Century old mystery uncovered in Chichester Record Office

Fanny Cornforth's last days and final resting place uncovered

The answer to a century old mystery has been unearthed in the archives of West Sussex Record Office in Chichester.

The last days and final resting place of Fanny Cornforth – artist’s model and muse of the Pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti – has been revealed in a patient case book from the former Graylingwell Hospital, held at the Record Office in Chichester.

Until now it was not known how, where or when Fanny – who sat for at least 60 oils, watercolours, pastels and pencil drawings for Rossetti – had died.

The new information reveals she entered the asylum in 1907 and died in 1909 at the age of 74, suffering from senile dementia. She was buried in Chichester Cemetery in a common grave without a headstone.

Cited as a supermodel of her time, the discovery about her final days was first made at the Record Office by Christopher Whittick, the biographer of Fanny Cornforth for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB), and shortly afterwards by Kirsty Stonell Walker, the author of Stunner: The Fall and Rise of Fanny Cornforth. An update of the entry for Fanny Cornforth is due to appear in the online ODNB at the end of May.

The case books are kept at the West Sussex Record Office and the digitisation of them has been undertaken at the Record Office by volunteers as part of the Graylingwell Heritage Project.

Wendy Walker, County Archivist, West Sussex Record Office said: “Archives are full of hidden stories that are just waiting for the right person or the right set of circumstances to reveal their secrets.

“In this instance it was the release of the indexes of the Lunacy Commission and Board of Control records by The National Archives in partnership with Ancestry that held the vital clue that sent two separate researchers to the West Sussex Record Office in pursuit of the last days and the final resting place of Fanny Cornforth.

“Once in the Search Room, the Graylingwell Hospital case books revealed the truth that had laid hidden and tantalised researchers for over a hundred years.

“This is fantastic archive that provides a detailed insight into the lives of all those who were patients at Graylingwell. I am delighted that we have been able to help with this research and the fact that this discovery has coincided with the culmination of the Graylingwell Heritage Project is the icing on the cake.”

Sarah Rance-Riley, Graylingwell Heritage Project Manager at the Chichester Community Development Trust, added: “The whereabouts and the final part of Fanny’s life have been a complete mystery until now. But now, thanks to this research, we have found Fanny’s patient case book, doctors’ notes, death certificate and even a photograph of her whilst she was there. It is a truly incredible discovery!”

Fanny, who was born Sarah Cox at Steyning in 1835, became Sarah Hughes – the name used in the case book – on her first marriage and Sarah Schott on her second. Widely regarded as the face of the Pre-Raphaelite style, today her image can be seen on chocolate boxes, calendars and art books throughout the world.

Renowned paintings such as Lady Lilith, Fair Rosamund, Bocca Baciata and The Blue Bower were all modelled by Fanny whose voluptuous figure and abundant golden hair became the signature of Rossetti’s later paintings featuring the single female figure.