Mystery of Steyning-born Pre-Raphaelite model solved

Cited as a supermodel of her time, today Fanny Conforth's image can be seen on chocolate boxes, calendars and art books throughout the world
Cited as a supermodel of her time, today Fanny Conforth's image can be seen on chocolate boxes, calendars and art books throughout the world
  • Details discovered in a patient case book from the former Graylingwell Hospital
  • Truth had tantalised researchers for over 100 years
  • Pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s model and muse
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THE answer to a century-old mystery involving an artist’s muse born in Steyning has been unearthed.

The last days and final resting place of Fanny Cornforth, widely regarded as the face of the Pre-Raphaelite style, has been discovered in the archives of West Sussex Record Office in Chichester.

Details discovered in a patient case book from the former Graylingwell Hospital reveal the answer to the mystery of what happened to Fanny in the years after she sat for at least 60 oils, watercolours, pastels and pencil drawings for the Pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

It turns out she entered the Chichester asylum in 1907 and died in 1909 at the age of 74, suffering from senile dementia. She was buried in Chichester Cemetery in a common grave without a headstone.

County archivist Wendy Walker said: “Archives are full of hidden stories that are just waiting for the right person or the right set of circumstances to reveal their secrets.

“In this instance, it was the release of the indexes of the Lunacy Commission and Board of Control records by The National Archives in partnership with Ancestry that held the vital clue that sent two separate researchers to the West Sussex Record Office in pursuit of the last days and the final resting place of Fanny Cornforth.

I am delighted that we have been able to help with this research and the fact that this discovery has coincided with the culmination of the Graylingwell Heritage Project is the icing on the cake

County archivist Wendy Walker

“Once in the search room, the Graylingwell Hospital case books revealed the truth that had laid hidden and tantalised researchers for over 100 years.

“This is fantastic archive that provides a detailed insight into the lives of all those who were patients at Graylingwell. I am delighted that we have been able to help with this research and the fact that this discovery has coincided with the culmination of the Graylingwell Heritage Project is the icing on the cake.”

Fanny born Sarah Cox at Steyning in 1835. She became Sarah Hughes – the name used in the case book – on her first marriage and Sarah Schott on her second.

Cited as a supermodel of her time, today her image can be seen on chocolate boxes, calendars and art books throughout the world.

The discovery about her final days was first made at the Record Office by Christopher Whittick, the biographer of Fanny Cornforth for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB). Shortly afterwards, Kirsty Stonell Walker, the author of Stunner: The Fall and Rise of Fanny Cornforth, found similar.

An update of the entry for Fanny Cornforth is due to appear in the online ODNB at the end of May.

The case books are kept at the West Sussex Record Office and the digitisation of them has been undertaken at the record office by volunteers as part of the Graylingwell Heritage Project.

Sarah Rance-Riley, Graylingwell Heritage project manager at the Chichester Community Development Trust, said: “The whereabouts and the final part of Fanny’s life have been a complete mystery until now.

“But now, thanks to this research, we have found Fanny’s patient case book, doctors’ notes, death certificate and even a photograph of her whilst she was there. It is a truly incredible discovery.”

Renowned paintings such as Lady Lilith, Fair Rosamund, Bocca Baciata and The Blue Bower were all modelled by Fanny, whose voluptuous figure and abundant golden hair became the signature of Rossetti’s later paintings featuring the single female figure.