Race and beauty: Fanny Eaton, the Pre-Raphaelites, and revising art history

Many people associate the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB) with beautiful snow-skinned redheads. However, as with all first bases of academic research, if you go to the Wikipedia page for the PRB, the word “redhead” nor any other mention of hair colour comes up. Wary of Wikipedia, one starts to think to themselves, is Wikipedia hiding something from me or have I been disillusioned by popular art history? Is Wikipedia being woke or stupid, or am I?…

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was known for rejecting politically-charged art and looking towards romanticism, nature, and realism tinged with a bit of chivalric order. All these ideas demand for admiration; and with women usually embodying such themes, there is no doubt that the PRB were complicit in shaping beauty standards both of their contemporary time and now. Likewise, the way art history has gone on to remember the PRB is telling of the power of beauty in contemporary race politics.

Representative of this warping of history is Fanny Eaton. Contrary to our understanding of the PRB, Fanny was a black Pre-Raphaelite model, very much at the centre of the movement as she regularly modelled for the Royal Academy.

Born in Jamaica in 1835, historians suspect Eaton is the daughter of an ex-slave and white slave-owner as she was referred to as a “mulatto”, a derogatory term used to describe someone of mixed race. She came to London in the 1840s in the aftermath of the abolition of slavery in the British colonies. This was not unusual behaviour since the black population in 1800 was estimated to be 20,000 and is demanding of an acknowledgement of both the experience and contribution of people of colour to Victorian Britain.

Nevertheless, the fact that Eaton, at the height of social Darwinism and the science of racism managed to capture the eye of white admirers is significant; famous names of which include John Millais, Rebecca Solomon, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Even more impressive, in 1865 Rossetti himself wrote a letter of praise to his friend, Ford Madox Brown, describing her having “a very fine head and figure.”

The Beloved

It’s important to not forget that the line between admiration and exoticism are often blurred. In Rossetti’s painting The Beloved she is hardly noticed in the top right corner, making way for and arguably used as a tool to highlight the whiteness and thus beauty of her counterparts.  Likewise in Millais’ Jephthah, she is also seen in the right hand corner. Both her and the other black women in the painting are shrouded in head coverings and wear modest expressions: something which harks towards the exotic trope of subservience.


However, when you look at sketches of her alone, such as Sandy’s Study for the Head of Morgan le Fay and Rossetti’s Study of a Young Woman, you find depictions of Eaton that speak of the artist’s admiration and dedication to intricately highlighting the beauty of her features. The fact that both of these examples are sketches from a solo-sitting are telling of why the majority of her most beautiful depictions come from stripped-back studies rather than paintings with forced meanings.

Study for the head of Morgan le Fay
Study of a Young Woman

The most revered depiction of Eaton comes from her painting by Joanna Mary Wells, also known as Joanna Boyce as she often used her maiden name for signing her work. Art historians claim that this is possibly the most dignified rendition of Eaton as she sits graciously with her head held high yet unassuming, and with enough finery to make her look important without imposing an alternative fetishized meaning. Am I surprised that her best painting happened to come from a woman? No, but that is just my personal opinion.

Fanny Eaton by Joanna Boyce

It is not until recent years that Eaton has been noticed by art historians, prior to which she was at risk of being forgotten. With that, we must ask what this says about the politics between race and beauty.

The Pre-Raphaelites have played a role in shaping beauty standards, but have also been used by art historians to do so. There was a major revival of the Pre-Raphaelites in the 1960s with twentieth century art groups such as the Brotherhood of Ruralists and the Birmingham Group making the PRB a focal point of inspiration. The legacy of the PRB in recent art alongside the dismissal of the role of Eaton in the original Brotherhood is no mistake on the account of art history.

When Eaton was alive, she was navigating the aftermath of the end of slavery and the continued racial tensions that were shown through events like the American Civil War, while the 1960s were symbolic of the end of colonialism and Civil Rights Movements. Of course the two periods have very different settings but the prevalence of racism throughout both necessitates revisionism to understand why.

The role that art had in shaping beauty standards which undermined coloured beauty and perpetrated racism is something that art history must do a better job at acknowledging and owning up to itself.

Beauty is a call for admiration, but when saying something is beautiful it is often easy to forget where this admiration comes from. Rather than being a cause for celebration, beauty then becomes an excuse for comparison and degrading the alternative “unbeautiful”.  

It may seem like a minute problem in the wider fight against racism, but it is through these overt references to white beauty and subtle but obvious dismissals of black beauty that racism is still able to exist, whether it be conscious or subconsciously done.

Beauty should be inclusive, and a conscious effort must be made to diversify it now, while also revising what it meant in the past. Hopefully the recent attention brought towards Eaton in the PRB will be a call to do likewise in other parts of art history.  

Manvir Dobb, Arts and Culture Editor