Monday, 16 May 2022

Fanny Cornforth as Woman in White

 from  Foreword to Stunner: the Fall and Rise of Fanny Cornforth new edition by Kirsty Stonell Walker 

Active, interesting ‘afterlives’ have been created for several of the young women who acted as models in Pre-Raphaelite paintings.  ‘Acted’ is the right word, for a model plays a role, often in costume, in much the same way as a stage performer.  The role may sometimes overlap with real life, but as showbiz interviews disclose, the actual person should not be identified with the parts she plays.

Fanny Cornforth was the ‘stage name’ of young Sarah Cox, who modelled for Pre-Raphaelite paintings of fallen women and alluring beauties,  and whose character was maligned by commentators who described her as a vulgar, thieving whore.  Kirsty Stonell Walker rose to Fanny’s defence a decade ago, using documentary sources and her own instinct to produce a vigorous and engaging biography.  

She was an undoubted ‘stunner’, physically attractive with a fine figure, sweet features and ‘a mass of the most lovely blonde hair – light golden or harvest yellow’.   Kirsty made Fanny the star of her own story, not just a supporting figure in the Pre-Raphaelite soap opera, as the bosomy, grasping ‘mistress’ of Dante Gabriel Rossetti.   Now, thanks to the reach of the internet coupled with wider and deeper historical research,  much more information is revealed.  This revised edition includes new facts about Fanny’s girlhood in Sussex, about her second marriage and life after Rossetti, and a full account of her last years and death from dementia. 

To this is added an enjoyable critical account of Fanny’s subsequent ‘appearances’ in fiction and film – where of course historical characters play new roles.   Fanny Cornforth has a future as well as a past.

NOTE  on  Saturday 22 May at the Royal Academy weekend course on Jo Hiffernan as Whistler's model and muse, I  will summarise Cornforth's comparable role as Rossetti's 'Woman in White' 

Wednesday, 4 May 2022

Young Teacher's new home


Rebecca Solomon, The Young Teacher

Good news that the Rebecca Solomon genre painting featuring Fanny Eaton as an Indian ayah with two white youngsters has been purchased by Princeton University Art Museum.

Photo shows the unframed canvas in NPG conservation studio prior to Pre-Raphaelite Sisters exhibition in 2019.   

it will join another image of Eaton in the Princeton collection, head study by otherwise unknown Walter Stocks.

Thursday, 28 April 2022

the Morrises at home


Suzanne Fagence Cooper previously chronicled the adept manner in which Effie Gray extricated herself from an unhappy, unconsummated marriage to John Ruskin in order to become the wife and artistic partner of John Millais.  In ‘How We Might Liveat Home with Jane and William Morris’ she traces the Morrises’ shared and separate lives with clarity and judicious assessment.  

The marriage of William Morris, designer-businessman, and Jane Burden, stableman’s uneducated daughter, has always been the subject of curiosity.  Not so much for its cross-class features, which were relatively common in the Victorian age, but for its sequel.   Eight years after the wedding and the birth of two children, Jane began a love affair with artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Morris’s friend and business partner – with the agreement if not approval of her husband.

William Morris is everyone’s hero.  Jane has a terrible reputation, as silent, sulky, faithless wife.  With sympathetic warmth, Cooper leads us through the couple’s experiences.  She imagines them in various locations but does not invent their thoughts. Some known details are omitted – Jane’s unfulfilled wish for a son, her clandestine correspondence with Rossetti, Morris’s extravagant spending.  But there is so much to include.  Notably the evolution of Morris’ aesthetic taste from quaint medieval to proto-modern plainness, plus the analytical account of the tiny ornamented booklets that Jane created - when and for whom were they designed?  

No letters from Jane to Morris or his family survive, so we don’t know what she called him at home.  In the group, he was ‘Topsy’ or ‘Top’; outside it would always be ‘Mr Morris’.

In its focus on personal lives, biography like this is not ‘history from below’ so much as what Phyllis Rose called ‘higher gossip’.   It draws readers along engaging narratives to which we can relate.  Morris, whose achievements are so various in poetry, design, manufacturing, politics, calligraphy, translation and publishing, also wrote of his ‘disappointments and tacenda’ – about which to keep silent.  These include his failure as a lover, and most painfully, the awfulness of Jenny’s epilepsy, which struck when she was fifteen, blighting both her own days and those of the family.   Jane grieved acutely and had her own ‘unspoken’ list of regrets.

The strength of Cooper’s storytelling, signalled in the book’s subtitle, is its attention to how wife and husband created each of their homes, with comfort and fine objects but no luxurious superfluity.  If we can believe it, nothing that was not either beautiful or useful.  

Their relationship, too, was a shared construction, mortared with tact, which weathered the storms.  When Rossetti’s guilt for  ‘stealing’ his friend’s wife drove him to a paranoid breakdown, Morris allowed him to convalesce at Kelmscott until Jane acknowledged the affair was at its end.    Morris did not  gloat over this outcome, and the subsequent affection  between the couple was noted by all observers.   Jane devoted her widowhood to securing Morris’s memory through books and buildings – his lifelong pleasures.

Sunday, 27 February 2022

When is public art offensive ? 1


When is public art offensive  and what should be done with it?


Cecil Rhodes by Henry Alfred Pegram, Oriel College Oxford

To be removed: Historical statues that celebrate those who should not be honoured, even for their philanthropy, as that effectively camouflages their execrable careers, as in the cases of slave trader Edward Colston and imperialist Cecil Rhodes.   Removal amplifies rather than erasing history, as re-valuation. 

[censored detail] in Pursuit of Rare Meats by Rex Whistler, restaurant, Tate Britain

To be removed: historical depictions that mock or denigrate people on the basis of ethnicity, religion, gender or sexuality.   Currently high on the agenda:  the allegedly ‘witty’ Rare Meats mural by Rex Whistler in the restaurant at Tate Britain, where diminutive African figures in collars and chains are dragged through a pastoral landscape by European women and men on a sporting ‘expedition’ in pursuit
of fine foods.  As Diane Abbott MP says, ‘Nobody should be eating surrounded by imagery of black slaves.  The management needs to move the restaurant.’   Tate’s response in the form of an ‘interpretation text’ that ‘addresses this directly as part of our ongoing work to confront such histories’ doesn’t grasp Abbott’s point.  Nobody should eat surrounded by an argument over enslavement.     If the restaurant stays put, the mural needs to ‘move’ permanently out of sight.  The problem of ‘how?’ should not obstruct this.

To be debated: Sculptures that offend or distress members of the public, typically images of nudity or violence.   Is the classical naked woman reclining for (male) visual pleasure so engrained in high art that objections are pointless?  Many communities find it indecent.   What of more explicit works like Courbet’s ‘L’origine du monde’?   would that be on display in the National Gallery as it is in the muse d’Orsay?

Full male nudity is often worse and has been so since decorous figleaves were added to Renaissance statuary.   Often, the intention to shock and offend, as in work by Robert Mapplethorpe, the Chapman brothers, Gilbert & George, is recognised by being carefully curated within museums, rather than openly in public spaces.  

Matthias Grunewald, Crucifixion, Isenheim altarpiece, Colmar

Curiously, ubiquitous figures of torture and crucifixion do not prompt much concern, even though paintings and sculptures of Christ hanging on the cross seem very horrific.  Should they attract warning signs?

Saturday, 29 January 2022

Laura Knight's Hat


Laura Knight Self with Ella Napper 1913 NPG

 Yesterday  an excellent webinar on diverse aspects of Laura Knight's art work was held at the MK Gallery Milton Keynes.  Including a great short film on Barrage Balloons and the women who managed, manoeuvred, mended and maintained them.  if one hadn't known of Knight's  painting of the team launching an airship-sized balloon, the fact that this wartime detachment was [all?] female might have been ignored and forgotten. 

Several MK speakers alluded to Knight's famous and famously popular Self-Portrait painting Ella Napper as a standing life model,  noting the double back views, so that both the egocentric artist's face and the erotic display of the female nude are obscured.  But also, that the artist claims for herself the traditional male role.

Once more, I was struck by her hat  -  surely a version of the bohemian artist's wideawake? rather like a beard a sort of emblem signifying 'Edwardian painter'.  And then the scarlet top, joined with the other assertive reds.  Where have we seen these before?  

In G. F. Watts' Self-Portraits [of which he did many]  Both the black hat and the red gown


GFW  was the doyen of the British art world when Knight was young. Even the epitome of the genius painter as constructed in the Victorian age.  Did the Knights visit the GFW retrospective at the RA in 1905?  I 'd guess it had a subliminal, if not direct influence.  

Knight's floppy flower-decked felt and droopy red cardi are of course outclassed by Watts' swagger hat and cardinal's robe.  But they do subtly mock the Great Artist image.

Her self-portrait expresses her ambition in  this period. As she recalled ''An ebullient vitality made me want to paint the whole world, and say how glorious it was to be young and strong and able to splash with paint on canvas.'   

Monday, 24 January 2022

Prejudice 1810

In the first (1801) and second (1802) editions of Maria Edgeworth's novel Belinda,  Juba, a Black servant, marries an English farmgirl named Lucy. The third edition of the book, published in 1810, omitted the character Juba, and instead has Lucy betrothed to one James Jackson.

Both these minor characters belong to a [much] lower social class than Belinda and her potential partners.  Nonetheless, according to Edgeworth the alteration was made  because
"many people have been scandalized by the idea of a black man marrying a white woman; my father says that gentlemen have horrors on this subject and would draw conclusions very unfavourable to a female author who appeared to recommend such unions".

It's notable however that this had to be explained to Edgeworth, who had originally regarded the fictional marriage as quite commonplace, or at least unremarkable among the servantry.  She excused herself by adding:

"As I do not understand the subject, I trust to this better judgment".

Friday, 14 January 2022

Children with Nanny and Gardener

William Mulready, 1854, Leeds Art Gallery 
this looks like a genre scene, but what is it showing?   a couple of posh children outdoors in the care of the nanny and a gardener?   

the children look as if they belong in a family portrait, or a conversation piece, but missing their parents and pets.   The landscape view and masonry pillar indicate a substantial country house, as also do the adult employees.

is the location generic or verifiable?  to what family does this group belong?  Or is it a scene from literature or drama?

The infant in the nursemaid's arms resembles that in Mulready's Toyseller.   Does the boy's drum invoke the Crimean war?    is this part of a pictorial narrative?

i've been wanting to know more about this painting for years.