Fanny Eaton: forgotten beauty

In the paintings of the nineteenth-century British Pre-Raphaelite artists, one “exotic” face stands out. Fanny Eaton, born in Jamaica, was a mixed-race model who found herself, for a few years, near the heart of Victorian London’s art world — and was long forgotten. Judy Raymond tells what’s known of her story

Mrs Fanny Eaton (c.1859; chalk on paper), by Walter Fryer StocksThe Mother of Moses (1860; oil on canvas), by Simeon SolomonHead of Mrs Eaton (1861; oil on paper laid to linen), by Joanna Boyce WellsThe Beloved (1865–66; oil on canvas), by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Fanny Eaton is the third bridesmaid from left, her face half visible behind the bride

When Fanny Eaton died in west London on March 4, 1924, her memories were already lost to senility. She had worked as a cleaner, a seamstress, and a cook, and raised most of her ten children on her own after being widowed in her forties.

But the life of this brown-skinned old lady full of years, though often modest, had been a remarkable one in other ways. By the time she died at eighty-nine, Eaton must have had an English accent for decades, and blended into the London working-class milieu in which she lived. But she was born in the parish of St Andrew, eastern Jamaica, on 23 June, 1835 — less than a year after emancipation. Her mother, Matilda Foster, may have been a domestic servant, on an estate or in a town, or even a field labourer on a sugar plantation before she gave birth to Fanny at seventeen. Matilda and her own mother, Bathsheba, had formerly been enslaved.

Fanny Matilda Eaton, unlike her mother and grandmother, was of mixed race. She was described as a mulatto — that is, half black and half white — so her father may have been a white estate owner or manager, or possibly a British soldier, James Entwistle or Antwistle, Fanny’s original surname. He died in Jamaica aged only twenty, but perhaps it was he who funded Matilda and their daughter’s voyage to London, for somehow they found their way there in the 1840s. In London, they settled into working-class life in St Pancras. Matilda, a laundress, later married, as did Fanny, in 1857, aged twenty-two: her husband, James Eaton, nineteen, was a hansom-cab driver, and they had ten children between 1858 and 1879.

Since she was sixteen, Fanny had worked as a charlady, or cleaner, but she had another way of making money, a way that allowed her to sit quietly for hours, away from the drudgery of her cleaning work and of running her small, crowded home. Her thick, kinky hair and “exotic” mixed-race features made her an irresistible model for artists, some of them still famous today as members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. As a result, her likeness hangs today in the galleries at Tate Britain, in the British Museum, the Yale Centre for British Art, and the Princeton Museum of Art, among others.

For Eaton was a favourite model among the artists who had been members of the Brotherhood — and no wonder: Dante Gabriel Rossetti, one of its leaders, described her in a letter to fellow artist Ford Madox Brown, written when Eaton was thirty, as having “a very fine head and figure — a good deal of Janey.” This was Janey Morris, the first, quintessential Pre-Raphaelite “stunner.” Founded in 1848, the Brotherhood had an ideal that they sought out: they had found her first in Jane Burden, who was tall, dark, and sturdy, with a mass of curly hair, a firm jaw, strongly drawn brows, and bee-stung lips. At nineteen, in 1859, she married the designer and writer William Morris, though she and Rossetti later became lovers.

For Rossetti to have likened Fanny Eaton to Morris shows that Fanny too must have been thought a considerable beauty among the group. Eaton’s fine but strong features, thick, massy curls, and her grave, sometimes even careworn expression fitted in perfectly with the Pre-Raphaelite type (though her air of melancholy may have been due to the preferred mood of the artists as much as to her everyday life as the working-class mother of ten.) Many images of Eaton show a resemblance to Jane, and in them she wears her hair drawn low over her forehead, as they liked to portray the latter.

Certainly they painted and drew Eaton often enough. Yet a blog post about Eaton written in 2012 described her as “the forgotten stunner,” and there have been suggestions that she has been sidelined owing to her race. But that didn’t stop her being painted in the first place, or from being included in some of the best-known and the most beautiful paintings and drawings of the period. The Pre-Raphaelites, like many artists, were not confined by many social conventions: class, religion, and ethnic differences meant little to them. (Rossetti himself was the child of Italian immigrants, and lived out of wedlock with the model and artist Lizzie Siddal for years.) The Pre-Raphaelites have also fallen from favour in recent decades, after a revival in the 1970s, but interest in them is now growing again among art historians. More portraits of Fanny Eaton are being discovered, acquired, admired, and written about, along with details of her life, thanks to the growing recognition that she was one of their important models.

 

Another reason Eaton may have previously been less well known than other Pre-Raphaelite muses was that she was not, as far as is known, romantically involved with any of the artists, or caught up in any of the ensuing scandals. The copper-haired Siddal, for instance — an artist herself, whose patron was the critic John Ruskin — is best known for catching pneumonia while posing as the drowned Ophelia for John Everett Millais in 1852. She may have suffered from tuberculosis, and died — of an overdose of laudanum, possibly intentional — in 1862. Rossetti, who had eventually married her in 1860 after a long, tempestuous relationship, famously exhumed her to retrieve a book of unpublished poems he had buried with her. Fanny Eaton featured in no such outlandish incidents.

During her engagement, Janey Burden, the daughter of a stableman and a domestic servant, was hastily educated to be a suitable wife for Morris, a gentleman — they had met while he was at university in Oxford. Other models were less fortunate. Eaton went from being charlady to dressmaker. Other Pre-Raphaelite muses were working-class too — Siddal began as a milliner’s assistant — and worked as models to supplement their income. Some were actresses or prostitutes; some were gypsies. So class was no deterrent when it came to the Pre-Raphaelites’ choice of models. But although Eaton could sit for the painters, she would not have had the time, even if she wanted, to socialise or dally romantically with them. By the time she began modeling, she was already married and a mother.

Women are hugely important in the Pre-Raphaelite oeuvre, and not merely as muses: they are often at the heart of paintings, stately, statuesque, unsmiling, mysterious, mystical. For these artists, a woman of another race, or, more intriguing still, a mixture of races, might have possessed these alluring qualities even more abundantly; and as much as any of their other models, Eaton symbolised the ideal of female beauty and fascination. They were preoccupied with “the Other,” depicting familiar scenes from unexpected angles and featuring characters rarely focused on.

The Pre-Raphaelites also combined visual realism with a nostalgia for medieval painting and literature, and painted many biblical stories and archaic and classical myths; hence the women in them were often ethnically ambiguous (in his letter about Eaton, Rossetti explained that she was “not Hindoo . . . but mulatto”). So for them Eaton’s racial mixture may well have been an added attraction. Among their other models and muses were the Greek painter Maria Zambaco, lover of Edward Burne-Jones, and Keomi Gray, the gypsy mistress of Frederick Sandys. The latter is said to have used Fanny as the original model for his Morgan Le Fay — evil enchantress and half-sister of King Arthur — but eventually replaced her head with Gray’s. The Pre-Raphaelites also used Eaton in Arabic and biblical scenes. Like other artists of the era, they sometimes also painted people with traditionally African looks: black people figure widely in their paintings, as in other Victorian art, sometimes chosen in order to stand out, sometimes blending into a crowd scene. The Pre-Raphaelites differ, however, in also using non-white models like Eaton to depict figures of ideal beauty.

The first known sketches featuring Fanny were made in 1859, by Simeon Solomon, already noted for his draughtsmanship at nineteen. He may have met Eaton by chance, as he lived not far from her. Sometimes he even used her as a model while changing her gender in his drawings. He made pencil studies of her as the basis for a painting of Moses’ mother, shown at the 1860 Royal Academy Exhibition. Thus, as well as finished paintings, there are also many drawings of Fanny, often with her hair unbound and realistically textured. The portrayal of her as Moses’ mother is especially interesting because of its reference to slavery, with a mixed-race West Indian depicted as an Israelite woman enslaved in Egypt.

Solomon’s sister Rebecca, by contrast, painted Eaton as an Indian ayah in A Young Teacher, in which the nursemaid is being “taught” by the child she looks after (an innocent-seeming painting which nevertheless seems to take a colonialist viewpoint). Solomon’s friend Albert Moore used Eaton as The Mother of Sisera, a biblical character who has already died in battle; the 1861 painting shows her waiting patiently but in vain for her son’s return, a figure of pathos and anxiety. Eaton also appears in Millais’s Old Testament painting Jephthah (1867). She was sketched by Rossetti, and in his painting The Beloved (1865), now in Tate Britain, she is among the bridesmaids, at the centre, behind the bride.

And probably the most beautiful and impressive image of this once-forgotten model is a portrait by a forgotten painter, Joanna Boyce Wells. The sister of another Pre-Raphaelite artist, George Boyce, Wells studied in Paris and showed at the Royal Academy, was praised by Ruskin and called “wonderfully gifted” by Rossetti, but died at twenty-nine. Her painting is said to be a study for the head of a Libyan (that is, African) Sibyl (a prophetess of classical times) or of Zenobia, a Syrian warrior queen of antiquity — Wells apparently planned to use Eaton in full-length paintings of both. Previously referred to as Head of a Mulatto Woman, the picture is now known as Head of Mrs Eaton. Seen in profile, she is regal and dignified, her shoulders wrapped in fine draperies and with jewels looped through her luxuriant hair.

But a recently discovered study by Walter Fryer Stocks looks most like a portrait of Fanny Eaton as herself. The little-known Stocks was the same age as Simeon Solomon, and might have attended the same life-drawing classes for which Eaton sat. In this sketch in black, red, and white chalk, the woman he drew, though young, is watchful and tired, with shadows under her eyes; it dates from 1859, when Eaton was twenty-four, but she looks older than her years (by then she would have been married with a small daughter, and her second child perhaps on the way).

Eaton also modelled for painting classes at the Royal Academy between July 1860 and January 1879. After that, she may have been too busy — at least nine of her ten children, six daughters and four sons, had been born by that time. Or perhaps by then she looked too careworn, owing to her hard life; or she may have moved away. Her husband died in 1881, when she was forty-five, leaving her to raise seven of their children; the youngest, Frank, was just two. She never remarried. Little more is known of the life she led between the peaceful interludes of sitting to artists and the more glamorous moments when pictures of her went on show.

In her sixties, Eaton lived on the Isle of Wight, working as a cook for a wine merchant’s family. Two of her daughters had followed her by becoming seamstresses, and two were servants; but one, Miriam, was briefly a sculptor’s assistant. By 1911, Eaton was living with another daughter, Julia Powell, and her family in Hammersmith, west London, and she died in nearby Acton.

Fanny Eaton has been saved from obscurity by the images of her that hang in some of the world’s great galleries, depicting heroines and famous beauties. But sadly, despite their numerous foreign settings, none depicts her against the West Indian landscapes among which she was born.