Stunner 2 – reviewing the world of Fanny Cornforth
5th July 2012
This is an updated review to celebrate the appearance of the 2nd edition of STUNNER the biography of Pre-Raphaelite model Fanny Cornforth by Kirsty Stonell Walker. I thought the first version was a great read, and the expanded edition just released is no less so. It has a lovely cover and greatly improved readability. And it includes the addition of new material and commentary.
Of course, what makes for a ‘great read’ is different for different people. But for me, if I find myself reading a book quickly, without it gathering dust beside the sofa or without it being supplanted by other items of reading in-between, then it must have something going for it. In fact, ‘Stunner – the Fall and Rise of Fanny Cornforth’ has quite a lot going for it. I’ll tell you why in a moment. But first, a little about the subject of the book itself.
Pre-Raphaelite model Fanny Cornforth on the cover.
Stunner is a biography of a particularly interesting Victorian individual, Sarah Cox (born most-likely1835 – c. 1906). She came from rural Sussex but moved to London when young and here she encountered the Pre-Raphaelite painter D.G.Rossetti. At around this time, she altered her name to that by which posterity has come to know her: Fanny Cornforth. She became one of Rossetti’s celebrated flame-hair models and has been immortalised in a number of paintings, pastel drawings and sketches.
Rossetti, as is widely known, had several female models, and probably quite a few mistresses among them. What is perhaps not so well-known, and what I certainly did not realise, was that Fanny became such a significant and long-lasting player upon the Rossetti stage. She remained, on and off, his mistress and model for most of his working life. Their relationship spanned a period of decades, right up until Rossetti's death in 1882. For that reason alone, she must demand our attention.
But Fanny was also different – strikingly so. Whereas most of Rossetti’s other women were portrayed as thin, ethereal beings, Fanny was usually shown as rounded, sensuous and full of vigour – qualities which matched her personality, and also the role she assumed in Rossetti’s life. This biography follows suit. It is a warmly written and informative work. And it also sets out an excellent case for her defence.
Why does Fanny need a defence? Because in the absence of reliable biographical information, she has been too hastily dismissed by earlier biographers. She has been relegated to a mere side show when set alongside many of the other, more exotic performers of the Pre-Raphaelite 'circus.' In fact, she was of considerable importance. She became a semi-permanent fixture in Rossetti’s life while others – including even Rossetti’s wife, Elizabeth Siddal who died so tragically young - came and went. Moreover, she was probably one of the few woman he could turn to when in need. Perhaps she was also someone he felt relaxed with, and whose company simply made him happy.
From humble beginnings, Fanny became a survivor in a harsh world. And Rossetti became in due course a means to that survival - which Fanny exploited to the full. Consequently, she has been described at various times as not only a cunning and predatory creature but also as a thief, a liar and even a prostitute. This, as the author suggests, might well have been in order to excuse a lot of the negativity which Rossetti himself was responsible for at the time.
Yes, she did receive payments in cash and ‘in kind’ from Rossetti and others. But this does not justify some of her detractors accusing her of common prostitution or of outright theft. Accusations based, moreover, on very slender evidence. This and other misconceptions are addressed more than adequately in this book - and with refreshing clarity. As the author states: ‘It was easier to believe that the working class girl was a liar than a hero could have feet of clay.’
Stunner - conclusion
As the first proper, full-length biographical assessment of Fanny Cornforth, this is a ‘must read’ for enthusiasts of the Pre-Raphaelite universe. Or really for anybody interested in Victorian art. Revealing previously unknown facts and information, it even contains some neat detective work that establishes Fanny’s age and origins far more accurately than before. Above all it is a work that compels us to think again and revise our views on a beautiful but perhaps misunderstood woman who transcended so many of the accepted rules of Victorian society. An individual in a world of conformity. We should surely not reproach Fanny for that – in fact, quite the contrary. And in the author Kirsty Stonell Walker she has found an eloquent and worthy champion.