Culture Magazine

Get Thee to a Biographer!

By Kirsty Stonell Walker @boccabaciata
You should by this point know what I'm like.  I really adore finding out about the waifs and strays of art history, finding those women who fall between the cracks and bringing their lives, well, to life because honestly everyone has an interesting life in one way or another.  Even if your moment under the artist's pencil (or even the artist) was brief, I bet something else happened in your life.  No-one only gets only one moment of interest.  So I have a little fact-heap of ladies I look into, finding out more about them until I have enough to bring you.  Imagine my delight when I set about researching two of Rossetti's models which had been somewhat overlooked - Would I find out that they had gone mad?  Did they have unexplained children? Have scandalous love affairs and appalling marriages?
In the past I have found out all of these things about Victorian models.  This time things were a little different.  This is the story of Agnes Manetti and Ada Vernon...

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The Laurel (1864) Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Let's start with Agnes Manetti, because I've always found her a nice, larger-than-life character.  She was described by William Michael Rossetti as 'a Scotch woman in London, with a handsome pleasing face, more especially a fine profile.' So far, so good, but it doesn't last as he goes on to describe her as 'of no rigid virtue' and looking like Napoleon.  He knows how to flatter a girl, that one.  William Michael is not the most reliable of character witnesses, being a bit of a pig at times, but also he is usually recollecting much after the event, sometimes as much as 40 years, so I suppose I ought to forgive him.  But I don't.

Get Thee to a Biographer!

Agnes Manetti (1862) Dante Gabriel Rossetti

The problem is that we tend to take what people like William Michael say as gospel, which it should be as he was actually there.  However, he is a careless biographer of people he does not consider important and so the women who were mere fleeting fancies get the history applied to them that William Michael thinks appropriate.  When it comes to someone like Fanny Cornforth, his recollections are stronger because he loathed her so much.  With people like Agnes Manetti, he could probably barely remember her.  He certainly couldn't remember her surname.  Was he even thinking of her at the time?  When asked about Agnes in 1904, William Michael recalled that his brother's 'principle painting from her is named Monna Pomona'.

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Monna Pomona (1864) Dante Gabriel Rossetti

 Slight problem is that the model for the painting wasn't Agnes...
Okay, so enough of William Michael's nonsense, is there anyone who actual remembered her?  Gosh I wish there was a promiscuous slut-bag who fancied everyone and kept a diary...

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Oh, George Price Boyce, how lovely to see you again!

My favorite hot Victorian diarist, George Price Boyce came to my rescue once more.  If you have never read his diary I thoroughly recommend it because George was a one of the ladies and made it his business to meet all the models, give them presents and feed them.  I appreciate a man who gives a girl breakfast, and so it was with Agnes Manetti.  In 1862, Boyce saw images of Agnes, who he referred to as 'Fatty Aggie M' when he visited Rossetti.  He seems to imply in his diary entry of October 22 1862 that Rossetti has been using Agnes as his 'Joan of Arc' even though William Michael identified the model as a 'Mrs Beyer'.  Anyway, in January of 1863, Agnes comes round to breakfast at Boyce's bachelor pad and he draws her then gives her 'a little Florentine mosaic brooch' which I'm sure isn't a euphemism.

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La Castagnetta (1860s) Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Rossetti drew Agnes many times in a two year period, but only seemed to use her in a couple of paintings.  La Castagnetta is believed to be her, as is a watercolour of Sweet Tooth, an image of a girl eating fruit (which is one he repeated with Fanny Cornforth at this time too).

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Sweet Tooth (watercolour) (1864) Dante Gabriel Rossetti

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Aggie (Sweet Tooth) (1864) Dante Gabriel Rossetti

There are a number of images of Fanny Cornforth eating and much is made of the link between these and her weight.  Possibly too, for someone called 'Fatty Aggie', there is a link being made between her sensual love of eating and her weight, also linked to sensuality.  Thinking about it, if Aggie is seen has a bit loose in her morals, as was Fanny, is there a link being made between fat, eating and debauchery.  Look at those grapes (or whatever they are) hanging out of her mouth!  Saucy wench!

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The Hair Net (1862) Dante Gabriel Rossetti

So, to the research! Come on, with a name like Agnes Manetti, she won't be too hard to find....  So what do we know?  She was called Agnes, that we know as at least two people call her that, without speech-marks mostly, and she might have been Scottish, or 'Scotch' (a term which I think only applies to the drink, frankly).  I could not find an Agnes Manetti, but there are certainly a ton of Scottish Agneses (Agni?) in London in the 1860s.  Okay, so we'll start with Manetti, which was felt to be an odd name for a Scottish girl (discounting the Italian influx, obviously).  There we have more luck.  There are two gentlemen in London in 1861 with the surname 'Manetti'.  First of all we have Joseph, a Tuscan bank clerk (the best kind of bank clerk) who married first Frances (who died), then Martha, but neither wife was Scottish, let alone had 'Agnes' in their name.  On then to the fabulously named Raimondo Felix Manetti, a Spanish sculptor, who married Fanny Mills, a London girl.  They traveled about quite a bit by the look of them, so possibly they had come down from Scotland before settling in London, but Fanny was far too young, having only been in born in 1850.  No luck on any front there then, but I may have a suggestion about part of her name...
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In March 1860 the journal The Scottish Gardener ran an article about 'The Manetti Bubble'.  The Manetti shrub rose was wildly popular, although not everyone was a fan, the article calling it 'fair at first sight, but the more we know of him the less we value him'.  It's hard to know how Agnes came by the surname but by Boyce's recollection of her, it appears she took it herself.  Could she have named herself after a type of popular Scottish rose?  It's tempting to wonder if she was called Agnes at all in that case because another shrub rose is the 'Agnes'.  Did she just name herself after roses?  As Boyce does not call her "Agnes" (in speech-marks), suggesting he knows it's a made up name (like he does with "Fanny"), I think we should believe she was called Agnes, but as for the surname, who can tell?  Rossetti was a lover of flowers and used them intelligently in his paintings so possibly he christened Wee Scottish Aggie after the rose she was. After all, as William Michael says she is beautiful in Monna Pomona.  Only that's not her.  That's Ada Vernon.  Damn it!

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Ada Vernon (1863) Dante Gabriel Rossetti

See, there's another problem.  When two models look alike, who can tell which of them is the right model?  Enter stage left, Ada Vernon, the real model for Monna Pomona, and how do we know?  Because George Price Boyce fancied her.  Of course he did.  From his diary in February 1864, Rossetti 'has been painting on the drawing of "Ada" and the apple.  It is most exquisite.'  There is a letter to Ada from Rossetti, dated January 1864, postponing their meeting but asking her to come the next day 'as early as you can manage - and please come with your hair very nice indeed.'  Not only Monna Pomona has been misidentified as Agnes, but there is some doubt about The Laurel which has both women's names against it, depending where you look.  Both women were dark haired, dark eyed and beautiful.  Even less is reported on Ada Vernon, so we have no idea how rigid her morals were or where she apparently came from.  All we know is that she was going to marry a gentleman called Hemblen, according to the Rossetti Archive.  The above drawing was apparently given to her as a wedding present.  Apparently.  Okay, so Hemblen isn't a very common name, she'll be easy to find, right?

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Ada Vernon (1863-5) Dante Gabriel Rossetti

The above picture of Ada was part of a job lot that Boyce bought from Rossetti in 1865.  Something that caught my eye was the fact that Boyce put quotes around Ada's name the first time he spoke about her, which immediately put me on my guard.  First of all I searched for 'Hemblen' and variations and any marriages around that time to anyone with a name like Ada Vernon.  Lawks, nothing at all.  I also searched for Ada Vernon, again with not much hope, and certainly nothing that really fitted.  However there was a young man in Chelsea at that time, called Edmond Hamblen.  Sadly he ended his days without marrying Miss Vernon, and he was last seen in the 1901 census living with his widowed sister.  So what if Ada intended to marry but for some reason it just never happened?  Are there any unmarried Ada Vernons who might fit our bill?  Oddly, I was drawn to one who died in Croydon in 1917.  Ada Mary Vernon, born in 1842 in Worcestershire, had been an art needleworker.  It's not out of the question that she was in some way connected with the Morris family in the early 1860s, via embroidery, and that was where Rossetti found her.  I agree, it's tenuous...

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Miss Ada Vernon, actress


Possibly a slightly more plausible explanation is Miss Ada Vernon, who was an actress, which might explain Boyce's quotation marks around her name.  Miss Vernon seemed a busy, if not successful actress in the early 1860s, mentioned in The Era for her portrayal of Mary in The Farmer's Story (November 1865).  She was given the review that 'with further practice [she] will probably be able to realize a serious situation more forcibly than at present.' Thank you, I think.  When reviewed for her role in The Rivals, Tatler felt she was 'excellent', but from the faint praise given by her many reviewers she was never really a threat to Ellen Terry.  She appears in Rossetti's art around the same period as Ruth Herbert, so possibly he met her through Ruth.  Who can tell?  What becomes clear is that neither Ada or Agnes had families who remembered, nor children who carried the story down. Neither of them were in Rossetti's life long enough to become ingrained in the stories, nor so they seem to have written their histories themselves.  Was Agnes one of the hundreds of Scottish girls, working in service in London who was given a pretty name to suit her face?  Was Ada an actress or an embroiderer?  Why didn't she marry Mr Hamblen?  Had things turned out differently I might have been the author of Hoots! The Fall and Rise of Agnes Manetti but some people get lost in time. 
Especially if you are a woman.  A childless woman. An unmarried woman. No-one will remember you.
Well, that's a jolly note to end on, but this is the lesson of Aggie and Ada. Childless, unmarried women leave no memories sadly, which is brutal but true. By 'childless' I mean a woman without any descendants, either theirs or step-children or even nephews and nieces. It's interesting who comes crawling out of the woodwork on anniversaries of artists births and deaths, with tales of their model relatives.  Reading the centenary pieces on Rossetti you'd think most of London had posed for him, some of them even after he had died.  It stems from family narratives, great aunt so-and-so telling the story of when Rossetti painted her, or when she let Boyce give her a mosaic brooch (my new favorite euphemism). If you have no access to the younger generation who will carry your flame you will just have to do it yourself.
For a Victorian model to be remembered it helps to have been memorable, and I don't just mean in the good way.  Irritate the hell out of the right people and they will hang onto that grudge forever.
Just ask that nut-throwing, illiterate, thieving prostitute, Fanny Cornforth.

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