Victorian Pre-Raphaelite poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti is almost as celebrated for his verse as his painting – and renowned too for the succession of lovely models and muses who appear in his art, and who apparently inspired work in both media. One was Fanny Cornforth, the blacksmith’s daughter who became his model and lover, and whose grave has just reportedly been discovered.
Rossetti first took up with Cornforth in 1858, while he was still involved with Elizabeth Siddal, his longtime companion, and ultimately, wife, who committed suicide in 1862. Cornforth became his fulltime housekeeper after Siddal’s death, as well as a focus for a major transition in his art towards a more Symbolist depiction of female figures, and stayed with him until his death in 1882. Her last years were unhappy, though, and she ended her life a victim of dementia in the Sussex county asylum, the Graylingwell Hospital in Chichester, and was buried in a common grave in 1909.
Cornforth illustrates – no pun intended – the dual role of poetry and painting in Rossetti’s aesthetic. She modeled for his 1867-68 painting Lady Lilith, and although the face in the oil version was later painted over with another model’s, the watercolor version here has her original features. Rossetti also produced a sonnet, originally called “Lilith” but later retitled “Body’s Beauty,” to accompany the poem, focusing naturally on the same theme:
Of Adam’s first wife, Lilith, it is told
(The witch he loved before the gift of Eve,)
That, ere the snake’s, her sweet tongue could deceive,
And her enchanted hair was the first gold.
And still she sits, young while the earth is old,
And, subtly of herself contemplative,
Draws men to watch the bright web she can weave,
Till heart and body and life are in its hold.
The rose and poppy are her flowers; for where
Is he not found, O Lilith, whom shed scent
And soft-shed kisses and soft sleep shall snare?
Lo! as that youth’s eyes burned at thine, so went
Thy spell through him, and left his straight neck bent
And round his heart one strangling golden hair.
Cornforth also was the model for a painting based on an Italian poem that Rossetti translated, his Aurelia (Fazio’s Mistress), begun in 1863, and based on “the poetry of Fazio degli Uberti (1326-1360), addressing his Lady, Agniola of Verona, which Rossetti had included in his Early Italian Poets in 1861,” according to the Tate Gallery. Once again, it is a clear example of how Rossetti saw both poetry and painting as illustrations of a theme that could be addressed by either medium. And Cornforth was one of the key muses who allowed both gifts to flourish.