Sophie Gray by John Everett Millais

Sophie Gray by John Everett Millais (1857)
Sophie Gray by John Everett Millais (1857)

Much has been written about the love triangle of the pre-Raphaelite artist, John Everett Millais, the art critic, John Ruskin and his wife, Euphemia Gray.  This year we will be offered two feature films, Effie and Untouched exploring their relationship but for today I want to look at the life of Millais’ other sister-in-law, Sophie Gray.  Sophie was Effie’s younger sister, and today I am featuring the amazing portrait of her by her brother-in-law, Millais.

Sophie Gray was born in Kinnoull, a suburb of Perth, Scotland in 1843. She was brought up in a comfortable family environment, her father, George Gray, having his own solicitor’s practice, along with money from property investments in Perth.  Her family, although not considered to be rich, could neither be described as poor and she would have had everything money could buy to ensure that she was kept safe, warm and in good health. George Gray and her mother, Sophia Margaret Gray, née Jameson, had fifteen children although by the time Sophie, their tenth child, arrived, five had died and sadly, before Sophie had reached her seventh birthday in 1850 another two of her siblings had passed away and a third died a year later.  Sophie was fifteen years younger than her elder sister Effie.

Effie Gray, first met John Ruskin, who was a family friend, in 1840, when she was twelve, whilst she was on a visit to Herne Hill and they met again a a year later.  Six years passed before their next encounter in October 1847 and it was at this meeting that John Ruskin started to fall in love with the nineteen-year old Effie, so much so that when Ruskin returned to his home in London, he wrote to Effie’s father and asked for her hand in marriage. George Gray consented and marriage plans for the following year were drawn up. These plans were disrupted by Effie’s father becoming almost bankrupt due to a railway speculation going awry. However, the wedding did eventually take place at Effie’s home in Bowerswell House on April 10th 1848.

At the time of the wedding Sophie was just five years old and she would often go to London and stay with her sister and Ruskin.  Effie, in many ways, became a second mother to her.   The marriage between Effie and Ruskin as it has been well documented was not a success and could have been down to many reasons such as their totally different personalities and their differing temperaments for Effie was naturally sociable and flirtatious, and soon began to feel oppressed by her husband’s  dogmatic and unbending personality.  In April 1854, Sophie had been staying with her sister and husband and on the pretext of having to take her little sister back home to Scotland Effie left the marital home at Herne Hill and never returned.  The marriage was annulled on the grounds of non-consummation in July of that year.

Sophie Gray (aged 10) by Millais (1854
Sophie Gray (aged 10) by Millais (1854

Sophie Gray had first met John Everett Millais in 1853 and she, like her sister, Effie, had modeled for him.  He painted several pictures of her and this led, in some quarters, to speculation as to Millais relationship with his young sister-in-law.  The first painting of Sophie produced by Millais was a sensitive watercolour drawing of her, in oval form, in January 1854 when she was just ten years old. Millais appears to have been totally entranced by the prettiness of the young girl who would soon become his future sister-in-law.  When he had completed the work he wrote to Sophie’s mother extolling the virtues of her daughter.  He wrote:
“…What a delightful little shrewd damsel Sophia is…I do not praise her to please you, but I think her extremely beautiful, and that she will even improve, as yet she does not seem to have the slightest idea of it herself which makes her prettier—I am afraid that ignorance cannot last long…”

Autumn Leaves by John Everett Millais (1856)
Autumn Leaves by John Everett Millais (1856)

Sophie continued to sit for Millais; in fact, she was being used as his model more than he used Effie.  Her sister Effie, now divorced from Ruskin had moved back to Scotland and from August 1855 lived with Millais at Annat Lodge which was close to her parent’s home at Bowerswell and so Sophie was always on hand to sit for Millais.  Sophie’s beauty had become even more noticeable as she changed from a young girl to a young teenager.  One of next paintings Millais completed of Sophie was in 1856 when she had yet to reach her thirteenth birthday.  It was entitled Autumn Leaves which he exhibited at the Royal Academy that year.   In this painting Sophie is one of four girls standing around a smouldering bonfire of fallen leaves which they had been collecting.  The twilight setting is the garden at Annat Lodge and in the background we see the Arochar Alps. The girl on the left is Sophie’s younger sister Alice, who was two years her junior.  Next to her is Sophie who is, like Alice, dressed in a green velvet dress.  On the right there are two young working-class girls from the village, Matilda Proudfoot and Isabella Nicol.  Millais used these same two local girls as sitters for his beautiful painting, The Blind Girl, (See My Daily Art Display May 16th 2011).  As we look closely at these four young girls Sophie stands apart as the one who is not to be looked upon as a young girl but one who should be considered as becoming a young woman.

The painting received mixed reviews.  John Ruskin described the work as:

“…the first instance of a perfectly painted twilight…”

and

“…[It] will rank in future among the world’s best masterpieces…”

 

For others, like some of the members of the Royal Academy, the subject of the painting baffled them.  One wrote:

“…We are curious to learn the mystic interpretation that will be put upon this composition…”

John Millais’s wife, Effie, wrote that her husband had intended to create a picture that was “full of beauty and without a subject”.  Millais wrote to his friend and art critic, Frederic Stephens, who was also one of the two “non-artistic” members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and who had written a glowing report about the work.  Millais explained the thought behind the painting stating that he:

“… intended the picture to awaken by its solemnity the deepest religious reflection. I chose the subject of burning leaves as most calculated to produce this feeling…”

However my featured painting today is the truly haunting head and shoulder intimate portrait entitled Sophie Gray which he completed in 1857 when his sitter was just fourteen years of age.  The young girl occupies an uncharacteristically large portion of the picture.   A delicate light illuminates the left side of her face and this emphasizes the golden brown colour of her hair with its auburn highlights.  Sophie’s clothes are unremarkable.  They are dark in colour and simply decorated with an embroidered heart with three flowers within it.  What an enigmatic portrait.  Her long hair frames her face and becomes one with the equally dark background, leaving only her pale skin and the touch of lace at her throat as an absolute contrast.  Sophie looks out at us.  Her ice-blue eyes stare blankly and expressionless.  Her lush red lips and rosy cheeks are a contrast to her white skin and dark background.  Her lips are defiantly pursed and her chin is tilted up slightly in a determined manner.  This is a young woman of great self-confidence for one so young.  The way Millais has depicted the beauty of his young sister-in-law leaves us in no doubt for the fondness he had for the young girl. It is an alluring and haunting portrait.  This is a very personal work of art.  There is a definite connection between the artist and the sitter and one feels that had he not loved his wife, his relationship with Sophie may have been much different.

Alice Gray by Millais (1857)
Alice Gray by Millais (1857)

This beautiful Pre-Raphaelite painting, dating from the height of the movement, is a pendant to a similar head of Sophie’s younger sister Alice, who was another of Millais’ favourite models.   Both works were bought from Millais by his friend, the Pre-Raphaelite landscape and figurative artist, George Price Boyce, for himself and on behalf of his sister Joanna, also an artist. There is a well-defined difference between the two portraits. The painting of Alice, the younger of the two sisters is simply an uncomplicated portrait of a young and somewhat immature girl, whereas the portrait of Sophie is a painting which demonstrates the electric energy that was present between the sitter and the artist.

So what became of Sophie Gray?   She had major mental health problems and in 1868, in her mid-twenties, she spent time away from home, staying at Manor Farm House in Chiswick receiving medical care from a Doctor Thomas Tuke, who was a noted practitioner in mental health.  She remained under his care, away from the family home, and did not return to Scotland until the following year.    Sophie did not marry until 1873, at what was in Victorian times looked upon as a very advanced age of thirty. She married Sir James Key Caird, who was a wealthy jute manufacturer, and the couple had one child, a daughter Beatrix Ada a year later.  A portrait of their daughter, when she was five years old, was painted by Dante Rossetti.  The marriage was an unhappy one and Sophie’s husband paid little attention to his wife’s needs and was often absent from the marital home.   Sophie spent much of her time alone with Beatrix, mostly living between Dundee and Paris.   She had suffered from anorexia nervosa for a good deal of her life and in her later years lost a lot of weight.  In 1882, with her health rapidly deteriorating, she had to return to the care of Doctor Tuke but her health never improved and on March 15th 1882, aged 38 she died.  The cause of death was put down to “exhaustion and atrophy of nervous system, 17 years”.

As I wrote this blog I couldn’t help but wonder how the beautiful thirteen year old we see in the main picture could lead such a sad life and die so young.  Such a waste of life.

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Isabella by John Everett Millais

Lorenzo and Isabella by John Everett Millais (1849)

My favourite Pre-Raphaelite artist is, without doubt, John Everett Millais and I have featured a number of his paintings in previous blogs.  As you know, as I have mentioned it before, I like paintings with a story behind what is depicted by the artist and so merging my two favourite aspects of art I am delighted to present you with Millais’ painting entitled Isabella, also sometimes referred to as Lorenzo and Isabella or The Pot of Basil.  Some of you may know the story and poem behind this early work of art by the Pre-Raphaelite painter but for those who do not, let me lead you through the background of this work and to the medieval allegorical tale, Decameron, written around 1352 by Giovanni Boccaccio.   The word Decameron comes from the combination of two Greek words; déka meaning ‘ten’ and hēméra  meaning ‘days’ and thus decameron means ‘ten day event’.

The Decameron is set in Italy around the 1350’s at the time of the Black Death.  It tells of a group of ten people, seven young women and three young men who escape from the plague-ridden town of Florence and head into the hills of Fiesole and a deserted villa where they stay for a fortnight.  In order to while away the evenings, each one of the group had to tell a story on each night for ten days.  No story would be told on the one day set aside for the chores around the villa nor would a story be narrated on the holy days and thus in all ten stories would be told on the ten evenings making a total of 100 tales.  The stories are sometimes of a bawdy nature and range from the erotic to the tragic.   Each of the ten young people is made King or Queen of the company for one of the ten days in turn. This gives him or her, the right to choose a theme and a topic for the ten stories that day.

The painting I am featuring today is based on a story told by one of the young women, Filomena, on the fourth day and that days theme for all the stories was that they mus be tales of love that ends tragically.  She tells the story of Lisabetta and her three brothers who live a very rich life togetherthanks to the wealth they have inherited after the death of their father.  She has fallen in love with their manager Lorenzo and it was not long before they became lovers.  Her affair with Lorenzo was kept a secret from her brothers but, unbeknown to her, her eldest brother saw his sister sneak into Lorenzo’s bedchamber.  He was horrified as it was he and his brothers’ plan to marry her off to a wealthy nobleman and increase their own wealth.   He informed his brothers as to what he had witnessed and they hatched a plot to kill Lorenzo.  Days passed without incident until one day the brothers asked Lorenzo to accompany them on a trip, during which they murdered him and buried his body.  On returning home they told their sister that Lorenzo had been sent away on business.  A long time passes without any sign of Lorenzo and Lisabetta is heartbroken.  One night Lorenzo appears to her in a dream and shows her where he is buried. She goes there and disinters the body and brings away his head.  She takes the severed head wraps it in a fine napkin and buries it into a flower pot over which she plants basil, and other sweet herbs.  Each day she sheds tears over the pot which nourish the herbs.  Eventually the brothers get to hear about this pot of herbs, take it from her and discover the head of Lorenzo, which they re-bury.  Isabella is once again heartbroken, grows weak from sorrow and eventually dies of grief.

A narrative poem by John Keats, entitled, Isabella or the Pot of Basil, written in 1818, is adapted from this story in which the girl is  not now Lisabetta but Isabella.  When the painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1849 the following stanzas from Keats’ poem was included in the catalogue:

Fair Isabel, poor simple Isabel!
Lorenzo, a young palmer in Love’s eye!
They could not in the self-same mansion dwell
Without some stir of heart, some malady;
They could not sit at meals but feel how well
It soothed each to be the other by.
These brethren having found by many signs
What love Lorenzo for their sister had,
And how she lov’d him too, each unconfines
His bitter thoughts to other, well nigh mad
That he, the servant of their trade designs
Should in their sister’s love be blithe and glad
When ’twas their plan to coax her by degrees
To some high noble and his olive trees.

To read the poem in full go to: http://www.bartleby.com/126/38.html

I stood before this painting a week ago when I visited the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool and one could not help but be moved by this beautiful work of art.  The Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood members were fascinated by the poetry of Keats and Holman Hunt and Dante Rossetti intended to produce a series of etchings for book illustrations of Keats’s ‘Isabella’.   John Millais worked up his drawings into this large painting which he completed in 1849.  This was his first major painting and what is more remarkable is that he was only nineteen years of age.

The doomed lovers

The setting for the painting is a meal table around which sat a number of people including the three brothers, Isabella and Lorenzo.  The brothers have just found out about their sister’s affair with Lorenzo but have said nothing to her although they are already formulating a plan in their minds as to how to kill Lorenzo.  Isabella, wearing grey, sits at the right and is being handed a blood orange on a plate by her doomed lover, Lorenzo.   A cut blood orange is symbolic of the neck of someone who has just been decapitated and this alludes to the time in the future when Isabella will cut off the dead Lorenzo’s head after finding him buried. The sedate portrayal of mealtime is broken as we see Isabella’s eldest brother, hunched over, rocking forward on his chair as he furiously kicks out at a frightened dog while cracking a nut. His face is contorted in anger as he lashes out at the helpless animal.  Next to him sit his two brothers.  Their demeanour is much calmer and there is certain smugness about their expressions for they are aware of their brother’s plan to kill Lorenzo.  Observe the brother who holds up his glass of wine.  Observe how he is slyly and surreptitiously glancing at Lorenzo and Isabella.  He can see the look of desire in Lorenzo’s eyes as he studies his lover who has demurely avoided his penetrating gaze.

Millais has exaggerated the intensity of the painting by juxtaposing colours and tones.  Look at how Millais has contrasted the white towel draped over the arm of the servant, standing on the far right of the picture, with his black tunic.  The legs of this servant adorned in yellow stockings almost merges with the background colour of the floor and the marble base of the balustrade.

What I like about the work is how Millais has made each one of the diners different and each having very distinctive characteristics.  Common among Pre-Raphaelite works is Millais attention to detail.  Look at the plates on the table.  Each has an exquisite pattern.    Another distinctive Pre-Raphaelite feature is the inclusion of images and patterns within the image as a whole. Each of the majolica plates has a distorted picture glazed into its surface. Look too at the bench seat Isabella is sitting on.  See how Millais has gone to pains to depict the seat. The base of the bench on which Isabella sits contains an intricate carving depicting a kneeling figure, below which we see the letters PRB, which stand for Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

Sketch of Dante Rossetti for the Lorenzo and Isabella painting (courtesy of George Landow)

The people sitting around the table were modelled by Millais’ friends.  The wife of his half-brother was the model for Isabella.   William Rossetti, Dante Rossetti’s brother, was Lorenzo, who sits next to Isabella; Dante Rossetti is the model for the man at the far end of the table on the right with a wine glass held to his mouth.    The older man on the right-hand side of the table dabbing his mouth with a serviette is none other than John William Millais, the artist’s father.   Walter Deverell, a fellow artist and student of Dante Rossetti and Frederic Stephens, an art critic, and one of the two ‘non-artistic’ members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood sat for the other two brothers who sit on the left hand side of the table.  Amusingly, the brother who kicks out at the dog is painted from memory of a John Harris, a person who had bullied John Millais when they were together at the Royal Academy Schools.

Millais has symbolised Lorenzo and Isabella’s love for each other by including a depiction of the white rose and passion flower entwined in the arch above their heads, and also by them sharing a blood orange.  We see the dog with its head on Isabella’s lap which is a sign of Lorenzo’s devotion for her and of course the fact that her brother aims a kick at the dog symbolises his feeling for Lorenzo.  In this painting we have no doubt that death will soon follow and of course we know it will be the death of Lorenzo.  Millais has included some symbols of death in the painting, for instance the brother holding up his glass of blood-red wine as he contemplates the end of Lorenzo.  Other symbols of death are the hawk, which perches on the back of an empty chair, pecking at a white feather which is a symbol of peace.  We see below the arm of the nearest brother a salt cellar lying on its side with the salt, which is considered a symbol of life, scattered on the tablecloth.  This spilt salt symbolises the spilt blood which will soon occur when the brothers kill Lorenzo.  Note how the salt is covered by the shadow of the brother’s forearm, thus implicating him in the heinous crime which is soon to happen.  Look at the right background and on the top of the balustrade we see a large pot containing basil and this may be the one in which Isabella will place Lorenzo’s severed head.   When you stand close up to the actual painting you can just make out designs on the majolica plates on the table.  On one there is the scene of David beheading Goliath whilst another shows Prometheus having his entrails pecked out by an eagle.  All of which is a reminder of the violence that is soon to follow.

The picture was sold to a tailor for £150 and a new suit.

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 !

The Martyr of Solway by John Everett Millais

The Martyr of Solway by Millais (1871)

I visited the Walker Gallery in Liverpool yesterday and I am never disappointed by the paintings on permanent show there.  It is such a diverse collection which cannot fail to please everybody who visits, no matter what their artistic proclivity.  My Daily Art Display today features a stunning painting by John Everett Millais entitled The Martyr of the Solway which he painted in 1871.

So who was the martyr of Solway and why was she killed in such a barbaric fashion?   The “Margaret” depicted by Millais was Margaret Wilson, who was born in 1667 in Glenvernoch in Wigtownshire.  She was a young and devout Presbyterian who was a member of the Covenanters, a Scottish Presbyterian movement of the 17th century in Scotland who signed the National Covenant in 1638 to confirm their opposition to the interference by the Stuart kings in the affairs of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland.  The Stuart kings embraced the belief of the Divine Right of the Monarch.   However, not only did they believe that God wished them to be the infallible rulers of their kingdom – they also believed that they were the spiritual heads of the Church of Scotland.    This latter belief was anathema to the Scots.   Their belief was quite simple – no man, not even a king, could be spiritual head of their church. Only Jesus Christ could be spiritual head of a Christian church.
The account of the martyrdom of the eighteen year old Margaret  Wilson and the events leading up to her death are set down in an account by the Rev.C.H.Dick’s  entitled Highways and Byways in Galloway and Carrick, which was published in 1916.  In it he wrote:
“….Upon the 11th of May,1685 came the wicked execution of two excellent women, Margaret McLachlan and Margaret Wilson, near Wigtown, in South West Scotland .  Margaret Wilson, eighteen, and her sister, Agnes, not yet thirteen years old, were the daughters of Gilbert Wilson, tenant of Glenvernoch in the parish of Penninghame. They conformed to Episcopacy. Adherents to the Covenants, the girls fell into the hands of the persecutors, and were imprisoned.

Upon their release, they left the district and wandered through Carrick, Galloway, and Nithsdale with their brothers and some other Covenanters. But on the death of King Charles, there was some slackening of the persecution, and the girls returned to Wigtown.

An acquaintance, Patrick Stuart, betrayed them. He proposed drinking the king’s health; this they modestly declined: upon which he went out, informed against them, brought in a party of soldiers, and seized them.   They were thrown in the thieves’ hole, and after they had been there some time, were removed to the prison where Margaret McLauchlan was.

Margaret Maclachlan was a woman of more than ordinary knowledge, discretion, and prudence, and for many years of singular piety and devotion: she would take none of the oaths now pressed upon women as well as men, neither would she desist from the duties she took to be incumbent upon her, hearing presbyterian ministers when providence gave opportunity, and joining with her Christian friends and acquaintances in prayer, and supplying her relations and acquaintances when in straits, though persecuted. It is a jest to suppose her guilty of rising in arms and rebellion, though indeed it was a part of her indictment. She was very roughly dealt with in prison, and was allowed neither fire nor bed although she was sixty-three years of age.

All the three prisoners were indicted “for rebellion, Bothwellbridge, Ayr’s Moss, and being present at twenty field-conventicles”.   None of them had ever been within many miles of Bothwell or Ayr’s Moss. Agnes Wilson could be but eight years of age at Ayr’s Moss, and her sister but about twelve or thirteen; and it was impossible they could have any access to those risings:

When the Abjuration Oath was put to them, they refused it, the assize found them guilty, and the sentence was that “upon the 11th instant, all the three should be tied to stakes fixed within the flood-mark in the water of Blednoch near Wigtown, where the sea flows at high water, there to be drowned”.

Gilbert Wilson secured the liberation of the younger girl under a bond of a hundred pounds sterling. The sentence was executed on Margaret Maclachlan and Margaret Wilson.  The two women were brought from Wigtown, with a numerous crowd of spectators. Major Windram with some soldiers guarded them. The old woman’s stake was a good way in beyond the other, and she was first despatched, in order to terrify the other to a compliance with such oaths and conditions as they required. But in vain, for she adhered to her principles with an unshaken steadfastness.

When the water was overflowing her fellow-martyr, some about Margaret Wilson asked her, what she thought of the other now struggling with the pangs of death. She answered, what do I see but Christ (in one of his members) wrestling there. Think you that we are the sufferers? No, it is Christ in us, for he sends none a warfare upon their own charges.

When Margaret Wilson was at the stake, she sang the 25th Psalm from verse 7th, downward a good way, and read the 8th chapter to the Romans with a great deal of cheerfulness, and then prayed.   While at prayer, the water covered her: but before she was quite dead, they pulled her up, and held her out of the water till she was recovered, and able to speak; and then by Major Windram’s orders, she was asked, if she would pray for the king.

She answered, ‘She wished the salvation of all men, and the damnation of none.’

One deeply affected by her words said, ‘Dear Margaret, say God save the king, say God save the king.’

She answered in the greatest steadiness and composure, ‘God save him, if he will, for it is his salvation I desire.’

Whereupon some of her relations near by, desirous to have her life spared, called out to Major Windram, ‘Sir, she hath said it, she hath said it.’

Whereupon the major came near, and offered her the abjuration, charging her instantly to swear it, otherwise return to the water.

Most deliberately she refused, and said, ‘ I will not, I am one of Christ’s children, let me go.’

Upon which she was thrust down again into the water.

The name of the man by whose information the women were arrested is well known, and his memory execrated still. One of his descendants getting into an altercation was thus taunted: ‘I wadna like to have had a forebear who betrayed the martyrs; I wadna be coomed o’ sic folk’.

The gravestone of Margaret Wilson

Margaret Wilson was buried in the churchyard at Wigtown.

X Ray picture of original painting

In the painting, we see the young woman with flame-coloured hair chained to the rocks.  She wears an open-necked blouse and tartan skirt.  She looks downward and to her left, her lips pursed.  Her eyes avoid our gaze and she seems lost in thought.  It is interesting to note that what we see in today’s painting is not we would have seen in Millais’ original completed work.  Art conservators have x-rayed the painting and found out that Millais had originally painted the upper torso of the young woman naked.  However when the painting was exhibited in 1871 there were strong puritanical views on nudity in paintings and Millais’ work offended Victorian sensibilities.  It was badly received and was the butt of many negatively critical reviews.

The Knight Errant (repainted version)

This had also happened a year earlier when Millais exhibited his work The Knight Errant in 1870 depicting a naked woman tied to a tree being rescued by a knight and which was roundly condemned for its nudity.  It could not be sold and had to be repainted.  Millais actually then cut out the canvas on which was her head and upper torso, added a new piece of canvas and re-painted the damsel in distress.   He did not clothe the naked woman but instead of her gaze being fixed on the knight, her upper torso was altered so that she was now  modestly turned away from him.   This in fact was Millais’ one and only painting of a nude woman.

For his painting of the Martyr of Solway, Millais realised that it was in his best interest to change the painting and deflect any further criticism so he re-painted the head and upper torso and the result was the clothed woman, as we see her today.

It is a most captivating painting.  I suppose in reality the calm and thoughtful face of the young woman as portrayed by Millais is unrealistic as I am sure the incoming tide must have been a terrifying experience and yet we see neither fear in her eyes nor her facial expression.  However this lack of facial contortion brought on by panic and trepidation allows us to observe the beautiful face of this young woman.

Clothed or naked – was Millais right in changing his original concept?  If Millais had painted the picture today one presumes he may not have had to clothe her upper torso but would that have added or detracted from the finished article?

The Blind Girl by John Everett Millais

The Blind Girl by Millais (1854-56)

Another day, another painting, another offering from the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.  My Daily Art Display for today is one of John Everett Millais’ finest works of art, entitled The Blind Girl which he painted in 1856.  In it we have a fusion of the elements of figure and landscape painting depicting, in the foreground, two girls sitting near a roadside against the backdrop of an expanse of wide, open fields with a distant view of a town.

Begging plea

The elder of the two girls, with her eyes closed, is blind.  She is homeless and forced to beg for sustenance by playing her concertina, which we see on her lap.  Her wretched plight is emphasized even more by the sheet of paper hanging around her neck with the words “PITY THE BLIND”.   Millais has chosen as his subject for this painting the social evil of the day – vagrancy among children and the disabled.  Millais hoped that his painting would elicit sympathy from its viewers for the plight of this blind girl and those like her.  There is a stillness and tranquility about the girl and this is borne out by the fact that we see a tortoiseshell butterfly resting on her shawl.

The younger girl, who is partly perched on the lap of the blind girl, and whom we believe maybe her sister, does not look out at us but is looking back at the double rainbow and the enchanting landscape below this phenomenon.  Some art historians have interpreted Millais’ depiction of the double rainbow as a Christian symbol of hope and one must remember that at the time Millais was still influenced by his former patron John Ruskin and it was Ruskin’s belief that there was a connection between the beauty of nature and the divine handiwork of God.   It is an enchanting scene we see before us and has luminosity brought on by the aftermath of what has probably been a heavy downpour of rain.  The rain has made the grass looks so green and its fresh appearance tempts us to sniff the air so as to take in the delights of the countryside.

Look at the way the two girls are depicted by Millais.  See how the younger girl snuggles within the shawl of the blind girl.  I wonder whether Millais meant us to look at their positioning and think of the Madonna and Child.  Whereas we would expect the sighted girl to look after the blind girl there appears to be a role reversal in this painting.  Maybe the blind girl is comforting her young companion who may have been frightened by the storm which has just passed.  Maybe the young girl is peeking around the blind girl’s shawl at a point in the distance where there had once been flashes of lightning and the rumble of thunder.  Take a moment to study the blind girl.  See how she seems to be trying to compensate her loss of sight through her other senses – the sense of touch.   See how, with one hand, she grips the hand of her young companion and with the other she fingers a blade of grass.  It is interesting to note how meticulous Millais has painted each individual blade of grass near to the hand of this blind girl.  She is also doing what so many of us do when the sun is shining – we close our eyes and face the sun and absorb the warmth of its rays.  The girl is taking pleasure in her surroundings, the warmth of the sunlight, the sounds of the birds and the smells emanating from the countryside all around her.

The background of this picture is a view of Winchelsea, a small village in East Sussex, located about two miles south-west of the coastal town of Rye.   The village stands on the site of a medieval town, founded in 1288, to replace an earlier town of the same name, sometimes known as Old Winchelsea, which was lost to the sea.   It is known that Millais, along with his fellow artists, Holman Hunt and Edward Lear visited the town in 1852.   It is recorded that Millais completed the middle ground of the painting whilst in Perth, Scotland where he had taken his new bride, Effie, the former Mrs Ruskin, in the summer of 1855.  The history of the painting chronicles that the last thing to be painted was the amber-coloured skirt, which the blind girl is wearing and which Effie cajoled an old woman into lending it to her.  Effie recorded the incident, writing:

“…She swore an oath and said what could Mrs Millais want with her old Coat, it was so dirty, but I was welcome.  I kept it two days and sent it back with a shilling and she was quite pleased…”

For his models for this painting, Millais used Matilda Proudfoot as the blind girl and Isabella Nichol as her younger sister. Originally Millais had used his wife Effie as the model for the blind girl but later he decided to use Matilda.

The Liverpool Academy awarded this painting its annual prize in 1857.    It was well received and is now looked upon as one of Millais’ finest works of art.  His Pre-Raphaelite colleague, Dante Rossetti declared it to be:

“…One of the most touching and perfect things I know….”

John Ruskin his former mentor and patron described The Blind Girl:

“…’The common is a fairly spacious bit of ragged pasture, and at the side of the public road passing over it the blind girl has sat down to rest awhile. She is a simple beggar, not a poetical or vicious one, a girl of eighteen or twenty, extremely plain-featured, but healthy, and just now resting, not because she is much tired but because the sun has but this moment come out after a shower and the smell of grass is pleasant….”

One interesting technical aspect of the painting is Millais’ depiction of the double rainbow.  When he showed the painting for the first time, somebody made him aware of his technical error as he had painted the two rainbows with their colours in the same order but he was advised that with double rainbows the inner rainbow of the two inverts the order of the colours.  Later Millais, in order to satisfy scientific accuracy, re-painted the inner rainbow.

A Dream of the Past – Sir Isumbras at the Ford by John Everett Millais

A Dream of the Past – Sir Isumbras at the Ford by Millais (1857)

My Daily Art Display painting of the day is one by John Everett Millais, entitled A Dream of the Past – Sir Isumbras at the Ford, which he completed in 1857.  It depicts an ancient knight on horseback carrying two children of a poor woodcutter across a river.  The character of Sir Isumbras comes from the 14th century medieval romance written in Middle English.   The actual scene we see before our eyes was not part of the original tale but more than likely came from a romance written in fake medieval verse based on the original and penned by Millais friend, the art critic Tom Taylor. 

The original poem tells the story of the humbling of the once arrogant knight.  The scene is set by the art critic and member of the Pre- Raphaelite Brotherhood, Frederic Stephens.  Stephens was not an artist but in today’s terminology, he would be described as the Pre-Rapaelite’s public relations man.  It was his job to communicate the aims of the Brotherhood to the public.  Of this painting, he wrote:

“….Sir Isumbras at the Ford was the subject of the picture Millais made his leading work in the year 1857.   It represented an ancient knight, all clad in golden armour, who had gone through the glories of this life — war honour, victory and reward, wealth and pride. Though he is aged and worn with war, his eye is still bright with the glory of human life, and yet he has stooped his magnificent pride so far as to help, true knight as he was, two little children, and carries them over a river ford upon the saddle of his grand war-horse, woodcutter’s children as they were. The face of this warrior was one of those pictorial victories which can derive their success from nothing less than inspiration. The sun was setting beyond the forest that gathered about the river’s margin, and, in its glorious decadence, symbolised the nearly spent life of the warrior…”.

This painting is a classic example of the Pre-Raphaelites’ interest in topics about medieval chivalry.  The old knight in his gleaming golden armour has helped the two children cross the stream.  The girls stares into the face of the knight with a worried expression whilst the young lad, with the wood strapped to his back, looks out at us, as he desperately clings on to the knight.   The bright and vivid colours of the children’s clothes is typical of the colours used in Pre-Raphaelite paintings

When Millais exhibited the painting it received hostile reviews and was condemned by many art critics of the time.  The leading art critic of the day, and former patron of Millais, John Ruskin, savagedly criticised the artist and the painting declaring it to be a “catastrophe”.  Millais was criticised for painting the “ugly” horse out of proportion to the figures on its back and by doing so had given the illusion that the three figures are almost floating above the animal’s back.   He also criticised Millais for how he had painted the foreground lighter than the exposed hills in the background, saying that the artist had “made errors in pictorial grammar”.   I suppose it has to be remembered that Millais, two years earlier, had married Ruskin’s wife Effie, after she had been granted an annulment of her marriage to Ruskin on the grounds that it had never been consummated.  This whole affair was splashed across the London press and had caused a scandal.   Ruskin never forgave his former protogé Millais.  Millais must have listened to the torrent of criticism as he repainted parts of it before exhibiting it in an exhibition in Liverpool. For all its criticism and the large number of detractors, this painting inspired many other artists to depict gallant knights rescuing beautiful maidens.

A Nightmare by Frederick Sandys (c.1857)

Finally let me finish with another Pre-Raphaelite painter, Frederic Sandys who satirised Millais’ painting with his print entitled A Nightmare,  in which he caricatured  Millais as the knight and his fellow artists Gabriel Dante Rossetti and Holman Hunt as the children and Sandys adds more scorn on the trio by turning the horse into a donkey which has been branded on its flank with the letters “J  R” – the initials of Ruskin !