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. It is rumored that Cornforth was a prostitute when she met Rossetti, she was uneducated, and she had a coarse accent – all shocking traits to the upper crust of British society.
Remember how I sympathized a lot with Elizabeth Siddal? It’s more difficult for me to get a feel for Cornforth’s personality. There’s way more information out there about Siddal, for one.
But also, I sympathize with Siddal’s physical and mental fragility, whereas Cornforth seems to have been the opposite. The expression Cornforth usually wears in Rossetti’s portraits of her seems unapologetic to me – like, “I used to be a hooker and I can’t spell – deal with it, bro.” But they both probably had issues with Rossetti’s affairs and may have felt trapped by his obsessive personality and their economic dependence on him.
Cornforth, feeling what I hope was affection and loyalty to Rossetti, stayed with him until his death, throughout his affairs, addiction to chloral hydrate, giving her Siddal’s red hair, and replacing her with Alexa Wilding in his painting of Lilith (see below). After he died, she may have gone to live with her sister-in-law; when she died, suffering from senile dementia, her sister-in-law was taking care of her.
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.
Lastly, 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).