Saturday, June 8, 2019

At work on Ophelia

‘Finished flowers after breakfast, after which went out to bottom of garden and commenced brick wall. Received letter from James Michael - complimentary, as containing a prediction that I shall be the greatest painter England ever produced. Felt languid all day. Finished work about five and went out to see Charley. Walked on afterwards to meet Hunt, and waited for him.’ This is from a one-off and very short diary kept by the great pre-Raphaelite painter, John Everett Millais, while working on Ophelia, one of the most important art works of the mid-nineteenth century. Today marks the 190th anniversary of his birth.

Millais was born 
in Southampton on 8 June 1829 into a prominent family based on Jersey in the Channel Islands. Though most of his early childhood was spent on Jersey, he also lived in Dinan, northern France, for a while. An artistic talent, nurtured by his mother, led to him being sent to Sass’s Art School, in London, and then, still only aged 11, to the Royal Academy Schools (their youngest ever student). While there, he met William Holman Hunt and Dante Gabriel Rossetti with whom he formed the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, the first avant-garde group in the history of British art. His first Pre-Raphaelite painting, Isabella, was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1849.

In 1850, Millais exhibited Christ in the House of his Parents, but this was met with strong criticism, not least from Charles Dickens who warned his readers that the painting depicted ‘the lowest depths of what is mean, odious, repulsive, and revolting’. However, by 1952, Millais’ reputation had been restored with paintings such as Ophelia. Subsequently, in 1853, he was elected as an associate of the Royal Academy. That same year Millais fell in love with Euphemia (Effie) Gray, the wife of his friend and supporter, art critic John Ruskin. When Ruskin’s marriage was annulled, Millais married Gray, in 1855. The newly-weds set up home in Perth, Scotland, and stayed six years before returning to London in 1861. They had eight children in all.

In the 1860s, Millais abandoned his earlier meticulous techniques, instead developing a more fluent style, often painting directly onto the canvas with impressionistic freedom. His subjects became more traditional, with many a society portrait, and, from the 1870s, he showed an increasing interest in the old masters such as Joshua Reynolds and Diego Velazquez. This change was condemned by many, including Ruskin and William Morris, who accused him of selling out, to achieve popularity and wealth. Millais was also successful as a book illustrator, notably for the works of Anthony Trollope and the poems of Tennyson. In 1885, Queen Victoria created him a baronet, making him the first artist to be honoured with a hereditary title. In 1896 he was elected president of the Royal Academy; however, he died six months later. Further information is available at Wikipedia, Royal Academy, National Museums Liverpool, The Victorian Web or Spartacus Educational.

Millais was not a diarist. However, for a short period in late 1851, 
he did keep a diary while staying in a cottage near Kingston. This was in order that he might paint a scene on the river Ewell (now the Hogsmill which goes on to flow into the Thames) for his painting, Ophelia. His friend Hunt stayed with him, while his brother William and another friend, Charlie Collins, stayed nearby. Millais’ son John Guille Millais included extracts from this diary in his 1899 publication The Life and Letters of Sir John Everett Millais published in two volumes by Methuen (freely available online at Internet Archive).

According to John Guille Millais, it was ‘a jolly bachelor party’ that assembled near the Ewell, all determined to work in earnest. From ten in the morning till dark the artists saw little of each other, but in the evenings gathered to talk deeply on ‘art, drink strong tea, and discuss and criticise each other’s pictures’. ‘Fortunately,’ he goes on to write, ‘a record of these interesting days is preserved to us in Millais’ letters to Mr. and Mrs. Combe, and his diary - the only one he ever kept - which was written at this time, and retained by my uncle William, who has kindly placed it at my disposal.’

The published diary extracts, which start in mid-October and continue through until 5 December (the day before he returned to London), take up no more than 20 pages of the two volume life-and-letters biography. Here are several of those extracts, including the first.

16 October 1851
‘I am advised by Coventry Patmore (a poet friend) to keep a diary. Commence one forthwith. Today, worked on my picture [‘The Huguenot’]; painted nasturtiums; saw a stoat run into a hole in the garden wall; went up to it and endeavoured to lure the little beast out by mimicking a rat’s or mouse’s squeak - not particular which. Succeeded, to my astonishment. He came half out of the hole and looked in my face, within easy reach.

Lavinia (little daughter of landlady) I allowed to sit behind me on the box border and watch me paint, on promise of keeping excessively quiet; she complained that her seat struck very cold. In the adjoining orchard, boy and family knocking down apples; youngest sister but one screaming. Mother remarked, “I wish you were in Heaven, my child; you are always crying”; and a little voice behind me chimed in, “Heaven! where God lives?” and (turning to me) “You can’t see God.” Eldest sister, Fanny, came and looked on too. Told me her mother says, about a quarter to six, “There’s Long-limbs (J. E. M.) whistling for his dinner; be quick and get it ready.” Played with children en masse in the parlour before their bedtime. Hunt just come in. . . . Sat up till past twelve and discovered first-rate story for my present picture.’

20 October 1851
‘Finished flowers after breakfast, after which went out to bottom of garden and commenced brick wall. Received letter from James Michael - complimentary, as containing a prediction that I shall be the greatest painter England ever produced. Felt languid all day. Finished work about five and went out to see Charley. Walked on afterwards to meet Hunt, and waited for him. In opening the gate entering the farm, met the two girls. Spoke further with one on the matter of sitting.’

23 October 1851
‘Our landlady’s marriage anniversary. Was asked by her some days back for the loan of our apartments to celebrate the event. “If we were not too high they would be glad to see us.” ’

Painted on the wall; the day very dull. A few trees shedding leaves behind me, spiders determinedly spinning webs between my nose and chin. . . . Joined the farmers and their wives. Two of them spoke about cattle and the new reaping-machine, complaining, between times, about the state of affairs. Supped with them; derived some knowledge of carving a chicken from watching one do so. Went to bed rather late, and read In Memoriam, which produced a refining melancholy. Landlady pleased with painting on cupboard.’

24 October 1851
‘Another day, exactly similar to the previous. Felt disinclined to work. Walked with Hunt to his place, returned home about eleven, and commenced work myself, but did very little. Read Tennyson and Patmore. The spot very damp. Walked to see Charlie about four, and part of the way to meet Hunt, feeling very depressed. After dinner had a good nap, after which read Coleridge - some horrible sonnets. In his Life they speak ironically of ‘Christabel,’ and highly of rubbish, calling it Pantomime.

25 October 1851
‘Much like the preceding day. All went to Town after dinner; called at Rossetti’s and saw Madox Brown’s picture‘ Pretty Baa-lambs,’ which is very beautiful. Rossetti low-spirited; sat with him.’

26 October 1851
‘Walked out with Hunt. Called upon Woolner and upon Mrs. Collins to get her to come and dine with us; unwell, so unsuccessful. Felt very cross and disputable. Charlie called in the evening; took tea, and then all three off to the country seat.’

27 October 1851
‘Dry day. Rose later than the others, and had breakfast by myself. Painted on the wall, but not so well; felt uncomfortable all day. . .’

28 October 1851
‘My man, Young, brought me a rat after breakfast. Began painting it swimming, when the governor made his appearance, bringing money, and sat with me whilst at work. After four hours rat looked exactly like a drowned kitten. Felt discontented. Walked with parent out to see Collins painting on the hill, and on, afterwards, to Young’s house. He had just shot another rat and brought it up to the house. Again painted upon the head, and much improved. . . My father and myself walked on to see Hunt, whose picture looks sweet beyond mention.’

4 November 1851
‘Frightfully cold morning; snowing. Determined to build up some kind of protection against the weather wherein to paint. After breakfast superintended in person the construction of my hut - made of four hurdles, like a sentry-box, covered outside with straw. Felt a ‘Robinson Crusoe’ inside it, and delightfully sheltered from the wind, though rather inconvenienced at first by the straw, dust, and husks flying about my picture. Landlady came down to see me, and brought some hot wine. Hunt painting obstinate sheep within call. . . This evening walked out in the orchard (beautiful moonlight night, but fearfully cold) with a lantern for Hunt to see effect before finishing background, which he intends doing by moonlight.’

17 November 1851
‘Small stray cat found by one of the men, starved and almost frozen to death. Saw Mrs. Barnes nursing it and a consumptive chicken; feeding the cat with milk. Painted at the ivy. Evening same as usual.’

19 November 1851
‘Fearfully cold. Landscape trees upon my window-panes. After breakfast chopped wood, and after that painted ivy. . . See symptoms of a speedy finish to my background. After lunch pelted down some remaining apples in the orchard. Read Tennyson and the Thirty-nine Articles. Discoursed on religion.’

22 November 1851
‘All four began work early. William left at five, promising to come again on Monday. . . After dinner Hunt and Collins left for London, the former about some inquiries respecting an appointment to draw for Layard, the Nineveh discoverer. After they were gone, I wrote a very long letter to Mrs. Combe.’

24 November 1851
‘Painted on brick wall. Mr. Taylor and his son (an old acquaintance of mine at Ewell), in the army, and six feet, came to see me. Both he and his father got double barrels; pheasant in son’s pocket. They saw my pictures, expressed pleasure, and in leaving presented me with cock bird. Lemprières came. The parents and Miss thought my pictures beautiful. I walked with them to the gate at the bottom of the park, and there met Emma and Mrs. B_ out of breath. They had driven after the captain, also to see my landscape. Offered to show them again, but the father would not permit the trouble. Parted, promising to spend Christmas with them. Tried to resume painting. All then took usual walk. Hunt, during day, had a letter containing offer for his picture of ‘Proteus.’ He wrote accepting it. . .’

30 November 1851
‘All rose early to get in time for train at Ewell, to spend the day at Waddon. Were too late, so walked into Epsom, expecting there to meet a train. Found nothing before past one. Walked towards the downs, and to church at eleven, where heard very good sermon. Collins so pious in actions that he was watched by kind-looking man opposite. Very wealthy congregation. . . Walked afterwards to Mrs. Hodgkinson’s, but found she was too unwell to sit with us, so dined with her husband; capital dinner. Sat with Mrs. H_ in her bedroom, leaving them smoking downstairs, and took leave about half-past nine, Mr. Hodgkinson walking with us to station.’

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