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'