When people mention 19th-century Pre-Raphaelite art, it often conjures a very specific image—one of glowingly pale women, often gathering wildflowers. Fanny Eaton, the Jamaican-born British art model, was the exception to that rule, but her place in its history has been largely overlooked.
Illustrator and writer Sarah Ushurhe noticed this and sought to change it. She created an animated short about Eaton, which was commissioned by BBC, and even corrected a misidentified sketch at the Victoria and Albert Museum. “The presence and role of Black people in British history is never highlighted as much from an art history perspective,” Ushurhe told Mental Floss in an email. “I'm delighted that this hidden history about her career is being uncovered—it allows Black and mixed heritage people to see themselves in non-subservient positions in Victorian art.” Here are eight facts about Eaton, the oft-forgotten Victorian muse.
1. Fanny Eaton was born in 1835, just one year after Britain abolished slavery.
Fanny Matilda Antwistle was born on June 23, 1835, in St. Andrew, Jamaica. Her mother was Matilda Foster, a formerly enslaved person. Eaton’s father is unknown, but a written description of her as “mulatto,” a derogatory term then associated with mules, indicated that she was mixed race. Some sources propose that “Antwistle” referred to James Entwistle, a white British soldier, as Eaton’s potential father. Eaton and her mother moved to England sometime during the 1840s.
2. Simeon Solomon was one of the first artists to paint Fanny Eaton.
Although it’s unclear where Simeon Solomon would have met Eaton, he sketched her in 1859. Just a year later, she posed as the titular character in The Mother of Moses, Solomon’s painting that debuted at the Royal Academy in 1860.
3. When Fanny Eaton worked as an art model, imperialistic attitudes were very much prevalent in Britain.
When it came to racial representation in 19th-century British art, Black models were often used to highlight the whiteness or status of other models, or as exoticized, unnamed characters. It’s important to note this social climate, as Eaton’s portraits often portray her as Biblical figures or well-dressed and dignified despite her working class social status.
4. Many of Fanny Eaton’s portraits notably feature her natural curly hair.
“Although described by some as ‘wild,’ her beautiful, curly natural hair worn in a middle part style has become a trademark of most of the pieces she’s featured in,” Ushurhe said. Eaton’s curls have a meaningful impact today. “Those with a similar natural hair texture to Fanny, like myself, who may not feel comfortable with their natural hair texture can see themselves celebrated through Fanny in art,” Ushurhe said. “It’s especially notable for the Victorian era, when the Black and mixed heritage presence was usually hidden away.”
5. Fanny Eaton was painted by two female artists, Rebecca Solomon and Joanna Boyce Wells.
The Pre-Raphaelite artists were originally known as the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and as such, the women artists who contributed to this artistic style were often viewed in relation to their male artist relatives. One of those artists was Rebecca Solomon, sister of Simeon Solomon, who painted Eaton as an Indian maid in A Young Teacher (1861). Joanna Boyce Wells, another notable female artist, painted one of the most strikingly elegant studies of Eaton. Wells had also planned to create a portrait of Eaton as a sibyl, but died at age 30 before this could happen.
6. Fanny Eaton’s partner died in 1881, leaving her the sole caretaker of their children.
Fanny Eaton began living with James Eaton, a horse-cab driver, when she was 22. The couple had 10 children. Fanny became their sole caretaker after James died in his forties. Brian Eaton, Fanny’s great-grandson, has suggested they may not have actually wed, since no marriage document was ever found.
7. No one is sure exactly why Fanny Eaton stopped modeling.
Eaton seems to have stopped modeling near her mid-thirties, with six children in tow at that point. After James died, she took on a variety of jobs, including working as a seamstress, a lodger, and house cook.
8. The last painting of Fanny Eaton is contested.
Pre-Raphaelite historian and Fanny Eaton scholar Jan Marsh speculated on her blog that The Slave, a somewhat muddy-looking 1886 painting by William Blake Richmond, might have featured Fanny Eaton as the model. Since Eaton seems to have quit modeling decades prior to the completion of this painting, whether or not it’s her remains a mystery.