“Fanny is the patron saint of overlooked women. She is in the background of so many stories about other people… But she had her good times, and she had her spirit.”
~Kirsty Stonell Walker, art historian and Cornforth biographer
Updated January 1, 2018.*
Although there’s no definitive proof that Rossetti was having an affair with Fanny Cornforth (1835 – c.1905) at the time of his wife’s death, they did meet four years prior. It wouldn’t have been hard to hide the affair from Elizabeth Siddal, since she was in ill-health and had become addicted to laudanum in the last years of her life.
When Rossetti married Siddal in 1860, Cornforth married a mechanic; but when Siddal died in 1862, Cornforth left her husband and moved in with Rossetti as his “housekeeper” and lived there for twenty years, until he died.
In contrast to his other models, Cornforth was on the voluptuous side. Both she and Rossetti gained weight as they aged, and they nicknamed each other “Elephant” and “Rhino”. I can only hope that they both were okay with those nicknames, because it seems kind of mean to me.
If Siddal’s lower-class origins caused problems between Rossetti and his family, Cornfoth’s definitely did. Her birth name was Sarah Cox, and her father was a blacksmith. She was headstrong, outspoken, uneducated, and she had a coarse accent – all shocking traits to the upper crust of British society.
Cornforth, feeling what I hope was affection and loyalty to Rossetti, stayed with him throughout his affairs, addiction to chloral hydrate, giving her Siddal’s red hair, and replacing her with Alexa Wilding in his painting of Lilith.
Rossetti’s painting Lady Lilith first featured Cornforth, but he painted over her face with that of Alexa Wilding. We know what it must have looked like from this watercolor he made.
Some people think Cornforth’s is the better painting because she’s more “physical” or something, but I really don’t see a difference in their bodies. Besides, Cornforth just looks bored. I much prefer Alexa Wilding’s sharp features for Lilith, who is, in Christian mythology, an uppity woman who leaves Paradise to escape sexual oppression, and thus evil (LOL).
As his health failed, Rossetti’s family forced Cornforth to leave. On her way out, she picked up a few artworks and other items that she sold to keep afloat, but between then and 1907, her sister-in-law put her in a workhouse near Chichester. If you want to ruin your day, go read about British workhouses – they were really terrible places where the English dumped poor, disabled, and mentally-divergent people.
At best, an inmate of a workhouse wasted their lives working labor-intensive, useless tasks and weren’t allowed outside except for weddings, funerals, or if they were lucky enough to have a relative get them a job; at worst, they were torture houses. Children were born in workhouses and lived their entire lives there without ever seeing their parents.
Cornforth was put in the Sussex County asylum in 1907, which later became the Graylingwell Hospital. She was recorded as having mental confusion and deafness. The hospital would have been a vast improvement over the workhouse; she lived there for two years before dying of pneumonia. She was buried in an unmarked common grave in Chichester district cemetery.
There is a book called Stunner: The Rise and Fall of Fanny Cornforth by Kirsty Stonell Walker, which I have not read, but is an “unflinching” biography of Cornforth that should be interesting.
*New information from this article is from The Guardian in 2015: From siren to asylum: the desperate last days of Fanny Cornforth, Rossetti’s muse by Maev Kennedy. The records about Cornforth were discovered during the Graylingwell Heritage Project.