Rossetti's Lady Lilith watercolour tops pre-Raphaelite auction

Dante Gabriel Rossetti watercolour Lady Lilith was the top lot of Sotheby's pre-Raphaelite art auction yesterday.

The 1867 work sold marginally above estimate for £680,750 ($879,393) in the London sale.

Rossetti watercolour

Rossetti's muse, mistress and housekeeper, Fanny Cornforth

The piece has a fascinating story to tell.

Rossetti produced three versions of the work - two watercolours and one oil.

Yet just the two watercolours show the face of Fanny Cornforth, Rossetti’s housekeeper, muse and mistress, although not necessarily in that order.

That's because Rossetti created the original piece (the oil) on commission for US shipping magnate Frederick Leyland.

Leyland took against Cornforth's visage, so Rossetti replaced it with that of another model, Alexa Wilding. Cornforth was crushed when she found out.

 “Poor Fanny, it is a story that really makes you feel for her," Sotheby’s Victorian art expert Simon Toll told the Guardian newspaper.

“It was unforgivable of Rossetti, but you’re a young artist, the patron wants something and you need a bit of money, you do what he asks.

“[She] need never have learned about the substitution, but of course his friends – probably his studio assistant Henry Treffry Dunn who detested her – went out of their way to make sure she learned of it.”

Another Rossetti, 1876 chalk and pencil work Portrait of Miss Herbert, sold for £187,500 ($242,213) in the auction – almost doubling its estimate.

Sotheby's sold Rossetti's Prosperine for £3.2m ($5.2m) in 2013, an auction auction record for the artist.

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