Finding Fanny (Cornforth)

220px-Dante_Gabriel_Rossetti_-_Fair_RosamundThe Pre-Raphaelite Society recently enjoyed an entertaining lecture by Kirsty Stonell Walker on her research on Fanny Cornforth. Kirsty’s book Stunner: The Fall and Rise of Fanny Cornforth is currently the only biography of Fanny, muse and mistress of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and in it Kirsty rescues Fanny from her undeservedly bad reputation. Kirsty explained that it would once have been inconceivable that Fanny would have been researched and discussed in an academic context: she was seen as the sordid side of Rossetti, the woman people preferred to gloss over. Kirsty explained why Fanny was branded a liar and thief (neither likely to be true), as well as illiterate (though there are extant letters from her in a rather nice copperplate). Moreover, the famous image of the prostitute spitting nutshells at men in the Strand to attract their attention is simply untrue: Kirsty’s research demonstrates that at the time this was meant to have happened, Fanny, then a Sussex girl called Sarah Cox, was visiting her aunt in St John’s Wood, and while she did meet Rossetti, it was he who approached her, pulling her hair down and declaring that he had to paint her (which does sound found-1854quite Rossetti-like). Anyway, Kirsty claims to have tried attracting men by spitting nutshells at them, and says it doesn’t work.

Fanny’s life as a model and muse for the Pre-Raphaelites is coloured by the ‘keynote’ image of Rossetti’s paintinFound (right), in which the repentant fallen woman turns her face away from her abandoned lover; but despite the connotations of the painting it sounds as though Fanny herself was not only unrepentant but also rather fun. When Rossetti began to use her less as a model, this was likely to have been because her face became less ‘saleable’, and indeed she was quickly replaced with the less earthy, more aetheticised Alexa Wilding. But Fanny, undaunted, married and became landlady of a pub, though she returned frequently to Rossetti (often with her husband), looking after him in his late illnesses.

Fanny’s story is rather a sad one, though – one senses that though the Pre-Raphaelite years with Rossetti in the 1860s were golden, after Rossetti’s death she was treated badly by the Rossetti family who saw her as lacking respectability. However, she still held her own, 220px-Fanny_Cornforth_Hughes_1863mounting her own Rossetti retrospective based on paintings and drawings he had given her (rivalling the exhibition approved by the family), and eventually vanishing from all the records by 1905, so that we have no idea where and how she died. Yet before she died, she corresponded with and met Samuel Bancroft Jr, Pre-Raphaelite collector and wealthy American businessman, who was the only person to ask Fanny about her life, about Rossetti and his work, and her part in his artistic and personal life. Her letters to him are in the Delaware archive, and remain the only real source of Fanny’s own views about her life as a Pre-Raphaelite muse.


A Christina Rossetti Letter

Rossetti1I was recently offered the opportunity to have a sneak preview at a previously unpublished letter by Christina Rossetti, which had been in the Samuel Looker archive acquired by the Richard Jefferies Society, and did a little bit of detective work!

The letter is signed by Christina Rossetti and certainly appears to me to be authentic. The handwriting and signature are certainly hers; she was usually fairly formal in her letters and signed herself “Christina G. Rossetti” even to her family. The way in which her writing slopes off at the edge of the page is also characteristic, as is the tone of the letter.

The letter is from 56 Euston Square, where Christina Rossetti moved in June 1867, along with her mother, sister, brother William and aunts Eliza and Charlotte Polidori. It is dated February 6th, with no year given. However, she invites the Madox Browns to visit on Thursday 13th February, and this date fell on a Thursday in 1868. I can confidently say that the letter was written in 1868, since The Letters of Christina Rossetti, ed. Antony H. Harrison, contains other letters which shed light on this. The first of these reads as follows:

56 Euston Square, N.W.

3rd February

Dear Mr Browning

We hope that one or two of our friends will be with us on Thursday evening the 13th (8 o’clock), and proud and pleased we should be if you especially would accept the welcome and our cup of tea.

Pray accept this with my Mother’s compliments and believe me

Sincerely yours

Christina G. Rossetti

An answer, please.

The Rossettis’ acquaintance with Robert Browning was slight, but clearly sufficient for an invitation such as this to be issued. According to Jan Marsh’s biography, Christina Rossetti: A Literary Life, Browning did indeed visit the Rossettis early in 1868, so it seems probable that he accepted this invitation.

The MS for the Browning letter is at Princeton, and Harrison glosses it, noting that Janet Camp Troxell, in her 1937 book Three Rossettis: Unpublished Letters to and from Dante Gabriel, Christina, William dates it to 1873, though Rossetti was then ‘too ill to be socialising’ (Harrison, p. 306). Philip Kelley, in his edition of the Brownings’ correspondence, dates it to 1868, which seems more likely.

The other two relevant letters are as follows:

56 Euston Square, N.W.

Saturday, 8th [February]

Dear Mr Leifchild

My Mother joins me in hoping that you will give us and a few of our friends the pleasure of your company to tea next Thursday (13th) at 8 o’clock.

Pray favour us with a reply and believe me

Sincerely yours

Christina G. Rossetti

56 Euston Square, N.W.

Saturday, 8th [February]

Dear Miss Leifchild

I heard such a good account of your health not very long ago, that I venture to hope you will give us the pleasure of your company to tea next Thursday 13th (8 o’clock) if you are disengaged. Pray accept my Mother’s compliments, make mine to your sisters and believe me

Very truly yours

Christina G. Rossetti

An answer, please.

Henry Leifchild was a sculptor who exhibited regularly at the Royal Academy and was well-known to the Pre-Raphaelites. Clearly Rossetti was also on good terms with his sister, to whom the second letter is addressed. I would like to think that there are other letters out there, waiting to be found, inviting other people to the Rossetti soirée. We have no reason to suppose it did not go ahead. There is a letter to Miss Leifchild regretting her absence due to ill-health, but this does not seem to refer to the same event as it is marked ‘Tuesday’ and refers to ‘yesterday’.

The letter, of course, is addressed to Mrs (Emma) Madox Brown and refers to her step-daughter, Lucy. Lucy and Christina were Rossetti2fairly friendly at the time, although Angela Thirlwell suggests in William and Lucy: The Other Rossettis that after Lucy’s marriage to William Michael Rossetti in 1874, their relationship was more polite than friendly.

The reference to ‘canvassing letters’ is obscure. Rossetti was strongly anti-vivisectionist and also contributed to charities for children, the poor and disabled, yet there are no letters around this time which suggest she was in any way ‘canvassing’. Of course, Lucy was strongly pro-suffrage, an early feminist who signed petitions for the vote, but it is highly unlikely that Rossetti, who we know declined to sign such a petition, would have been canvassing for such a cause.

A version of this article appeared in the Summer 2013 Review of the Pre-Raphaelite Society. With many thanks to The Richard Jefferies Society.

Celebrating 25 years of the Pre-Raphaelite Society

OpheliaThe Pre-Raphaelites are everywhere at the moment – on hoardings, on TV, in books and magazines, it seems as though we have revived our love affair with the decadent colours and lush imagery of the Victorian painters – and even those who hate them (and there are plenty who do) still seem to find them interesting. If you are a fan, you may be a member of the Pre-Raphaelite Society, which is celebrating 25 years of existence this year. The Society aims to promote the study of and interest in Pre-Raphaelitism, and is an international society with members all over the world. It’s open to everyone – there are members who are just interested, to serious collectors and academics, so the aim is to cater for everyone. The society holds a series of lectures in Birmingham (details of which are here) as well as trips to places or exhibitions of Pre-Raphaelite interest.

In 25 years, the society has changed a great deal in some ways – such as the style and content of the journal, the Review – and not at all in others. The ‘mission statement’ of the society is its guiding principal:

The Pre-Raphaelite Society is dedicated to the celebration of the mood and style of art which Ruskin recognised and preserved by his writings, and to the observation of its wide-ranging influence. In co-operation with societies of similar aims world-wide, it seeks to commemorate Pre-Raphaelite ideals by means of meetings, conferences, discussions, publications and correspondence, and to draw attention to significant scholastic work in this field. First and foremost, however, it is a society in which individuals can come together to enjoy the images and explore the personalities of the Pre-Raphaelites and their followers through the medium of fine art, the appreciation of good design and the excellence of the traditional arts.

I joined the society in 1998, as a postgraduate student writing on The Germ, the Pre-Raphaelite magazine, and in 2004 I took over as rossetti_2327293beditor of The Review, which I (mostly) very much enjoy. I find it fascinating to see ways in which modern scholars are reinterpreting works which were out of favour for much of the twentieth century, and, from the rehabilitation of Millais’s reputation to the growth of interest in women Pre-Raphaelite artists, the landscape has changed considerably since the society’s founding.

We are celebrating the founding of the society, and indeed the founding of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, on Sunday 8th September with #PRBDay on Twitter. Please come and vote for your favourite Pre-Raph painting, by tweeting it to us @PreRaphSoc. I will be counting votes and posting Pre-Raph quotes and links all day, and look forward to meeting some of you virtually then. Last year’s winner was Millais’s Ophelia (top image), and I’m looking forward to finding out which painting will win this year.

lorenzoIf you are not a member of the society but are interested in Pre-Raphaelite art, please do think about joining us. You can join online here, and membership is a very reasonable £14, or £10 concessions. Benefits of membership include:

  • Receipt of The Review the Society’s principal publication, published three times a year and dated Spring, Summer and Autumn. The Review contains articles, book reviews, illustrations and “Notes and Queries”, and offers the opportunity for all members who are interested in research and writing to contribute in a very satisfying way to the Society’s life.
  • Receipt of PRS US: The Pre-Raphaelite Society Newsletter of the United States. Published three times a year, this illustrated bulletin of American news and activities includes such features as “Pre-Raphaelites Online”, “Events” and “The American Collections”, in addition to short historical articles.
  • Receipt of notices of all meetings and visits; and also, of occasional newsletters.
  • Free admission to the Annual General Meeting, which is held in Birmingham on a Saturday morning in late October and which includes a lecture following the business session.
  • The opportunity, for modest charges, to attend other lectures and to join coach trips to galleries, museums and places of interest around the country. (Members can, of course, make their own travel arrangements and meet coach parties at particular destinations.)

Also, we are very nice, friendly people who look forward to welcoming you to the Pre-Raphaelite Society!


Christina Rossetti’s Gothic

31XvJYSEdGL__I am very excited because my monograph, Christina Rossetti’s Gothic, is published today by Bloomsbury. This book has been a long time coming: it is based on my Ph.D. research, and has been through much rewriting, rethinking and editing to get to this stage. The process of turning a thesis into a book is often a confusing one, but ultimately it has been one that I have enjoyed and learned a lot from.

The book blurb says:

The poetry of Christina Rossetti is often described as ‘gothic’ and yet this term has rarely been examined in the specific case of Rossetti’s work. Based on new readings of the full range of her writings, from ‘Goblin Market’ to the devotional poems and prose works, this book explores Rossetti’s use of Gothic forms and images to consider her as a Gothic writer. Christina Rossetti’s Gothic analyses the poet’s use of the grotesque and the spectral and the Christian roots and Pre-Raphaelite influences of Rossetti’s deployment of Gothic tropes.

Contents: Introduction \ 1. The Spectrality of Rossettian Gothic \ 2. Early Influences: Rossetti and the Gothic of Maturin \ 3. ‘Goblin Market’ and Gothic \ 4. Rossetti, Ruskin and the Moral Grotesque \ 5. Shadows of Heaven: Rossetti’s Prose Works \ Bibliography \ Index.

I have worked on Rossetti for about six years now, and have been reading her poetry for much longer. The impetus behind my research was that so much criticism of her work considers her primarily as shadowed by the Pre-Raphaelites, or as a delicate, sentimental lady-poet whose work is rather sweet instead of fierce. ‘Goblin Market’ has attracted the most attention, of course, and that is quite a fierce p95d30/huch/1282/hk0122oem, but many of her other poems are read, or misread, as sentimental, and this is not the whole picture. Rossetti was very keen on Gothic novels as an adolescent, and these influence her early work directly, when she engages with the novels of Maturin in her poems, and then takes the aesthetics and tropes of Gothic forward into her later work, combining it with her Tractarian faith to create something quite unexpected. Ultimately, I argue in my book, Rossetti sees the world itself as Gothic, and Heaven as the ideal beyond it to which we should aim.

There are many excellent books on Rossetti available, from biographies to scholarly works which engage with particular aspects of her work, and I owe an enormous debt to these writers, though they are too numerous to name.

From my work on Rossetti springs my next project, on graveyard poetry, because through my work on Rossetti’s poetry I became interested in the interactions and relations between poetry and Gothic. I don’t think I can quite bring myself to leave Rossetti behind, however.

The book is available on Amazon.

Stained Glass and Birmingham School of Art

large_book4.Yesterday I attended the launch of a new book, Stained Glass Window Makers of Birmingham School of Art. Written by Roy Albutt (who is a member of the Pre-Raphaelite Society), the book examines the work of 11 stained glass makers all affiliated to the School of Art, some of whom may be familiar names to visitors to Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, such as Florence Camm and Sydney Meteyard. The book offers information on each individual, including a brief biography and the other arts in which they worked, and cover their training at and relationship to the School of Art in some detail, alongside a description of their works and a helpful Gazetteer which details where their work may be found. Importantly, for a book of this kind, it is also well-illustrated, with 51 colour plates which demonstrate the vibrant appealold-church-smethwick-149x300 of these works. It is likely to appeal to enthusiasts of stained glass and ecclesiology, as well as those interested in Pre-Raphaelite-style work, but it also offers the challenge to those in the Midlands to visit the places listed and admire the beautiful works in person.

Roy is keen to stress the importance of the Birmingham School of Art. Certainly, from the nineteenth century until well into the twentieth, the Arts and Crafts-style work it produced was hugely popular and influential, and Roy hopes that his book will inspire others to research this overlooked area of art history. He made considerable use of the archives and researchers at the Birmingham Institute of Art and Design (BIAD), part of Birmingham City University, which carries forward the work of the School of Art, and I hope his work will inspire further interest in this area. Years ago I did some work on The Quest, the Pre-Raphaelite-style magazine produced by the School of Art, and I am inclined now to consider returning to it.

The book is available from Roy’s website for £12.95.



versatilebloggernominationsI’m very pleased that Thrill Seeking Behavior has nominated me for a ‘Versatile Blogger’ award. It’s great to know that there are people out there who are reading my posts and enjoying them, just as I am reading and enjoying theirs, so thank you very much! In order to accept the award, you must:

1.Display the award logo on your blog.
2. Thank and link back to the person who nominated you.
3. State 7 things about yourself.
4. Nominate 15 other bloggers for this award.
5. Notify these bloggers of the nominations by linking back to one of their specific blog posts so they get notified back.

I think this is a great idea, since it gives me the opportunity to thank the bloggers whose writing I enjoy, and also to pass on their details to readers of this blog. So, here are my nominations; please visit these lovely blogs:

The Kissed Mouth: This is a great blog for all things Pre-Raphaelite, and I particularly enjoy the irreverent take on Victorian art and literature, such as Swinburne, Drugs and Rock’n’Roll.

Diary of a Vintage Girl: I’ve been following this blog for ages, basically because I love the 1940s clothes and hair. And also, quite often,  there’s cake as well!

Artistic Dress: This blog is based on research on the subject of aesthetic dress, and includes gems such as Floppy but Manly.

The Library Ninja: This is a new blog which promises to be very interesting, reviewing children’s and young adult books such as those by Michael Morpurgo.

Bead Flowers: I must admit, I am not a beader, but this blogger is a very good friend of mine and she writes some very interesting posts about creativity, motivation and other things besides beading.

Art and Architecture mainly: there are some fascinating posts on here on a variety of subjects including, of course, art and architecture, but also history (see this one, for example) and museums.

The Purl Bee: Probably my favourite craft blog – there are always good ideas on here. One of my favourites is these felt roses.

Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood: I love this. Especially Wombat Fridays.

Vagabond Baking: I am not much of a baker. But how could you not want to bake (and eat) these?!

Looking Glasses at Odd Corners: This is a research blog, and there is always something interesting to read about Amber’s research, such as her post on the idea of home and the uncanny.

Journal of Victorian Culture Online: This is cheating slightly, as I write guest posts for JVC Online. However, they have an amazing range of posts from different academics, including book, film and TV reviews, research posts and conference reports. Posts such as The Humanities, the Victorians, and Impact address important questions for university English departments and Victorian studies in particular.

Pre-Raphaelites in the City: Another great Pre-Raphaelite blog. Excellent analysis of Christina Rossetti’s ‘Winter: My Secret’.

Bookgaga: Literary blog, always introduces me to something new. Feel the book love

Ysolda: This blog is basically knitting porn. There are so many lovely ideas, patterns, and cosy chats along the way! I love these knitted cuffs.

Stuck in a Book: The title says it all. I like the idea of being stuck in a book, and there are all kinds of bookish ideas, reviews and inspirations here. Have a look at The Library at Night.

I am also supposed to post seven things about myself. You will probably have gathered many things about me from my choice of blog reading, whether rightly or wrongly, so I shall keep this brief:

I am slightly obsessive about old things. Anything pre-1950 is better than modern stuff, especially if it’s furniture.

I tend to get poetry on the brain the way normal people get music on the brain (although I do that too).william_bad_resoltion

I have a small son whom I refer to as Fatso. This isn’t unkind because he is small and doesn’t understand what I’m saying.

My favourite books are probably Richmal Crompton’s Just William series. Or Paddington. The night before my PhD viva, I read Paddington.

My phone ringtone is Transvision Vamp, Revolution Baby.

I write best when listening to opera.

I am writing this looking out of my bedroom window over fields and trees and a beautiful sunset. This makes me happy.