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Sotheby’s Auction

Lady Lilith Celebrates the Beauty of the Artist’s First Mistress, Fanny Cornforth

Sotheby’s Auction

In July this year, Sotheby’s will offer the only version of one of the most iconic works by Dante Gabriel Rossetti to remain in private hands. A celebration of the beauty of the artist’s first mistress, Fanny Cornforth, and a pictorial hymn to her glorious corn-gold hair, Lady Lilith comes to auction for the first time in thirty years. The work was painted during Rossetti’s most innovative period in the 1860s, when he created the cult of the Pre-Raphaelite beauty, or ‘Stunner’ as he called them, whose physical qualities were embodied by Fanny Cornforth. Two other paintings of Lady Lilith were produced by Rossetti during this decade and they now hang in museums in the US. The rediscovered picture will be offered at Sotheby’s London sale of Victorian, Pre-Raphaelite & British Impressionist Art on 13 July with an estimate of £400,000-600,000.

Simon Toll, Sotheby’s Victorian Art Specialist, said: “Rossetti’s work is a great passion of mine and I have been lucky enough to bring to auction several important examples by him in recent years, breaking the world record for a watercolour, a drawing and an oil painting. ‘Lady Lilith’ has always been one of my favourites but I had never seen this particular picture ‘in the flesh’. It was a moment of genuine excitement when I first saw it being unwrapped from the packing case in which it had been sent from Japan, its home for the last thirty years. Not only is the work in wonderful condition, it’s also in Rossetti’s original frame and with the artist’s hand-written poem attached to the backing-board. To find a picture in such an untouched condition is exceptionally rare.”

Based upon the evidence of Rossetti’s paintings of Fanny alone, there can be little doubt of the physical nature of their relationship. Pairing the subject of Lilith with Fanny was no coincidence: Fanny was most likely the first woman that Rossetti slept with and Lilith was the first woman, created from the same earth as Adam before the creation of Eve. With her sensuality, her sense of fun and a mass of golden hair that reached the ground, Fanny offered Rossetti an energetic antidote to the ailing fragility of his future wife Lizzie Siddal. During the ten years of the artist’s protracted engagement with Lizzie, it is thought that their relationship was never consummated. After Lizzie’s suicide in 1862, Fanny moved into Rossetti’s studio to be his ‘housekeeper’. Though he developed infatuations for other women as Fanny’s golden beauty faded, Rossetti never abandoned her, even remaining close through her two marriages and supporting her with money and possessions during times of financial difficulty. In 1882, Rossetti wrote to Fanny pleading for her to come to his death-bed. His circle of friends cruelly chose not to deliver his pleas and she was only told of Rossetti’s death days after his funeral.

Rossetti began the first version of Lady Lilith (Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington), a large oil on canvas, in 1864 as the first commission for Frederick Richards Leyland, who would become the artist’s greatest patron. Leyland disliked the way Rossetti had painted Lilith’s face and asked him to scrape it out and repaint it with a different model – an event that many scholars consider one of the greatest Pre-Raphaelite travesties. Fortunately Rossetti had made two watercolour replicas of Lady Lilith before the repainting was undertaken, both of them in 1867, the year the oil was completed in its original form. One of these, made for the collector William Coltart, hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, whilst the other, made for Alexander Stevenson, is the version to be offered for sale. Fanny was devastated when she learnt that her face had been obliterated from the oil version in 1872, to be replaced by the face of a professional model named Alexa Wilding, whose flame-red beauty ignited her jealousy. Rossetti tried to keep the news of what he had done to Lady Lilith from Fanny, knowing that she would be upset by having the celebration of her beauty destroyed in such a way. Fanny did not pose for another painting by Rossetti, although she did eventually forgive him for his slight.

  • 13.07.2017
    Auktion »
    Sotheby’s Auktionshaus »

    Pre-Raphaelite & British Impressionist Art on 13 July

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  • Dante Gabriel Rossetti 1828-1882  Lady Lilith  signed with monogram and dated 1867  watercolour heightened with bodycolour and gum arabic  Estimate £400,000 - 600,000
    Dante Gabriel Rossetti 1828-1882 Lady Lilith signed with monogram and dated 1867 watercolour heightened with bodycolour and gum arabic Estimate £400,000 - 600,000
    Sotheby’s Auktionshaus
  • Fanny Cornforth
    Fanny Cornforth
    Sotheby’s Auktionshaus