Millais was born in Southampton in 1829, the son of John William and Emily Mary Millais. His father came from a well-known Jersey family, and his mother nee Evamy came from a prosperous family of Southampton saddlers. Emily Millais had been married previously to one Enoch Hodgkinson, by whom she had two sons. By her marriage to John William Millais she had, as well as John Everett a daughter, and another son William Henry, who was the close companion of his famous younger brother throughout his life, and a well-known painter of watercolours The family initially moved back to Jersey and then to London in 1838, specifically to further the artistic education of their precocious son. Armed with a letter of introduction they visited Sir Martin Archer Shee, the President of the Royal Academy. As a result of this meeting Millais became the youngest ever pupil at the Royal Academy Schools in the summer of 1840. He was known at the RA Schools as ‘The Child,’ and his talent caused considerable jealousy amongst fellow students. Millais was very thin, extremely agile, and physically brave, and was well-able to cope with the bullying he encountered at this time. At the RA Schools he met William Holman Hunt, who became a lifelong friend, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. From the meeting of these three youthful idealists the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was born.
Millais was by far the most naturally gifted of the founders of the PRB. His early paintings in the PR style were amazingly accomplished for such a young artist. He produced pictures which were minutely observed, with a painstaking attention to detail, which meant that painting them was a slow and laborious process. He would typically paint landscape backgrounds in the summer, and add figures in the foreground in his studio during the winter. Each of his pictures was also the result of a large number of detailed preparatory drawings. He went to considerable trouble and expense, even as an impecunious young artist to find the right props, a notable example of this being the dress worn by Ophelia, for which he paid four pounds a considerable sum at that time.
The first paintings exhibited at the RA by Millais and the other Pre-Raphaelites were initially greeted with derision, followed by vicious critical attacks, the most notorious of these being that by Charles Dickens, on the famous early painting ‘Christ in The House of His Parents,’ exhibited at the RA in1850, in which Dickens spoke of the young Jesus as ‘a hideous wry-necked blubbering boy.’ It is difficult for us to understand today why this particular work was felt to be so objectionable, but the depiction of the family of Christ as ordinary people was regarded as very disrespectful. When it emerged that this group were called the Pre-Raphaelites, and that they did not agree with the commonly held view that Raphael was the greatest artist of all time critical attacks on them reached a crescendo.
As a result of these attacks John Ruskin, the foremost art critic of his day was asked to intervene, which he did writing a letter to The Times on behalf of the young artists. From this intervention came the meeting between Ruskin and Millais, which was to result in the most famous sexual scandal of the day. Ruskin had married Euphemia Chalmers Grey, daughter of a Scottish family living near Perth. Ruskin, his wife, and Millais set off together on a holiday in Scotland, and a strong attraction developed between Effie Ruskin and Millais. It transpired that Ruskin had not consummated the marriage. It is amazing for us today to learn that Effie knew that something was missing from her marriage, but that she was so innocent she did not know what it was. Following an acrimonious and notorious divorce case, Effie married Millais, and rapidly produced eight children. It is interesting to note that the publicly-humiliated Ruskin had the generosity of spirit to continue to provide critical support for the artist.
Millais was also a notable illustrator during the 1860s, and worked much more consistently in this medium than most of the other Pre-Raphaelites. His important illustrations include six for Allingham’s The Music Master, 18 for Moxon’s Tennyson, two for Willmott’s Poets of the 19th Century and 40 in Trollope’s Orley Farm. Orley Farm in fact appeared originally in serial form in The Cornhill Magazine, and there are further Millais illustrations in this magazine, in Good Words, in Once a Week and in other periodicals.
The marriage of the John and Effie Millais proved to be a catalyst in the evolution of his style which started in the early 1860s. Millais said that it was no longer economically possible for him to spend the whole day painting an area ‘no larger than a five shilling piece.’ Thus he changed to a broader, looser, more spontaneous style of painting, with a strong element of sentiment, which was perfectly in keeping with the popular taste of the day.
This change has been seen by many critics as a great artist selling-out, and becoming a mere populist. These attacks persist to this day. Millais also became one of the most successful portrait painters of Victorian Britain. Some of these portraits are extremely successful by whichever criteria they are judged. Physical likenesses are, it goes without saying, excellent, and the best portraits as well as being wonderfully painted, are brilliantly successful in illustrating the character of the sitter. In the painting ‘Twins,’ of 1876 Millais produced a portrait of the identical daughters of a wealthy manufacturer. The markedly different characters of the confident and assertive Kate, and the more nervous introverted Edith are illustrated wonderfully well. The portrait of Tennyson, now in the Lady Lever Gallery is dramatic and powerful, and is quite simply a masterpiece. None of this is to say that the later portraits are of uniform quality. The famous painting of the dying Disraeli is a lost opportunity, and some of the pictures of children are overly-sentimental pot-boilers.
The later paintings at their best are of great virtue. They are spontaneous, the use of paint is brilliant, with a creamy, textured surface. The reaction against Millais after his death was greatly exaggerated, and the blanket condemnation cannot be justified today. The Scottish Autumnal landscapes are also of very considerable merit.
Millais was in essence a great craftsman, and was not in any way an intellectual. He was a Victorian hearty, with a love of hunting, shooting, and fishing. Throughout his life he remained at heart a large enthusiastic schoolboy. He was a devoted father, and was particularly indulgent to his daughters. He had the gift of inspiring loyalty and affection amongst a wide circle of friends. Fellow artists who one would not expect to be sympathetic to Millais the artist regarded Millais the man with affection, Edward Burne-Jones was amongst his admirers. The artist himself did not feel that he had compromised his standards. In later life he said ‘ I may honestly say that I have never consciously placed an idle touch upon canvass; and that I have always been honest and hardworking.’ This is not the comment of a cynical, financially motivated individual.
In later life Millais became very materially successful, earning over £30,000 a year. In 1878 the Millais family moved into a vast house at 2 Palace Gate, Kensington, which had been designed and built for their use, and as an affirmation of the success of John Everett. The Scottish landscapes I mentioned above were painted during visits to a baronial house in Perthshire which Millais rented. Much of the adverse criticism directed at the artist since his death has been motivated by disapproval of his material success and ostentatious display of his wealth. In 1885 Millais became the first English artist to be made a baronet.
In the early 1890s the wonderful facility to paint that the artist had used to such effect for over forty years started to decline. Millais was painfully aware of this situation. In 1892 he suffered from what was at first thought to be influenza, but turned out to be the onset of throat cancer-he had for many years been a constant pipe-smoker. In 1895 Millais gave an address to the Royal Academy in the absence of Leighton. He was very hoarse and giving the speech was a considerable ordeal. When Leighton died in January 1896, the dying Millais was elected PRA in his stead. His condition deteriorated and by July he was very ill. Queen Victoria contacted the PRA and asked if there was anything she could for him. Millais asked that the Queen received his wife, who had been excluded from court circles throughout their married life, due to the scandal attached to the annulment of her marriage to Ruskin-the now rather elderly Lady Millais was duly presented at court. Millais died on the 13th August 1896. He was succeeded by Sir Edward Poynter as President of the Royal Academy.
Since his death Millais the artist and man has consistently received severe handling from some critics. The magnificent exhibition of his portraits at the National Portrait Gallery in 1999 was the subject of much hostile comment from such luminaries as Richard Dorment in the Daily Telegraph. In reality the censure is based on disapproval of Millais the man, and of his material success. This is sad, unfair, spiteful, and unnecessary.
John Millais was one of the great nineteenth century artists.
Where to See Millais Works
Work by Millais can be seen at the Tate Gallery (Ophelia and The Vale of Rest), Birmingham (The Blind Girl), Manchester (Autumn Leaves), Liverpool (Lorenzo and Isabella at the Walker Art Gallery), Port Sunlight (St Isumbras at the Ford and The Black Brunswicker at the Lady Lever Gallery), and at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford (Return of the Dove to the Ark). The Bride of Lammermoor is in Bristol. The Convalescent and Brighteyes are in the Aberdeen art gallery. Portraits by Millais can be seen at the National Portrait Gallery. A very early work, before Millais became a Pre-Raphaelite, is in Hove.
Miscellaneous Facts About Millais
As a young man he was extremely athletic. His party trick was to jump high into the air without any run up.
He was vain about his appearance. Nearly every photograph of him shows him in profile, as he felt that his profile was so exceptionally handsome.
He was an outdoor man, every inch a Victorian hearty.
He was addicted to field sports-hunting, shooting, and fishing.
He was a sociable popular man.
He was an indulgent father, particularly to his daughters.
He spent his evenings in the Garrick Club, when in London.
He did not visit sitters to paint their portraits, they came to his studio.
In 1886 a large retrospective of his work was held at the Grosvenor Gallery.
After his death Sir George Reid, President of the Royal Scottish Academy of Art said he was “one of the kindest, noblest, most beautiful and lovable man I ever knew or hope to know.
“For my own part, I have often been laboured, but whatever I am I am never careless. I may honestly say that I have never placed on idle touch on canvas; and that I have always been honest and hardworking; yet the worst pictures I ever painted in my life are those into which I threw the most trouble and labour, and I confess that I should not grieve were half my works to go to the bottom of the Atlantic-if I might choose the half to go.”
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