Fancy Dress

Peter Campbell

  • Millais: Portraits by Peter Funnell and Malcolm Warner
    National Portrait Gallery, 224 pp, £35.00, February 1999, ISBN 1 85514 255 4
  • John Everett Millais by G.H. Fleming
    Constable, 318 pp, £20.00, August 1998, ISBN 0 09 478560 0
  • Edward Burne-Jones: Victorian Artist-Dreamer by Stephen Wildman and John Christian
    Abrams, 360 pp, £48.00, October 1998, ISBN 0 8109 6522 4
  • Frederic Leighton: Antiquity, Renaissance, Modernity edited by Tim Barringer and Elizabeth Prettejohn
    Yale, 332 pp, £40.00, March 1999, ISBN 0 300 07937 0

In 1886 there was an exhibition at the Grosvenor Gallery of the work of John Everett Millais (Sir John, in fact: he had recently been made a baronet). There were pictures from his Pre-Raphaelite infancy, like Isabella and Christ in the Carpenter’s Shop; anecdotal ones, like My First Sermon (a child portrait in the Bubbles line); landscapes (Chill October); pictures with stories (The Proscribed Royalist) and pictures from stories (Mariana). They were all famous.

Lady Constance Leslie met Millais at the exhibition, head bowed. ‘Ah, Lady Constance,’ he said, ‘you see me unmanned. Well, I’m not ashamed to say that on looking at my earliest pictures I have been overcome with chagrin that I failed to fulfil the forecast of my youth.’ There is more than one way to read this anecdote, first told by Holman Hunt. Hunt, Millais’s lifelong friend, was the member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood who best kept the faith; loyalty to the cause could have encouraged him to make a confession of failure out of a piece of wry, modest self-deprecation. The trouble is, Millais’s judgment, in whatever spirit it was made, has been that of posterity. Peter Funnell’s essay in the catalogue of the exhibition now at the National Portrait Gallery quotes Arthur Symons, writing in 1896, a few months after Millais’s death: ‘a finer promise than any artist of his time’ was wasted. His later pictures were done with ‘the same facility and the same lack of conviction’. He abandoned a career which, with hard work, might have made him ‘the greatest painter of his age’ for money and an easy life.

To get a grip on Millais you have to distinguish between talent, originality and genius. Millais was undoubtedly wonderfully talented. He was as close as a painter gets to being a child prodigy. He won medals and prizes when he was still in short trousers; at the Academy Schools he was a boy surrounded by men. When he was only 19 he painted Isabella, a truly memorable picture. This precocious achievement becomes more understandable when you find that the things which make it memorable were not necessarily his own ideas and inventions. Like a child medium who passes on messages from the other side which he does not entirely understand, Millais channelled ideas he would never have thought out for himself. The belief that one must go back, beyond the theatricality of the High Renaissance, to find the spirit of art came from Hunt who got it from Ruskin; the affecting gaucheries of the composition (the elements arranged parallel to the picture plane, the heads in profile, the odd gawkiness of the poses and gestures) were derived most immediately from Carlo Lasinio’s engraved copies of the frescos in the Campo Santo. The brilliant colour was the product of a technique the Brothers invented. Quentin Bell, who quotes Holman Hunt’s ‘recipe for painting a Pre-Raphaelite picture’ in his book Victorian Artists, points out that it was a fiendishly difficult way of working. You began by applying a layer of white, from which most of the oil had been extracted, over the area to be worked on that day. This soft white ground was not, in Holman Hunt’s words, ‘to be worked up, yet so far enticed to blend with the superimposed tints as to correct the qualities of thinness and staininess, which over a dry ground transparent colours used would inevitably exhibit’. Millais proposed that the method be kept secret, but Rossetti, as usual, let the cat out of the bag. The process was so laborious and unforgiving of error – it combined the one-chance-only characteristics of fresco painting with the demands of miniature painting – that only the dedicated would wish to copy it. Ford Madox Brown used it in Christ Washing Peter’s Feet: ‘painted in four months,’ he tells us, ‘the flesh painted on wet white at Millais’s lying instigation; Roberson’s medium, which I think dangerous like Millais’s advice’.

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