Fanny Eaton: The Forgotten Pre-Raphaelite Stunner

The Head of Mrs Eaton (1861) Joanna Wells

During her career Fanny Eaton sat for quite a number of the Pre-Raphaelite artists. Her features can be spied in a number of finished canvasses and preparatory drawings. And yet more often than not her importance as a Pre-Raphaelite model is often overlooked or forgotten.

When scouring the ‘stunner lists’ put together by art historians and fans of Pre-Raphaelite art Eaton is always omitted from the string of familiar names, Siddal, Cornforth, Wilding, Miller, Stillman, Zambaco and Morris. This begs the question why? What makes one woman a stunner and another not? So what is the reason for Eaton’s omission? Could it be……

…..The calibre of the artists for whom she sits? Well, in Eaton’s case she sat for prominent members of the Pre-Raphaelite circle including Rossetti, Millais, Sandys as well as a wide number of associated artists including Rebecca and Simeon Solomon, Albert Moore and Joanna Boyce, so that can’t be it.

Or is it the number of paintings her features appear? Eaton appears in a number of finished paintings and drawings as my previous post illustrates including:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Mother of Moses (1860) Simeon Solomon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


The Mother of Sisera Looking out at a Window
(1861) Albert Moore

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Beloved (1865-6) Dante Gabriel Rossetti

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jepthah (1867) John Everett Millais

In August 1865 Rossetti writes to Madox-Brown and describes Eaton as having ‘a very fine head and figure-a good deal of Janey’ (letter 268). The last part of his statement is very telling and important as it demonstrates how Rossetti saw Eaton. He equates her beauty as being equal to that of Janey’s (and we all know how he felt about her!), therefore by extension for Rossetti at least, Eaton had stunner qualities and status.

I was once informed that the reason that Eaton was overlooked was that she didn’t appear in any important paintings unlike the other ‘stunners’. I would beg to differ. When I have shown images containing Eaton there is always an audible gasp at The Mother of Sisera and The Head of Mrs Eaton, and I am always asked which gallery these works are in. This response, the interest people show in wanting to see these pictures; that they are drawn to them tells me that these are important pictures.

Alas, Eaton’s modelling career for the Pre-Raphaelites seems to have been a short but intense one; she modelled out of necessity to augment her earnings when her employment as a ‘charwoman’ (daily cleaner) was not enough to sustain her family of seven children. By 1881 Eaton had been widowed and was working as a seamstress, and then later she is living on the Isle of Wight and working as a domestic cook. After this we lose sight of her……..

23 thoughts on “Fanny Eaton: The Forgotten Pre-Raphaelite Stunner”

  1. If she was a woman of color or even more likely if she was Jewish, that could account for any neglect she suffered at the hands of biographers and scholars, sad to say. Or even if they thought she was, it would make some difference. Do we know if she was Jewish?

  2. Hello and many thanks for your comment, you raise an interesting point one which had myself thought about when writing the blog. A few thoughts…. Fanny was born in Jamaica and described as being of mixed race. Professor Pamel Gerrish Nunn comments that ‘what is striking about the employment made of Mrs Eaton…is the ambiguity of the ethnic identity they gave their model’; and it is fair to say that Eaton was used as a model for quite a number of Hebraic subjects. However, one could also argue that every red haired figure in a PreRaphaelite painting also shared the same ethnic ambiguity. Red hair was feared and despised during the Victorian era for its associations with Jewishness, just look how the critics reacted to Millais red haired boy in ‘Christ in the house of his parents’. On the flip side Simeon Solomon’s early works which are entirely Hebraic in theme were critically well received. Fanny’s ethnicity or indeed the perception of her as Jewish woman may well have influenced how she was regarded contemporaneously. As to why she is overlooked now I don’t know the answer but can only say that I am surprised that she is. As to your question was she herself Jewish…there is no documentary evidence to support it but none to rule it out either. This is why I find her so intriguing!

  3. I am a great grandson of Fanny Matilda Eaton ( nee Antwhistle ) and have been searching for her for many years.
    I am so pleased to have these images of her and would love to know where these paintings are exhibited or stored.
    She died in 1924 aged 86 in London at the house of one of her many daughters.
    She actually had 10 children ( 6 girls and 4 boys ) of which my Grandfather, Frank, was the youngest.
    Her Mother, Matilda ( or Fanny ) Antwhistle was also born in Jamaica but as yet we do not have details of her Father, or indeed how and why she came to England.

  4. Thank you for your comment Brian, It’s very exciting for me as your great grandmother is something of an obsession for me. I think her role as a Pre-Raphaelite model is very under researched. There are some things I would like to ask, may I email you? The paintings Fanny appears in are dotted about, however ‘The Beloved’ by Rossetti forms part of the Tate collection. Millais’ Jepthah is at the National Gallery of Wales. There are some beautiful pencil sketches by Frederick Sandys in the British Museum collection. Joanna Boyce’s ‘The head of Mrs Eaton’ (my favourite) is at the Yale Center for British art, Simeon Solomon’s ‘ The mother of Moses’ is also in the states but and can be found at Delaware Art Gallery. Last but not least Albert Moore’s The Mother of Sisera looking out a window’ is part of the collection at Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery in Carlisle. I hope this helps.

  5. Stella
    Yes you may e-mail me at the above address. Fanny is also my obsession but for different reasons obviously. I am keen to find out as much about her as possible.

  6. Hello Stella

    I have just excitedly stumbled upon this article after being directed towards it by an ancestry site. I am the great great grandaughter of Fanny Eaton (nee Antwistle). My grandmother was Miriam Cicely Sexton, daughter of Fanny Matilda Eaton in the family tree. My late father used to casually mention that his grandmother, or great grandmother (I was never entirely sure which) was an artist’s model and considered ‘very beautiful’. I now regret not asking my father more questions about her.

    My father, his brother and my grandmother all shared very dark colouring often described by others as ‘Middle Eastern’ or ‘Meditarranean’ in type – something which I was always very curious about. There was a vague rumour in the family about a connection with Portugal or Spain but never came across any firm evidence for this. Fanny’s connection with Jamaica is interesting: I happen to be married to a Nigerian, and my sons are excited to learn that one of their ancestors is also mixed race!

    Fanny’s roots are just one of the many aspects of her life that I would now love to unearth – I studied Fine Art (many years ago) and am fascinated to think that she had contact with so many prominent artists of the day. I have noted, in your reply to one of Fanny’s other descendants – Brian Eaton – the location of the paintings you mention. It is very moving to see so many beautiful images of her.

    Thank you for the article, and I would be very grateful if you could advise on where I should turn next (other articles or books?) in order to find out more. Please feel free to e-mail me if you wish.

  7. Hello Amanda, its wonderful to hear from another of Fanny’s descendants. I agree she was a very beautiful woman indeed. I find her so captivating and interesting and alas very under-researched. I feel that she has not received the attention she deserves as a Pre-Raphaelite model. As to articles etc Jan Marsh’s exhibition catalogue ‘Black Victorians: Black People in British Art 1800-1900’ has a short profile of Fanny and includes a number of paintings for which she was a sitter. Fanny is mentioned in other books about the Pre-Raphaelites but not in any great detail. I’m ploughing my way through various artists letters and diaries and am more than happy to share anything I find with you. I know it’s terribly cheeky, but I would love to see your family tree and of course hear any family anecdotes you have about her. Thanks again for contacting me.

    Best wishes

    Stella

  8. Hello Stella

    Many thanks for your reply, and for directing me to Jan Marsh’s catalogue. It’s a starting point, and would love to receive any information on her that you come across in your researches.

    The family tree: have only just started using ancestry.co.uk in the past week and so far have been dipping in and out in a enthusiastic but disorganised fashion. The site obviously gives tools for ‘drawing’ family trees which I’ve yet to use. Will try and do this in the next couple of weeks so you can have a clearer picture. But just to describe again: my grandmother Miriam is the only child of Fanny’s first child – Fanny Matilda Eaton, who was born in 1858 (as you will know, Fanny had 10 children between 1858 and 1879!).

    I would love to be able to offer a fund of anecdotes about Fanny, but sadly do not have a supply of them from my father. I first heard about her from my father in my late teens. I do know that he remembered meeting her as a very young child: she died when he would have been four years old. All I knew was her name, occupation and about her reputation in the looks department. I was obviously confused at the time about whether she was my Dad’s grandmother or great grandmother, and thought of her mistakenly as an Edwardian. When I heard that she was an artist’s model I immediately (and hate to say this) made a connection in my head with prostitution and wondered whether ‘artists model’ was a euphemism – that she was a woman who had fallen on hard times. I did idly wonder who she might have sat for and what her relationship with the artists might have been.

    In retrospect, I can’t believe that I didn’t ask more questions, but I think it must have been some kind of youthful lack of curiosity. Unfortunately, by the time I reached an age when curiosity about my ancestors would have perhaps developed more, there was situation of estrangement between myself and my father. Sadly, he passed away in 2011. My Dad’s brother is also deceased. He is survived by his wife who was fairly close to her mother-in-law (Miriam, Fanny’s granddaughter). I will contact her and try see if I can glean any more information and get back to you.

    I think her racial background is interesting. I am fairly certain that Fanny would have had an antecedent who was the result of a union between plantation owner and a worker. In terms of my own family history need to try and research who the Antwistles (sometimes spelt Entwistle) were and what their relationship to Jamaica was.
    I do agree with the comment from ‘sphinxvictorian’ above, that Fanny’s ‘exotic-ness’ may be why she is under represented in all the available literature. In casting about for another image of Joanna Boyce Wells’ portrait of Fanny, I found another title attributed to it: ‘Head of a Mulatto’. I would love to think that Wells tenderly dignified the portrait with Fanny’s name and title, rather than the former, but wonder whether the culture of the time would have ‘allowed’ this?

    Anyway…will get back to you in due course!

    Best wishes

    Amanda

  9. I am really pleased that Fanny’s descendants are looking at your website.
    I would be pleased if it could start a connection between us all.
    Is there anyway that we could get in touch with each other ?
    I have already found another relative from a daughter of Fanny and am keen to find others.

  10. Have just read “Black Victorians – Black People in British Art” and noticed that the painting of Jephtha by John Everett Millais has Fanny Eaton as the model for one of the women in the background. In front of her is a young girl. As Fanny’s daughter was also used as a model, could this be her ? She was born in 1858 and so would be about 9 when this painting was done (1867). What do you think ? She seems to have many of Fanny’s features.
    There is also another picture of Fanny by Anthony Sandys – a profile study in chalk – 1859. This is a really good picture – as good as the one at the top of your site.

  11. Brian Eaton just alerted me to the existence of this discussion board, which I am delighted to read as my interest in Fanny Eaton is sustained since BLACK VICTORIANS.
    just to clarify one point: the title ‘Head of a Mulatto Woman’ given to the profile head study of Fanny Eaton by Joanna Boyce Wells is a descriptive title was bestowed on the work by a dealer or auction house – which is what happens when an artwork appears to have no other title. I re-titled it ‘Head of Mrs Eaton’ for BLACK VICTORIANS, but this is similarly descriptive, simply because the sitter is now not an anonymous woman but an identified individual. The work was not originally intended as a portrait but as a study or sketch for another projected painting – a depiction either of the Libyan Sybil or of Queen Zenobia, which Joanna Wells never painted owing to her premature death.
    i don’t think any of the images of Fanny Eaton that survive are portraits in the formal sense of the term, although most seem to convey a good likeness of her – one that is recognisable across a whole range of paintings with different subjects and cast-lists.

  12. Thank you for your comments Jan. In truth it was your Black Victorians exhibition and catalogue that sparked my interest in Fanny in the first place. Thanks also for the information regarding the title of the Joanna Boyce Wells painting, I, in my enthusiasm omitted to point out that the title that I use in my post was a later application. I find it very heartening that there is now a growing interest in Fanny.

  13. Hi Brian, apologies for the delay in my response. I’m so glad you read Black Victorians, it’s an interesting catalogue isn’t it! I have often wondered the same thing about the figure of the young girl in Millais’ Jepthah. I had a quick look in The Life and Letters of John Everett Millais at both the table of paintings at the back of the book and for the text relating to the painting in the main body of the book. Alas, neither provides any illumination as Fanny herself is not mentioned by name. I have quoted the test for you below:

    ‘ Jepthah’, another picture of this year, is in many respects quite as fine a work as ‘Rosalind and Celia’, though perhaps the subject itself is not quite so attractive. Colonel C. Lindsay sat for the principal figure. [….] The lovely girl walking away with her arm round her sister’s waist was a Miss Ward, and the two other figures were models’.

    I think it possible that the other model is Fanny’s daughter, as you say there is a resemblance. Thank you for the information regarding the 1859 Sandy’s drawing, I will have a look for that.

  14. Hi Stella. I must admit I thought that you had gone off somewhere !
    I met Jan in order to thank her for starting all this.
    I have also met another descendant because of the interest Jan started and exchanged photos and family trees etc,
    I am interested in corresponding with Amanda Eyo.
    Could you arrange this ?

  15. Hello again

    Apologies for not getting back since January, no excuse except very busy and ‘life getting in the way’. Have tried to contact my aunt by phone, to no avail so far. Last attempt was this afternoon. Will contact other members of the family this week (my cousins) and hopefully be able to report back something. Neither have I formally started my family tree on ancestry site – however have resolved also to make a start on that this week, so that I can have something to share with you, Brian and and any other descendants. Hope you can bear with me.

    I have photos of my grandmother, father and uncle and I think the resemblance to Fanny is discernable.

    I would be very interested in making contact with Brian to hear about all his research so far, and would be happy to correspond with him. Would you be able to pass my email address to him? Have now got a copy of ‘Black Victorians’, which I read with interest, and acquired a small poster of ‘Head of Mrs Eaton’, which will be framed and hung on the wall!

  16. Stella – you have my permission to pass my e-mail address on to Amanda.
    ps – you also said some time ago that you would e-mail me – still waiting……..

  17. Hi Brian, I’ve emailed both and Amanda and Yourself this afternoon with the relevant details.

  18. As you are obsessed with Fanny, I thought that you would be interested to know that Pamela Nunn discovered a painting in Australia by Robert Dowling called “Miriam” and recognised it as Fanny. Apparently he was born in England and then went to Australia but came back around the time of the pre-raphaelites and obviously saw Fanny being used as a model. I will e-mail a copy and you can decide for yourself.

  19. Hi Stella
    Have tried to send you a new picture of Fanny that Jan Marsh has found but your e-mail address has been changed. Please send me your new address so that I may send you details.

  20. I have a framed oil on canvas signed by Matilda Eaton April 21st,1889. It is a beautiful painting and the frame is very old & unique. It was given to me, as my maiden name is Eaton. I am doing research on the painting and I came upon this article. Maybe not the same Matilda since Fanny is given as her. Now I am intrigued by this Beautiful Lady named Fanny Matilda Eaton.

  21. Hunting through The Times’s online, a report of the 1861 RA exhibition rather jeers at Moore’s choice of title for ‘Mother of Sisera’:

    “There is a wasted mulatto or East Indian head, unluckily christened by Mr. A. Moore “The Mother of Sisera” (313), which as the mother of Sisera is nought, but as a study from life is very striking.”

    Just before this barbed comment the same critic refers to a portrait (no. 147) by Mr. H.T. Wells of “a strongly-marked, olive-coloured Italian model, well known in the studios just now, with a portentous bush of hair…”

    Could this also be Mrs. Eaton? Was she ever mistakenly reported to be Italian? Might the critic have mistakenly assumed, from the different treatments given in portraits by separate artists, that the “Italian model” and the “wasted mulatto” were two distinct women?

  22. I too am interested to know about Fanny Eaton and I am so glad that more information is forthcoming – especially from the family. There are three studies of her head by Frederick Sandys (1829-1904) which can be seen on pp.122-124 of my catalogue raisonne of the work of Sandys, published in 2001. Sandys used these studies in several of his works. They were perhaps done at a group session, such as at the Langham Sketch Club, as studies by the other artists seem related to the Sandys studies

  23. If anyone visits this website because of a connection to the Eaton family and would like more information on Fanny, her mother (Matilda) and her descendants, please leave a message and I will try to connect up with them via Stella.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *