The Life of Pre-Raphaelite Art Model Fanny Cornforth
There’s not much information known about the identity or origins of Fanny Cornforth until a recent discovery by autobiography writer Kirsty Stonell Walker. Walker uncovered historical records on the woman’s true background that shed light on the early and later years of the Pre-Raphaelite model’s life.
According to Walker as noted in her book about Fanny Cornforth (or otherwise known as), Sarah Cox was born the year 1835 in Steyning, West Sussex to a hired blacksmith. From an early start in life, Sarah was fated to endure an impoverished childhood, marked by sickness and sadness. After the loss of a mother and several siblings, her family decided to relocate to where her father found work on the railway, and eventually another wife. The predicament left her and her only other surviving sister, Ann, to fend for themselves after he had fallen ill.
As soon as Sarah was old enough, she was forced to find employment. An 1851 census shows her to be employed as the only servant at a local boarding house at the age of sixteen. Given this knowledge, it seemed that Sarah had been doomed to live a problematic and dull life. However, if not for one rare fateful day, an outing with her aunt to a coming home celebration for soldiers after the end of the Crimean War when spotted by a group of distinguished young gentlemen whom little did she know searched for the perfect face.
The life of Fanny Cornforth is forever linked to that of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Fairly or unfairly, it is his art that defines our impression of her.— Kirsty Stonell Walker, Stunner: The Fall and Rise of Fanny Cornforth
The Modeling Years
During her modeling career, Sarah – or Fanny as later referred – not only sat for Rossetti in such works as Bocca Baciata and The Blue Bower but also for other Pre-Raphaelite artists as well. Some of these artists included such distinguished peers as George Price Boyce and Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones.
Although widely known that she haled from a commoner’s background like her art model counterpart Annie Miller, Fanny barred a layman crassness, and lacked social decorum in comparison to her artist employers who bore highly-educated and often high standings; she was nonetheless highly sought out and revered despite her overlooked encumbrances. In time, Fanny grew much older, and the esteemed model eventually fell out of artistry favor although a warm friendship continued between the two as she carried on as Rossetti’s housekeeper, while he focused on his newest muse, Alexa Wilding.
An Opportunity of a Life Time
As most would suspect, Sarah Cox did not have much hope of advancement in her life other than being a lowly servant. When offered the opportunity to sit as an artist’s model it’s no wonder that the young woman agreed to such an invitation.
The next day, Sarah and her aunt visited the residence of Pre-Raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossettiwith whom she had no idea that she would have a lasting friendship and bond for the rest of her life. It is assumed at the behest of her aunt’s fair-warning and to protect a reputation withstanding, Sarah posed under the guise name of Fanny Cornforth for Rossetti’s trained and talented eye.
Although Rossetti was attached and soon to be married to the sickly Elizabeth Siddal who at that time was already one of his first models – the artist had already turned smitten to Fanny’s voluptuous charms. Soon she became his obsession. He launched the young woman into the art world’s spotlight as the epitome of a Pre-Raphaelite lover’s dream subject.
An Artist's Decline
Though Fanny had married a mechanical engineer by the name of Timothy Huges, the marriage had not lasted and eventually the relationship ended in divorce. Throughout the years, Fanny continued to work for Rossetti as his housekeeper until the artist’s family intervened due to his failing health. Unable to manage his affairs or care for himself any longer, the artist was forced to eventually cut strings by the insistence of his family who frowned upon the ill-matched and long-standing relationship. However fragile the separation, he had not abandoned Fanny entirely. Rossetti considered Fanny his responsibility and went so far as to sell a number of his paintings, some of which she had modeled in so that he could provide for her safekeeping.
In time, Fanny eventually found work at a local tavern and married its keeper. Despite the fact she had remarried and lived a new life, Rossetti often suffered from mental breakdowns and pleaded with Fanny to come back and care for him. And she did – with the approval of her understanding husband – on several occasions, but unfortunately, she was not present on his trip to Birchington-on-Sea in Kent where he had passed away in 1882
Cited Sources & Works
- Maev Kennedy. The Guardian: From Siren to Asylum: the Desperate Last Days of Fanny Cornforth, Rossetti’s Muse
- Kirsty Stonell Walker. Stunner: The Fall and Rise of Fanny Cornforth (Amazon CreateSpace Independent Publishing)
- The Box Files: Stories From the Steyning Museum Archives. Fanny Cornforth
The Final Years
After Rossetti’s death, Fanny took the heirlooms that Rossetti had given her over the years and opened an art gallery with her husband until her husband’s end in 1891.
At this point in life, Sarah Schlott had long since given up the title of Fanny Cornforth, and with old age came dementia and extended family could no longer care for Sarah’s debilitating condition.
Placed in a workhouse, she was somewhat set aside and forgotten. After a few years of residential care, she contracted bronchitis and eventually died of pneumonia in 1909.