Black British women pioneers: Fanny Eaton

Who are they?

She is a long-forgotten Pre-Raphaelite model and influential muse, born as Fanny Matilde Antwistle. Eaton was born in St Andrew, Jamaica on June 23rd 1835 before she came to London as a young child in the 1840s, after the 1834 abolition of slavery in all British colonies (some slaves remained ‘apprentices’ until further laws were passed in 1838). Eaton cohabited with horse-cab driver James Eaton once she came of age, where they lived in London’s Coram Fields. She was widowed young in 1881, and a single mother to 10 children (born 1858 to 1879) for the majority of her life. From a needlewoman in Kensington from 1881, a housekeeper in Hammersmith by 1891, to a domestic cook on the Isle of Wight in 1901, Eaton went back to Hammersmith in 1911 to live with her daughter Julia’s family. Eaton herself was the daughter of Matilda Foster, a former slave who worked on British-owned plantations. It is possible she had a white European father, British soldier James Antiwistle (or Entwistle) but no official information has been found on him. As a young child, Eaton was recorded as ‘mulatto’ which is a pejorative and antiquated term for someone of mixed race ancestry. She died around age 89 in 1924.

What did she do?

She regularly modelled at the Royal Academy, creating an impact on art history in Britain at a time when paintings would usually encompass pale white women with long locks and rosy cheeks. She was in demand for ‘diverse origin’ subjects during this Victorian era and lives on in drawings and paintings in UK collections and around the globe. Graphite sketches of Eaton from 1859, by Simeon Solomon, can be found in The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. She was a model for Solomon’s painting The Mother of Moses (1860) at the Royal Academy, marking the public debut of Eaton’s Pre-Raphaelite’s modelling career. She also appears in Solomon’s Judith and Her Attendant (1863) and Habet! (1865). Frederick Sandys sketched a profile of Eaton in 1859-60 that appears in the British Museum, a sketch found in the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia and a pencil drawing Study for the Head of Morgan le Fay (1862) in the Victoria and Albert Museum. Eaton also modelled for Albert Joseph Moore’s The Mother of Sisera (1861), the painter known for works showing reclining women figures draped in classical robes. Joanna Mary Wells (paints under the pseudonym: Boyce) painted her profile in the same year. She is said to appear in Ford Madox Brown’s Elijah and the Widow’s Son (1864) appearing in Birmingham Museums Trust. The leading Pre-Raphaelite, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, sketched Eaton in 1863-65, which appears in Stanford University’s Cantor Arts Center Collection. Rossetti wrote to Madox Brown, complimenting Eaton’s ‘very fine head and figure’. Then in 1867, Eaton appears in John Everett Millais’ (the painter of Shakespeare’s Ophelia) Jephthah in the top right corner.

Why is she important?

Her portrayal and presence in Pre-Raphaelite art invites us to rethink nineteenth century conceptions of race and beauty. She was later overlooked by art historians and biographers suggestively due to her race and working-class origins. Although it is argued by few art historians that some artists fetishised Eaton as an exotic Other, drawing her in numerous ethnicities and rarely as Jamaican, her influence on artists (who were part of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and in this era) remains substantial as a representation of a black woman in Victorian society drawn in an empowered way in British art history.

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