Letters between Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Fanny Cornforth Available Online Through New Digital Collections Portal

March 17, 2017

Azelina Flint

The Samuel Bancroft, Jr. collection of Rossetti manuscripts provides a unique window into the relationship between Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his model and mistress, Fanny Cornforth. Cornforth was a chameleon-like figure who passed went under a myriad of names and roles in her lifetime. Indeed, the name under which we know her was a complete fabrication, with her stepson, Fred Schott, informing Samuel Bancroft, Jr. that it was assumed in a spirit “of girlish caprice,” as the surname was taken from the mother-in-law of her short-lived first marriage. Cornforth’s real name remains a matter of dispute among biographers, some of whom believe it to be Mary. , In later life she was to sign at least one of her letters to Bancroft “Sarah” (although she usually kept to “Fanny” when corresponding with this diehard Rossetti enthusiast). Often purely seen through the lens of her relationship with Rossetti, the correspondence in the Bancroft archival collection allows us a brief glimpse into the changing character and circumstances of Fanny Cornforth throughout her life, as well as providing insight into her relationship with Bancroft, who purchased most of his Rossetti manuscripts from her.

The nature of Cornforth’s relationship with Rossetti was ambivalent. Rossetti scholars cannot help but associate her with Rossetti’s iconic image of the fallen woman, Found, for which she modelled. Her willingness to assume the public role of Rossetti’s mistress and “housekeeper” (unlike Jane Morris, who kept her romantic relationship with Rossetti a secret), along with her two marriages and extramarital affairs, has led some critics and biographers to conflate Cornforth with the “fallen woman” figure with whom Rossetti’s paintings sometimes associated her. This has been compounded by the disapproval that Rossetti’s family expressed for his relationship with Cornforth. Included in the Bancroft collection is an icily polite letter from Rossetti’s brother, William Michael, following the painter’s death. Responding to Cornforth’s request that she might attend Rossetti’s funeral after the fact, William Michael informs Cornforth that the coffin is already closed and there is “nothing further to be done” about her request. The letter offers no explanation for the family’s failure to invite Cornforth, who had known Rossetti for almost twenty-five years, to the funeral. Click here for letter.

Despite the disapproval of the Rossetti family, the Bancroft collection points to a highly complex relationship between the artist and his model. It is apparent that Rossetti felt an obligation to financially provide for Cornforth—but this obligation was not connected to a relationship that was purely sexual. The letters exhibit a frequent concern for Cornforth’s failing health, her lack of suitable housing, and her ability to meet her bills. More than a mercenary exchange for gratification, Rossetti’s financial transactions with Cornforth show a genuine sense of responsibility or commitment to provide for a woman who had supported him emotionally, and with whom he had an engaged in a meaningful relationship.

Nor is the support one-sided. Rossetti defers to Cornforth’s judgment in household affairs—firing one of his servants at her behest—and he is quick to call upon her when sick. Indeed, it is apparent that he prefers her as a nurse to any of the other women in his life, including his mother and sister. Cornforth also makes some touching attempts to provide for Rossetti with what little she has. An amusing exchange of letters reveals her upset when Rossetti’s friends attempted to dispose of a fawn she had provided for his meals, due to its less-than-appetizing condition. Click here for letters.

Indeed, by the end of Rossetti’s life, his relationship with Cornforth was much more like a friendship than a relationship between an artist and his mistress. He wrote to her stepson, Cecil, with advice on how to improve his drawing, while corresponding amicably with Cornforth’s second husband, John Schott, concerning the value of paintings that he had entrusted for Cornforth’s future. Click here for letter. Rossetti’s bequest of paintings, manuscripts, and objects was a financially astute way of providing for Cornforth, should any trouble befall her after his death. An investment of increasing capital, Cornforth was able to sell off her Rossetti memorabilia slowly to Bancroft, following the deaths of both her husband and stepson.

Cornforth’s stepson, Fred, whom she regarded as a natural son, showed great affection for the late Rossetti in his correspondence with Bancroft: “In any little matter that you would like to ask us, I hope you will not refrain, for it gives us both pleasure to satisfy you who have a genuine interest in one who was a kind friend to us.” Fred’s letters show him in every respect willing to assist Bancroft in his queries about the relationship between Rossetti and his stepmother—even providing the intriguing information that Rossetti initially met Cornforth when she posed for him with her first husband at Blackfriars. Bancroft’s correspondence with Fred, much of which was conducted during Fred’s convalescence at the National Hospital, was cut short by the latter’s untimely death. Cornforth shared her grief for her late stepson with Bancroft in their correspondence: “I have had so much trouble, with Poor Fred dying. He was getting so much better & I really thought he would be coming out soon but he was taken suddenly worse & died in the Hospital, and if it had not been for your kindness, I really do not know what I should have done.” Click here for letter.

The death of Fred Schott brought about a catastrophic decline in fortune for Cornforth. Her later correspondence with Bancroft reveals her pitiful situation, poverty, and sad deterioration from the height of her fame and popularity as a Pre-Raphaelite model. To Bancroft’s repeated enquiries about Cornforth’s Pre-Raphaelite connections, she responds “I don’t see any of the old ones now,” and she repeatedly evades his request for a photograph—finally admitting that she feels “too old” and seldom leaves the house. She also shares her concerns about her sister-in-law’s reduction of her income and pitifully admits that her letters and visits from Bancroft are among the highlight of her life. To his credit, Bancroft seems to have adopted his idol’s role of providing for Fanny, sending small financial gifts and books on the Pre-Raphaelites, in addition to the sums he paid for the memorabilia he purchased from her. Fanny, who had perfect faith in his integrity, allowed him to name the price he was willing to pay for her ephemera.

Tragically, the final letters of Bancroft’s collection reveal that he was the only person in Cornforth’s life to exhibit such integrity, or to show any genuine concern for her welfare. Their correspondence is cut short by a letter from one of her amanuenses, Donald McAdam, informing Bancroft that Cornforth’s sister-in-law, Rosa Villiers, had abruptly “came to town . . . sold all the old lady’s things and took her away to some place near Brighton,” adding that she had “become quite an imbecile.” Click here for letter. McAdam had the decency to remember Bancroft and to attempt to locate Cornforth’s new address (something that would have proven impossible, as she had been forcibly removed to the workhouse). However, Cornforth’s second amanuensis, her landlady Edith Squire, had the audacity to write to Bancroft and inform him that the very objects Cornforth had promised to him in letters that Squire had transcribed, had been seized in liquidation of a supposed debt. Informing Bancroft that she was unaware of Cornforth’s new address, Squire offered to sell him the remaining memorabilia for whatever price he felt was reasonable. Whatever Fanny’s debts may have been, one can safely assume (in light of her poverty and obscurity) that they were not equal in value to the remaining objects Rossetti had left her. Bancroft clearly thought so: he tore the letter in half and did not dignify it with a reply. Then, in a seeming afterthought, he placed the two halves among his collection of Rossetti manuscripts. Perhaps he felt that, even if there was nothing left he could do for Fanny, the treachery of her landlady would at least be recorded for posterity. I am delighted that it is now available online for all to read, for if Bancroft had not beaten me to it, I would have been solely tempted to tear it in half myself.

Azelina Flint

Click here to browse all of the correspondence between Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Fanny Cornforth.

Introduction about the project

The Helen Farr Sloan Library & Archives is embarking upon a multi-year digitization initiative to increase access to and support research of its unique archival holdings.  This digitization project will result in free, online access to a substantial cross-section of our most significant archival collections, including the John Sloan Manuscript Collection, Howard Pyle Manuscript Collection, and Samuel and Mary R. Bancroft, Jr. Pre-Raphaelite Manuscript Collection. The materials will be available through the Delaware Heritage Collection, an online portal supported by the Delaware Division of Libraries. The Delaware Heritage Collection makes documents, artwork, photographs, newspapers, and other important items previously available only in local libraries, archives, museums, historic sites, and other cultural institutions available to anyone who has access to a computer. To explore the Library’s digital collections, click here.

About Azelina Flint

Azelina Flint is a third year PhD Candidate of the School of American Studies, University of East Anglia, UK. Her thesis, titled “Louisa May Alcott and Christina Rossetti: Male individualism and the identity of the female artist”, compares Louisa May Alcott’s relationship with the Transcendentalist movement to Christina Rossetti’s relationship with the Pre-Raphaelites. In particular, she considers how both authors critique the ideology of individualism espoused in the work of their male relatives, in order to affiliate themselves with a vision of female community that is centered on Christian values, and inspired by the matrilineal communities of their families. The project is funded by the CHASE consortium of the UK Arts & Humanities Research Council: a doctoral training partnership for the Humanities and Arts that is shared between universities in the South East of England, and which has a particular focus on interdisciplinary in postgraduate research. Azelina’s participation in the Bancroft/Rossetti digitization project is supported by CHASE’s work placement scheme, which allows CHASE-funded students to spend one to six months with a partner organization, working on a project that is mutually beneficial to both the student’s research and the organization. Azelina is especially passionate about the painting and poetry of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and has published articles on the artist in the Journal of Pre-Raphaelite Studies (Fall, 2015, 25) and Pre-Raphaelite Review (Fall, 2015, 24). Prior to her placement at the Delaware Art Museum, Azelina was the UK Fulbright US Embassy American Studies Fellow at Harvard University, where she worked as a Visiting Fellow, undertaking archival research on the Alcott family at the Houghton Library.

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