Biography (1829 - 1896)

Header Painting: Ophelia, circa 1851 (Detail)
Sir John Everett Millais

Oil on canvas, 76.2 cm x 111.8 cm
Tate Britain, London
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© Estate of Sir John Everett Millais

Probaly one of the most famous paintings in the history of art now. Never mind the Elizabeth Siddal connection, it's the backdrop that fascinates me, the Hogsmill River in Ewell. I lived there at one time with the river literally at the end of the garden. It was more of a stream at that point but I din't have an inkling that it played a part in such an important work of art. I just can't believe that all those years ago Millais and Holman Hunt were so near, painting for months on end along the river.

Perhaps their ghosts are forever around there, painting on the riverbank by day and peering from the woodlands in the stillness of night.

Whatever, the river hasn't a better claim to fame than the fact that these two once sat by its side and painted eternal works of art.

'Six Acre Meadow' is as precise point as you will find as to where he actually painted the backdrop along Hogsmill River. You can look for his ghost around there.

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Sir John Everett Millais ~ Biography

Painter (1829 - 1896)

Born: June 8, 1829
Birth place: Southampton, UK
Co-founded: Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, 1848
Granted: Baronetcy, 1885
Elected: President of the Royal Academy, 1896
Date of death: August 13, 1896 (throat cancer)

Why is it that John Everett Millais painted arguably the most famous picture in the history of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Ophelia (1852, and now in the Tate Britain, London), and yet today, in terms of fame, he is way, way behind Dante Gabriel Rossetti? Because, as you will see below, he did what so many artists did and turned his back on the Muse to sell his soul at the altar of wealth and of respectability.

He came from a Jersey family, but was born in Southamptom. At age 11, he entered the Royal Academy Schools where he stayed for six years. His remarkable Pizarro Seizing the Inca of Peru, painted when he was only sixteen, was exhibited at the Academy in 1846.

While at the Academy, he met William Holman Hunt and Dante Gabriel Rossetti with whom he formed the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1848.

In the following year the Pre-Raphaelites were greeted by a hostile reception for their pictures, which included Millais' Christ in the House of his Parents. It was highly controversial because of its realistic portrayal of a working class Holy Family labouring in a messy carpentry workshop. Further critical attacks followed in the next few years. At this point Ruskin was persuaded to intervene and the worst criticisms of the Pre-Raphaelite work gave way to lukewarm enthusiasm.

In 1852, he completed Ophelia, his best known work today. The model was Elizabeth Siddall, who nearly died from a fever caught while modelling in a freezing water for hours for the painting. Indeed, her father tried to sue Millais for her getting ill afterwards. The background was painted along the banks of the Hogsmill river, near Tolworth, South London, at a place called Six Acre Meadow, alongside Church Road Old Malden. Ophelia was the character from Shakespeare's play Hamlet, singing while floating in a river just before her death by drowning.

Also in 1852 Millais' The Huguenot gained great success at the Academy, and in 1853 he was elected an A.R.A.. Rossetti regarded this defection to the establishment as marking the end of Millais' association with the Pre-Raphaelites.

Millais' friendship with Ruskin introduced him to Ruskin's wife Effie. Soon after they met she modelled for his painting The Order of Release. As Millais painted Effie they fell in love. In 1856, after her marriage to Ruskin was annulled, Effie and John Millais married.

Few Pre-Raphaelite works followed The Huguenot. The Blind Girl and Autumn Leaves were completed by 1856 and shown at the Academy in that year. He spent the years between 1857 and 1870, when the first of the popular subject-pictures, The Boyhood of Raleigh was painted, on literary, historical and genre pictures, more or less. Some of these enjoyed considerable popular success, for example The Black Brunswicker and the two Sermon pictures.

From 1870 the subject pictures were interspersed with highly successful society portraits painted with great fluency and accuracy. They were precisely what the sitters required and expected and, in turn, Millais became wealthy beyond the wildest dreams; but they were a lifetime away from his early artistic promise.

In 1886, the year after he had been created a Baronet, one hundred and fifty-nine of Millais' works were shown at an exhibition in the Grosvenor Gallery.

In 1896, Millais, who was also a very successful book illustrator, was elected President of the Royal Academy, but he died later in the same year from throat cancer.

Sir John Everett Millais ~ Trivia

J.W. Waterhouse's Lady of Shalott vies with Millais's Orphelia for the honour of being the best selling postcard published by the Tate Gallery.

Millais described his career in a speech at the 1895 banquet (the year before he died) of the Royal Academy like so: 'I must tell you briefly my connections with the Academy. I entered the antique school as a probationeer, when I was eleven years of age; then I became a student in the Life School; and I have risen from stage to stage until I reached the position I now hold of Royal Academician: so that man and boy, I have been intimately connected with this Academy for more than half a century. I have received here a free education as an artist ... and I owe the Academy a debt of gratitude I can never repay...'

He painted a stunning picture of John Ruskin between 1853 and 54. He is set on a rock in the middle of a waterfall in Glenfinlas.

He fell in love with Ruskin's wife, Effie, while painting her portrait. Her loveless and unconsummated marriage with Ruskin was subsequently ended and she married Millais.

Effie was born Euphemia Gray. She had modelled for Millais's Jacobite history painting set in 1746, the prophetically named The Order of Release.

Ruskin, Millais and Effie holiday together in the summer of 1853 at Brig o' Turk in the Trossach hills of Scotland. They stayed for nearly four months.

He exhibited The Blind Girl at the Royal Academy in 1856. It was completed at Perth in Scotland, where Millais and Effie had gone for their honeymoon. The background, however, was painted at Winchelsea in Sussex.

Autumn Leaves was also exhibited at the Academy in 1856.

His career ended with portraiture. His famous sitters included Cardinal Newman, Gladstone and Disraeli, a few days before the great politician's death.

In his c. 1850 Mrs James Wyatt Jnt and her Daughter (Tate Britain), he includes prints after Leonardo and Raphael's Madonna.

When the Archbishop of Canterbury saw Millais's My Second Sermon, he said: 'I have learnt a very wholesome lesson ... I see a little lady here ... who, by the eloquence of her silent slumber, has given us a warning of the evil of lenghty sermons and drowsy discourses.'

I wonder how Rossetti or Millais would have fared with internet dating sites like POF or OKCupid? Would they have heard the dreaded reply: 'I don't do Pre-Raphaelites'?

Further Reading: Victorian Painting [Book, 2003]

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