Forgotten Women is a series dedicated to giving women of history the exposure they deserve. This week, we’re celebrating Fanny Eaton – a model for many of the Pre-Raphaelite painters whose place in art history is often overlooked.
What did she do?
Fanny Eaton appears in a picture that hangs in Tate Britain. Dante Gabriel Rossetti painted that one. She’s also in a painting by John Everett Millais at the National Museum Wales. There are many paintings of Fanny and, although her occupation was often given as ‘charwoman’, she was Britain’s most visible Victorian woman of colour and an icon of mixed heritage beauty.
She was born Fanny Antwistle, or possibly Entwhistle, in 1835 in Surrey, Jamaica. Her mother, Matilda Foster, was a slave who got her freedom after abolition in 1834, and her father was white. In the 1840s – the beginning of Queen Victoria’s reign, a time of gas lamps and Dickens – Fanny and her mother travelled to London.
In 1857, she married James Eaton, a cab driver. Fanny worked as a cleaner in between having 10 children, but she also had a side hustle a world away from household drudgery.
In her twenties, Fanny was a model at the Royal Academy of Art. This is how she came to the attention of the Pre-Raphaelites – in the 1840s, Millais and William Holman Hunt were students there, and in 1848 they, along with Rossetti, his brother William, Ford Madox Brown, James Collinson, Frederic Stephens, and Thomas Woolner, formed the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. They enjoyed wafting about town, taking laudanum (an addictive painkiller) and declaiming their ideas about ‘real’ art.
Why was she a trailblazer?
Fanny made women of colour visible at a time when they were elsewhere invisible. Pictures of her hung in galleries across the country, her image was reproduced and she was held up as an example of perfect beauty. That she was a Pre-Raphaelite muse has ensured her name endures.
Though many of the muses were working class women, all were transformed into creatures of myth and legend at the stroke of a brush and several others became well known for their beauty.
But Fanny had something none of the others had: dark skin – rare in art of the time and precious to a group of artists trying to stand out.
Fanny first appears in Simeon Solomon’s religious scene, The Mother Of Moses, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1860. Solomon’s pencil study for the work shows Fanny’s striking beauty and natural textured hair. Joanna Boyce Wells’s The Head Of Mrs Eaton (1861) shows her in classical garb exhibiting her beautiful profile.
Several others depicted Fanny, and by 1865 Rossetti had got in on the act with The Beloved. He wrote to his friend Brown, enthusing about Fanny’s “very fine head and figure”. In 1867 Fanny sat for Millais – his Jephthah is the last known painting of her.
By age 63, Fanny was on the Isle of Wight working as a domestic cook. She returned to London to live with her children and grandchildren, where she died at 88, immortalised on canvas forever.
Main illustration: Bijou Karman. Other images: Wikimedia Commons