Cornforth [other married names Hughes, Schott], Fanny [née Sarah Cox]
- Christopher Whittick
Fanny Cornforth [Sarah Cox] (1835–1909)
Cornforth [other married names Hughes, Schott], Fanny [née Sarah Cox] (1835–1909), artists' model and intimate companion of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, was born at Steyning, Sussex, on 3 January 1835, and baptized there on 1 February 1835, the daughter of William Cox (bap. 1814, d. 1859), a journeyman blacksmith, and his wife, Jane, née Woolgar (bap. 1814, d. 1847). Her youngest sister Fanny died in February 1847, and their mother two months later. The family moved to Brighton, where Sarah was in service at a respectable lodging-house in 1851; her father lived half a mile away with his second wife.
As she later told an American collector, Sarah Cox and a ‘cousin’ (probably her great-aunt) attended a fête, held in London at the Surrey Gardens in Walworth on 25 August 1856, to celebrate the return of the regiments of guards from the Crimea. Also in the crowd were Edward Burne-Jones, Ford Madox Brown, Cormell Price, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882) who dislodged her hair 'as if it were an accident' (MS letter from Samuel Bancroft jun. to Caroline Kipling, 2 April 1899, Bancroft collection, Delaware Art Museum). On the following day Sarah, accompanied by her aunt, went at his invitation to Rossetti's studio 'and he put my head against the wall, and drew it for the head of the girl in the calf picture [Found]'. The encounter was to change both their lives. By winter 1858 Sarah—living in Dean Street, Soho, London—was modelling for Rossetti, Burne-Jones, and J. R. Spencer Stanhope. Rossetti introduced her to the watercolourist and diarist George Price Boyce, and in the following spring they both helped her move to rooms in Tenison Street, Lambeth. Here she probably developed her acquaintance with Timothy Hughes (c.1831–1872), a part-time model and, like his stepfather George Cornforth, a turner or mechanical engineer. Courted by Boyce, Sarah remained attached to Rossetti, and in July 1859 Boyce sought consolation by commissioning him to paint her portrait. When it was seen by his friends three months later, Arthur Hughes expected that Boyce would 'kiss the dear thing's lips away' (Allingham and Williams, 67). Bocca baciata, described by Swinburne as 'more stunning than can be decently expressed' (Swinburne Letters, 1.27), marks a turning point in Rossetti's art, heralding the abandonment of his Pre-Raphaelite past.
Sarah almost certainly hoped for a future with Rossetti, and broke down when the news reached her of his marriage to Elizabeth Siddal in May 1860. Uncertain of her long-term security, she impulsively turned to Hughes, whom she married in that year at St John's, Waterloo, on 11 August. She maintained her career as a model, continuing to sit for Burne-Jones and Rossetti, amalgamating the names of her dead sister and husband's stepfather into a new professional identity: Fanny Cornforth. But she remained committed to Rossetti, and was sharing lodgings with him at Lincoln's Inn within weeks of Siddal's death in February 1862; a sketch which Rossetti made at the time puts the nature of their relationship beyond doubt. Fanny remained intimate with Rossetti for much of the ensuing decade; her husband Timothy Hughes, a shadowy figure described by Gabriel as her ‘incubus’, died in 1872.
Rossetti took Fanny with him when he moved to Tudor House, Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, in autumn 1862, and they visited Paris together in 1863. Her existence was concealed from his mother but was accepted by his brother and close friends, who enjoyed Fanny's high spirits, good nature, and untutored Sussex vernacular. J. A. M. Whistler and William Bell Scott, the ambiguities of whose affairs resembled Rossetti's own, were ready to receive her as a guest; outside bohemia her role as his housekeeper satisfied the requirements of respectability. While at Tudor House, Fanny sat for many of the works which now sustain Rossetti's reputation: Fazio's Mistress (1863; Tate collection), Woman Combing her Hair (1864; priv. coll.), The Blue Bower (1865; Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham), and Lady Lilith (1866; Delaware Art Museum). She may also have modelled for Frederick Sandys (1829–1904), an occasional resident of Cheyne Walk.
Increasingly preoccupied with the image of Jane Morris, Rossetti came to find Fanny's presence an embarrassment, and in summer 1868 he established her at 36 Royal Avenue, Chelsea. Yet she retained the keys of Tudor House, and still saw herself as its chatelaine.
Throughout his frequent absences in the 1870s Rossetti never ceased to regard Fanny as his responsibility—in September 1872, as yet unrecovered from a major breakdown, he wrote from Scotland: 'you are the only person whom it is my duty to provide for, and you may be sure I should do my utmost as long as there was a breath in my body or a penny in my purse' (Letters to Fanny, 37–9). Aware that it would be impossible to support Fanny by conventional means, Rossetti endowed her with pictures and money, and on more than one occasion, correctly foreseeing disputes after his death, certified that she was the rightful owner of the works in her possession.
In September 1877 the increasingly erratic Rossetti informed Fanny that he could no longer provide for her, and she impetuously threw in her lot with John Bernard Schott (1837–1891). With Schott, a former publican and the son of an army bandmaster, from the firm of Mainz music publishers, Fanny left Royal Avenue to run the Rose Tavern in Jermyn Street. On 13 November 1879 they were married, nine days after Schott had obtained a divorce from his first wife. But as Rossetti's health declined, Fanny once more willingly responded to his emotional demands, which by then were bordering on supplication. In something of a return to the old days of their intimacy, in September 1881 Fanny accompanied Rossetti to the Lake District where, during his vain attempt to recover his health, she probably tried to induce him to write a will in her favour. She no doubt felt that she had the claims of a wife in all but name, and later declared that she had given up all for Rossetti. But when in a few months the end finally came, no such provision had been made; the family kept her at arm's length and were spared any personal embarrassment when her request to see Rossetti's body arrived too late.
After Rossetti's death and in financial difficulties, Fanny and Schott established the short-lived Rossetti Gallery in Bond Street, London, hoping to sell the pick of her collection of Rossetti's manuscripts and drawings. In April 1884 they left the Rose Tavern and moved to Kensington, where John Bernard died in 1891. Fanny devoted herself to raising her younger stepson, the invalid Frederick Schott. She must have hoped that his brother Cecil's talent as an artist—Rossetti had apprenticed him to Frederic Shields—would contribute to their future maintenance. But Cecil Schott's later years as studio assistant to George Frederic Watts were brought to an abrupt end in 1896 by a custodial sentence for house-breaking; on release he began a new life in South Africa. As a widow, while she and Fred moved through a series of rented rooms in west London, Fanny came to be regarded as a Pre-Raphaelite relic, the custodian of more than 120 portraits, sketches, and studies. Artists and collectors including Samuel Bancroft jun. (1840–1915), a Delaware industrialist, and Charles Fairfax Murray (1849–1919) visited her, anxious to salvage her memories and the residue of her treasures.
After Fred's death in 1898 Fanny's faculties began to fail and she gradually became reliant on a meagre allowance from John Bernard's sister Rosa Villiers, who in 1905 removed her from her rooms in Hammersmith without disclosing her destination. Within a year Fanny was dispatched under the name Sarah Hughes to seaside lodgings at Felpham, near Bognor, where her progressive dementia soon prompted the landlady to press for her permanent removal. A short spell in the local workhouse infirmary was followed by transfer to the West Sussex County Asylum on 30 March 1907; she died there on 24 February 1909 and went to a common grave in Chichester cemetery.
According to Rossetti's brother, Fanny Cornforth was 'a pre-eminently fine woman, with regular and sweet features, and a mass of the most lovely blonde hair—light-golden or “harvest yellow”'. But, he added, 'she had no charm of breeding, education, or intellect' (Family Letters, vol. 1, p. 203). These deficiencies never troubled, and may even have attracted, Rossetti himself, but came to exasperate his friends, who saw her as an unfortunate echo of his bohemian past, and 'a living denial of the legend they wished to create' (Drewery, Moore, and Whittick, 13). Finding concealment impossible, Rossetti's biographers dismissed Fanny as the personification of 'the sordid frailties of a great man' (Edmund Gosse to T. J. Wise, 2 Oct 1923, BL, Ashley MS 3854, fol. 30). By the 1950s her path to notoriety had culminated in assertions, based on a misapprehension of her age and what little was known of her circumstances, that she had once earned her living as a prostitute.
The facts of Sarah Cox's life show that, like Lizzie Siddal and Jane Morris, she was the daughter of a family of manual workers, fascinated by an older man of exceptional talent from a world beyond her experience. As Fanny Cornforth, she was the second artistic muse of Rossetti's career—the inspiration for his landfall on the shores of aestheticism and symbolism. Despite the strains and incongruities of their relationship, her persistent loyalty and his emotional dependence combined to form the enduring bond between them.
- A. Drewery, J. Moore, and C. Whittick, ‘Re-presenting Fanny Cornforth’, British Art Journal, 2/3 (spring/summer 2001), 3–15
- Letters of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ed. O. Doughty and J. R. Wahl, 4 vols. (1965–7)
- MS letter from Samuel Bancroft to Caroline Kipling, 2 April 1899, Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington, Samuel Bancroft collection, box 5
- Dante Gabriel Rossetti's letters to Fanny Cornforth, ed. P. F. Baum (Baltimore, 1940)
- H. Allingham and E. Baumer Williams, eds., Letters to William Allingham (1911)
- The correspondence between Samuel Bancroft, Jr. and Charles Fairfax Murray, 1892–1916, ed. R. Elzea (Wilmington, 1980)
- J. Marsh, Dante Gabriel Rossetti (2000)
- MS letter from Edmund Gosse to T. J. Wise, 2 Oct 1923, BL, Ashley MS 3854, fol. 30
- D. B. Elliott, Charles Fairfax Murray (2000)
- Dante Gabriel Rossetti: his family letters, ed. W. M. Rossetti, 2 vols. (1895)
- The Swinburne letters, ed. C. Y. Lang, 6 vols. (1959–62), Algernon Swinburne to William Bell Scott, 16 Dec 1859
- W. Sussex RO, MP 4486
- Hampshire Telegraph (24 Oct 1896)
- West Sussex County Asylum register, W. Sussex RO, HCGR 9/2/12, p.12
- d. cert. [Sarah Hughes]
- Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington, Samuel Bancroft collection, corresp. with D. G. Rossetti and S. Bancroft jun.
- D. G. Rossetti, portrait, 1859, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
- D. G. Rossetti, drawing, 1860, AM Oxf. [see illus.]
- D. G. Rossetti, portrait, 1865, Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Birmingham
- D. G. Rossetti, portrait, 1870, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery
- E. Burne-Jones, portrait
- J. R. S. Stanhope, portrait
- photograph, JRL, Charles Fairfax Murray collection, MS 1282 photographs 3
- photograph, Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington
- photographs, NPG
- photograph, 1907, W. Sussex RO, West Sussex County Asylum register, HCGR 9/2/12, p. 12