels of fame, artists such as Manet and Courbet were visited by Rossetti during an 1865 visit to Paris. Fanny accompanied him and toured the galleries, seeing Manet’s scandalous painting Olympia (1863) and Courbet’s portraits of Fanny’s close friend, fellow model Jo Hiffernan. Rossetti did not think much of their work, dismissing it as ‘mere scrawls’ but his friendship and support of the artists meant he and Fanny were very much welcome visitors.
5. Fanny’s Love for Rossetti kept him alive and gave us some of his Best-Known Works
Following the death of his wife, Elizabeth Siddal in 1862, Rossetti’s mental health deteriorated leading to a suicide attempt in 1871. Fanny refused to give up her lover despite other friends and lovers leaving him due to his behaviour. A combination of depression and alcohol and drug abuse left Rossetti isolated, but Fanny remained as his companion, always at his side even after her second marriage. Her care enabled him to paint such works as Astarte Syriaca (1877), La Bella Mano (1875) and La Ghirlandata (1873) and live another 11 years, even assisting when he attempted to reduce his addictions. Without Fanny’s love and support, that final decade of work may have been lost together with his reputation as one of the nineteenth century’s greatest artists.
6. Fanny’s Art Collection Built an American Gallery
During her life with Rossetti, Fanny collected a large collection of his works which she put on display after his death in 1882. Her exhibition at The Rossetti Gallery attracted crowds curious to see what treasures this notorious mistress had acquired. Some accused her of theft and rumours that she had stolen her assets resulted in her having to produce signed gift notes from Rossetti as proof of her ownership. This collection was to become her lifeline as in her old age she survived by selling many of the pictures to Samuel Bancroft Jnr, a wealthy American industrialist, whose Pre-Raphaelite collection became the foundation for the Delaware Art Museum.
7. Fanny Ended Her Days in an Asylum
Unlike some of her contemporaries such as Jane Morris, Fanny chose love above security, and her devotion to Rossetti left her without a family to care for her in her old age. Widowed twice and left at the mercy of her sister-in-law, elderly Fanny found herself placed in Graylingwell Asylum after she became confused, frightened and angry when he was forcibly removed from her home in London to a small rural village. From there she was moved into Graylingwell Asylum in West Sussex, where she lived for a couple of years before dying after a fall, aged 74.