Illustration on a letter from Dante Gabriel Rossetti to Fanny Cornforth (nd) (courtesy Samuel and Mary R. Bancroft Pre-Raphaelite Manuscript Collection, Delaware Art Museum)

Fanny Cornforth is often remembered only through her presence in the paintings of Pre-Raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti, her mass of flowing hair one of the most recognizable visuals in his 19th-century work. A newly digitized archive at the Delaware Art Museum (DAM) adds her voice to her history as an artist’s model and muse. Cornforth’s correspondence with Rossetti is featured in the Samuel and Mary R. Bancroft Pre-Raphaelite Manuscript Collection, part of the initial 500 items available in DAM’s digital collections portal.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, portrait of Fanny Cornforth (1865) (via Wikimedia)

The online platform for DAM’s Helen Farr Sloan Library & Archives was announced this month. Along with the Pre-Raphaelite papers, the new digital offerings include the John Sloan Manuscript Collection, the Howard Pyle Manuscript Collection, and DAM’s institutional archives. Sam Sweet, the museum’s executive director and CEO, stated in the release: “We field over 250 research visits and reference requests each year. Now many more can browse our archives from anywhere in the world, expanding our reach even further.”

One of those visits was from Azelina Flint, a PhD candidate in the School of American Studies at the University of East Anglia in the UK. In a March blog post, she described her project of digitizing DAM’s hundreds of letters and poetry manuscripts by Rossetti, including the materials related to Cornforth. Collector Samuel Bancroft, Jr., was an American textile manufacturer who acquired Pre-Raphaelite art, and also communicated with Cornforth. Flint notes that the DAM archives include a letter from Rossetti’s brother dismissing Cornforth’s interest in attending the painter’s funeral and intimate exchanges that reveal a relationship that evolved, over more than two decades, from affairs to a real friendship. Some of Rossetti’s correspondence is addressed “My Dear Elephant” (or features elephant illustrations), while she in turn anointed him “Rhinoceros,” a shared teasing about their growing older.

Letter from Dante Gabriel Rossetti to Fanny Cornforth (nd): “Good Elephant An old Rhinoceros want you to come down at once. The woman is going & has to be paid, & the new servants are coming sooner than they were expected. Old Rhinoceros look up a tiddy drawing. Old Rhinoceros” (courtesy Samuel and Mary R. Bancroft Pre-Raphaelite Manuscript Collection, Delaware Art Museum)

The letters culminate with a sad story. One of the last missives, which was torn in half by Bancroft himself, is a letter from Conforth’s landlady after she’d been confined to a workhouse. The woman proposes to sell Bancroft the Rossetti materials he’d already been promised, supposedly taken to make up for debts. Flint writes:

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.

Recently, a “Remember Fanny” campaign crowdfunded a memorial for Cornforth’s unmarked grave, where she was buried after dying in 1909 at the West Sussex Count Lunatic Asylum at the age of 74. Perhaps, through that marker and the digitized letters, Cornforth will finally retrieve some of her humanity, which was shadowed by her solitary end. Her collection of Rossetti’s work and manuscripts continues to illuminate our understanding of Pre-Raphaelite art.

The Delaware Art Museum’s digital collections are now available to explore online.

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print and online media since 2006. She moonlights...