Forgotten Women – Fanny Eaton

I am all for female empowerment and supporting other women; the same goes for recognising and respecting the achievement of women in history, they should not be a mystery.

I read the Stylist magazine, Issue 437, and was most intrigued by Forgotten Women, which is a series dedicated to giving women of history the exposure they deserve.

Fanny Eaton was, “Britain’s most visible Victorian woman of colour and an icon of mixed heritage beauty.” She was model for many of the Pre-Raphaelite painters whose place in art history is often overlooked. I must admit that Eaton was in fact a mystery to me before reading this article; therefore I found it extremely insightful to understand her place and value.

What really stood out to me was Eaton made women of colour visible at a time when they were elsewhere invisible. Pictures of her hung in galleries across the country, her image was reproduced and she was held up as an example of perfect beauty.

Eaton, among other Pre-Raphaelite muses, had something none of the others had: dark skin – rare in art of the time and therefore precious to a group of artists trying to stand out.

It is hard to believe that if it wasn’t for articles like this one, Eaton could well have been blanched from history, a nameless face and figure in an increasing number of works. For me, she sits as a haunting reminder of the many lives of marginalised people whose existences have been erased. Even though new information and works continue to appear, so much about Fanny Eaton remains in obscurity. The handful of women who modelled for the Pre-Raphaelites have shaped our contemporary notion of the artist’s muse, so I believe that it is figures like Eaton, who cut such a distinctive figure through her era, is incorporated into this narrative.

What I also found highly alerting was Eaton’s segregation because of her race spending most of her time in back kitchens cleaning and cooking for her ‘betters’. It is hard to fathom that this segregation still happens in today’s society, with ethnicity still being a taboo subject – though thankfully not to the extent it was previously.

But Fanny is a hugely important figure because she was a black woman whose beauty was celebrated in art. She wasn’t just painted as a token black figure used to make art more “exotic.” The focus was on HER face, celebrating HER beauty.

Eaton is now finally being brought to the forefront of art history. During a time of serious racial prejudice, she was a symbol of beauty which is admirable. She’s also an example of how varied working-class Victorian culture was: history is often white-washed, but Britain has always been a melting pot of mixed cultures and influences.

She is now immortalised on canvas forever. Eaton is a symbol of black beauty during a time of rigid ideals of what women should be.


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