Fanny was an amazing woman, she moved from Jamaica to London where she became a model for the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (them famous dandy painting types)
But before we get to that bit let’s give you some background.
IN THE BEGINNING
She was born in 1835 to her mother, Matilda Foster, who was an ex slave, but no father was mentioned on her birth certificate which means there’s a theory now that her father was a slave owner.
This was not an uncommon occurrence. Thanks gross old slave owning white dudes!
There’s also suggestion that Fanny’s Dad was a soldier named James Entwhistle or Antwhistle (Fanny’s maiden name) who died at just 20 in Jamaica.
Either way her Dad ain’t in the picture.
Matilda and Fanny moved to London sometime during the 1840’s and in 1857 Fanny married a hot young cab driver named James Eaton (GO FANNY!).
Fanny mostly worked as a cleaner/domestic servant in London but had a side job working as an artist’s model.
Fanny was mixed race and was by all accounts a total stunner so it’s no surprise she caught the eye of many an artist.
The first sketches and paintings of Fanny are attributed to artist Simeon Solomon.
In fact, the first painting featuring Fanny was The Mother of Moses by Simeon Solomon, which was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1860. FANNY HAD MADE IT!
While working she caught the eye of some of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.
‘Who are they?’
I hear you cry. Well these guys were a bunch of bohemian painters who loved nothing more than hanging out and painting super dreamy babes in big elaborate scenes pulled from the bible or popular mythos.
The core founding group was made up of William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais and Dante Gabriel Rosetti, but they had roughly a metric shit ton of associated artists.
They were influenced by medieval art and wanted to focus on details and complex scenes rich with imagery.
Now the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood considered Fanny a total fucking hottie, because – duh- they had working eyes.
She was a favorite among them. Rosetti was said in a letter to his artist mate Ford Maddox Brown, that Fanny had a
‘very fine head and figure’
NO SHIT MATE!
One of the most famous paintings of Fanny was The Head of Mrs Eaton by Joanna Boyce Wells (sister of Pre-Raphaelite artist George Boyce)
Sadly Joanna died tragically young just as her career was starting to take off, so we don’t know the true story behind her work with Fanny. But the portrait of Fanny was thought to be a study for was a larger painting that would depict Fanny as a Libyan prophetess or a Syrian Warrior Queen (both sound fucking amazing).
The last painting of Fanny was Jephthah by John Everett Millais.
Fanny worked as a model for classes at the Royal Academy from 1860 to 1879 and after that life got in the way… you see Fanny had 9 children by then.
I repeat: NINE CHILDREN!
THE INFLUENCE OF FANNY
Fanny’s contribution to the arts was largely forgotten, excluded from art history because of her race; the focus always on other Pre-Raphaelite models like Janey Morris or Lizzie Siddal.
But Fanny is a hugely important figure because she was a black woman whose beauty was celebrated in art.
She wasn’t just painted as a token black figure used to make art more exotic, the focus was on HER face, celebrating HER beauty.
Fanny was sadly widowed in her 40’s, so she brought up (by now) 10 children on her own and worked tirelessly to provide for them all, working as a cook and seamtress.
Unfortunately, little is known about this period in her life.
We do know she lived a long life and died at the grand age of 88 and was living with her loving daughter and grandchildren.
We’re glad Fanny is being brought to the forefront of art history because her impact during a time of serious racial prejudices and divides Fanny was still a symbol for what was then thought of as other forms of beauty.
She’s also an example of how varied working class Victorian culture was, History is often white washed and then it’s presented as fact, but Britain has always been a pot of mixed cultures and influences.
Fanny is a symbol of celebrating black beauty during a time of rigid ideals of what women should be. Long may we celebrate her for that.
Sara Westrop is passionate about making history accessible (and fun!) for everyone. A disabled, queer writer from just outside London, who loves writing about the unsung chapters of history.