A Flood by John Everett Millais

A Flood by Millais (1870)

I begin My Daily Art Display today with an extract from The Illustrated London News newspaper telling of the disastrous flooding which occurred in Sheffield on Saturday March 19th 1864

The Illustrated London News
Saturday, March 19, 1864

“… In arguably the greatest tragedy ever to befall Sheffield — indeed one of Britain’s worst disasters, in terms of loss of life — almost 250 people perished, possibly more, when a reservoir dam burst in the hills a few miles from the town, shortly before midnight on the night of 11th March 1864. The entire reservoir is said to have emptied in only 47 minutes, as in excess of a hundred million cubic feet of water (between 600 and 700 million gallons, or — as noted in one of the articles — two million tons weight) crashed down the Loxley and lower river valleys, destroying almost everything in its path and inflicting terrible damage to property and livelihoods in its wake. …..”

John Everett Millais painted The Flood in 1870.  It is believed that he was motivated to paint his flood scene by the tragic events which occurred  in Sheffield in March 1864 when a dam collapsed in the middle of the night and the ensuing flood killed hundreds of villagers who lived downstream of the dam.    Among the many local newspaper reports there was one telling of a baby, still in its cradle, being swept away in the swift flowing waters.

In the painting, we see the baby wide awake with little idea of what is happening around him or her.  The baby just looks upwards and seems mesmerised by the raindrops which cling to the thin branches of a tree.   The wide-eyed and open-mouthed expression of the baby would in normal circumstances cause us to smile at the child’s inquisitiveness but unlike the baby, we are only too aware of its fate.  On the other hand, the black cat, which is sharing the ride on the cradle, is conscious of the peril and it too is also open-mouthed as it howls in fear of its life.   A household jug floats alongside the cradle reminding us of the devastating affect the raging water had as it swept unchecked in and out of the small impoverished village dwellings.

In the background on the left we can see a bridge almost submerged by the flood water and further to the right there is a house on the river bank and we can observe the water level has already reached the height of the ground floor windows.  To the right in the background men in a boat can be seen drifting quickly and uncontrollably on the tide of muddy water.

The painting hangs in the Manchester Art Gallery and it was intetersting to hear various comments from people as they studied the painting.  Some thought, as they looked at the smiling baby, that it was a charming picture whilst others tended to focus on the event itself and the probable drowning of the young child and found the painting rather disturbing.

You see, it is all in the eye of the beholder !

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