Thoughts of the Past, 1858-59. Oil on canvas, 34 x 20 inches (86.4 x 50.8 cm). Collection of Tate Britain, reference no. N03338. Click on image to enlarge it.
his is an early work by Stanhope influenced by the first phase of Pre-Raphaelitism. It is one of a series of Pre-Raphaelite paintings at this time dealing with the plight of “fallen” or kept women, including D. G. Rossetti’s Found and William Holman Hunt’s The Awakening Conscience. These in turn may have been inspired by Pre-Raphaelite poetry such as William Bell Scott’s “Rosabell” of 1837 or Rossetti’s “Jenny” which he began as early as 1847-48. Thoughts of the Past was painted in Stanhope’s studio at 14 Chatham Place, Blackfriars.
G. P. Boyce reported in his diary for June 21, 1858: “Went into Stanhope’s studio to see the picture he is engaged on of an ‘unfortunate’ in two different crises of her life” (25). On December 26, 1858 Boyce recorded: “Called on Stanhope. He is painting on his picture of a gay woman in her room by the side of Thames at her toilet. ‘Fanny’ was sitting to him” (25). Gay at that time was a euphemism implying the woman was a prostitute. Fanny Cornforth was obviously the original model for this picture but not the final model chosen for the head. Fanny would have been a suitable model since her sexual morals were the subject of much speculation at this time. She was sitting to D. G. Rossetti for the head of the fallen woman in Found and was likely the mistress of both Rossetti and Boyce at this period.
Old Tate Gallery catalogues record a “Miss Jones” as the final model, perhaps one of the three well-known Jones sisters that acted as models at this time period – Augusta, Emelie (Milly), or Mary Emma. A study for the painting in pen and ink of c. 1858 is in the collection of the Tate Britain. The facial features of the model for the prostitute are again far different from that of Fanny Cornforth or the model chosen for the finished painting (Smith fig. 18, 144).
Left: Found. Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882). begun 1853 or 1859. Oil on canvas, 36 x 31 ½ inches. Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington, Delaware. Samuel and Mary R. Bancroft Memorial, 1935 DAM# 1935-27. Right: . [Click on images to enlarge them.]
Stanhope's picture brings together several major Victorian motifs, the first of which is the contemplative woman or woman in reverie so familiar from Rossetti's Fair Ladies and paintings by many other artists. This instance of the woman-at-the-window theme, so popular in paintings of the Lady of Shalott and Mariana, here takes place in a contemporary setting and bears comparison to Hunt's Awakening Conscience. The woman, a prostitute living in a room down by the Thames docks, thinks, as does Hunt's kept woman, of a happier — and more innocent — past.
Alison Smith has commented on the many symbolic features that can be read into this work about the young woman’s unfortunate position: “The painting shows a prostitute in a nightgown and wrapper standing forlornly by a window in her shabby lodgings by the Thames as she brushes her hair, the auburn colour of which invites association with Mary Magdalene, the archetypal remorseful harlot. On the wall hangs a man’s Algerian cloak or burnous, overlaid with a crochet lace collar, the latter suggestive of a pretence of respectability on the woman’s part.” As she points out, “The view looks upriver along the polluted Thames to Waterloo and Hungerford Bridges, places that bring to mind Thomas Hood’s tragic poem, ‘The Bridge of Sighs,’ of 1844 and its motif of the fallen woman plunging to a muddy death.” Like Holman Hunt, Stanhope fills the room
with signs that convey the girl’s predicament. Poverty and exploitation are communicated by the cracked window panes, the torn curtains and broken veneer of the table covered with her meagre possessions – scissors, an Indian rosary, a scarf and hair pins. The few coins on the table are presumably her derisory payment from a client whose impending departure is signalled by the man’s glove and walking stick on the floor. Tucked in the frame of the mirror, which reflects a worn-out paisley shawl hanging from a bedpost, is a recently opened letter, a trigger perhaps for her present emotional state, which from the plants and scattered posy on the floor the viewer is invited to interpret in terms of early attachment (the thornless rose on the left), faithfulness (wilting violets) and sadness (primroses). 
The overall structure of this painting, as well as the blue of the prostitute’s wrapper, reminds one setting and the brilliant blue dress of the woman in Millais’s Mariana of 1851. The background of this picture, as seen through the window, of the Thames at Blackfriars is reminiscent of river scenes that Whistler would soon paint such as his The Thames in Ice of 1860 or Wapping of 1860-61.
Parris, Leslie. “Thoughts of the Past”. In The Pre-Raphaelites. London: Tate Gallery Publications, 1984, cat. 98, 174.
Smith, Alison. . “Thoughts of the Past”. In The Pre-Raphaelites Victorian Avant-Garde. London: Tate Publishing, 2012, cat. 104, 144-45.
Surtees, Virginia Ed. The Diaries of George Price Boyce. Norwich: Real World, 1980.
Last modified 8 May 2022