Fanny Eaton 1835-1911
Portrait by Dante Gabriel Rosetti
One of the most interesting things about the current exhibition of Pre-Raphaelite Sisters at the National Portrait Gallery are the images relating to the model, Fanny Eaton.
Portrait by Walter Fryer Stocks around 1859
Fanny was born in Jamaica's St Andrew Parish in 1835. Her mother, Matilda, was said to be a slave, but her father was never named. She became involved with the Pre-Raphaelite circle between 1859 and 1867 by which time she was living in London's Shoreditch, and had married the cabbie, James Eaton. In-between the drudgery of raising their ten children and working as a domestic servant, Fanny had another means of support – posing as an artists' model at the Royal Academy.
The Mother of Moses, by Simeon Solomon
After featuring in Simeon Solomon's famous painting, The Mother of Moses, she drew the attention of other artists in the PRB circle, including Millais and Dante Gabriel Rosetti. Despite racial prejudices of the times, Fanny was described by Rosetti as having 'a very fine head' and being of 'incomparable beauty'. With her grace, waving hair, and strong profile, she is not that unlike his lover and muse, Jane Morris.
Fanny Eaton in Millais' painting Jephthah - in the yellow hood on the right
Sadly, her allure did not bring wealth or fame. She spent her later years working as a cook on the Isle of Wight, eventually dying of old age and 'senility' in 1911, in a daughter's home in Acton. But her face, her grace, and beauty still live on in many paintings, and not only as the token exotic in the scenes, but often as the main character.
Perhaps of all the paintings of Fanny in this exhibition the one below might be a favourite. Fittingly it was created by one of the 'sisters'. It is the elegant study by Joanna Boyce Wells' in preparation for the never to be realised painting based on a Libyan sibyl.
Study by Joanna Boyce Wells,
The Pre-Raphaelite Sisters exhibition is currently at the National Portrait Gallery, from 17 October 2019 to 26 January 2020