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’.
Millais, Holman Hunt and Rossetti had the kind of enthusiasm you now find among boys starting a band. But they were not members of a counter-culture: they wanted to play the big arena, the only stage of real importance, the Academy’s annual exhibition. No showing of pictures these days draws the kind of crowd, or attracts the kind of interest the Academy did then. People still look at pictures, but not that way. Painting is now about making paintings. Then the way a story was told, the truth it expressed about history or life, the emotions it generated, were discussed and appreciated with the kind of involvement we now keep for the movies. But despite the success of the enterprise – painters have never since stood so high in popular esteem – there was uneasiness about. It even seemed a rebellion might be brewing.
Millais was the last person you would expect to be a rebel. His amiability and ease (it led to a hint of smugness, but with all the praise he got, he could very easily have become insufferable), the academic training he had swiftly and conscientiously absorbed, his ambition, his ability to do whatever he asked of himself in the line of painting and drawing, meant that he could have sloshed away with the best of the Academicians, and doubtless would have done had he not fallen in with Holman Hunt.
Working to the Pre-Raphaelite recipe and looking to record nature faithfully, going outdoors to paint every leaf in the hedgerow, spending days in an Oxford carpenter’s shop to record the look of shavings on the floor, replacing the broader style he was being trained up to at the Academy Schools – he was still nominally a student – with stippling and tiny brush-strokes, all these put an interesting brake on his fluency and facility. The results in The Carpenter’s Shop and Isabella were starting.
Without Millais’s talent – his sure touch, his technical precocity, his determination and application – the same approach could produce pictures verging on the hysterical. In the Pre-Raphaelite context, his ordinariness sometimes seems a strength. He had no huge appetite for literature, no tortured religious or erotic impulses to work out and was intellectually rather lazy. As time showed, his natural taste and instincts were not Pre-Raphaelite at all: he was perfectly easy in his role as a successful Academician, paying homage to Reynolds in one painting, emulating the style of Tintoretto in another. But so long as he was loyal to the principles of the Brotherhood he was able to produce memorable, unexpected pictures which are free of the creepiness of Holman Hunt or the emotional incontinence of Rossetti. By following the injunction to be simple and true to nature he (almost inadvertently) created in his first two major Pre-Raphaelite paintings images which were shocking when he made them and which are still affecting. In later Pre-Raphaelite pictures – the Blind Girl or Ophelia – the meticulous handling of paint and brilliant colour have not changed, but conventional feeling is beginning to replace the chilly, child-like curiosity. They begin to look staged. The people he used as models in the earliest pictures do not look like his contemporaries, but the couple in A Huguenot on St Bartholemew’s Day look distinctly like Victorians in fancy dress.
To see the change which took place in Millais’s work as a betrayal is to confuse talent with invention. The early pictures, for all that they were the most interesting things he did, were a byway, a diversion from his natural path and his natural abilities. There is no reason why the painter of Bubbles, of Lillie Langtry (the title of his portrait, The Jersey Lily, followed her through life), of Disraeli and Gladstone, should not have developed from the Academy student who tried his hand at Etty-like nudes. The Pre-Raphaelite excursion, which distracted him from his much less remarkable native bent, produced work which makes it easy to see what followed as pot-boilers and crowd-pleasers.
He is a problem for biographers. The interesting bits of his life, as a life, are the PRB dramas and scandals: the reception of the first pictures, Ruskin’s championing of the cause, the holiday Millais took with Ruskin and his wife in Scotland while he worked on Ruskin’s portrait and went walking with Ruskin’s wife, the scandal of the divorce, Millais’s marriage to Effie. After that there is just painting, fishing, praise, money and the odd not very dramatic domestic tribulation. It seems to have been a good life to live: it is not, after the first excitements, a very interesting one to read. The great romance, predictably, turned humdrum. Effie was not as keen on sex as John Everett; his letters saying, ‘come home soon, I miss you dreadfully,’ when she was away with her family in Scotland, and hers complaining that he is stingy – she would have liked to buy pretty clothes for the children when she was in Paris – show both of them disappointed and a bit bad-tempered. Contraception (eight children was just too many) would, you feel, have made their lives much jollier.
Fleming does his best: he says he has not written the thousand pages he could have, which is certainly a good thing. He quotes at length from contemporary reviews but once one has realised that it is going to be very difficult to understand how critics reacted as they did – how, for example, anyone could find My First Sermon the most ‘delicious and unaffected picture of childhood ever painted’ – this becomes repetitive. It is not even clear whether Fleming himself likes the pictures. Contemporary praise stops adding depth to the life and begins to seem an excuse for not coming out about the pictures one way or the other.
Millais’s change of style from dry to wet, from small marks to big ones, is not unique or even unusual. Lucian Freud, for example, has changed from thin paint, small brushes and fine detail to thick paint broadly applied. There is a kind of release in this; finicky marks give way to bigger, firmer strokes and painterly paint. It is not necessarily easier, but it certainly covers canvas more quickly. A biggish Pre-Raphaelite picture could take even a fast worker like Millais the best part of a year to paint. Gladstone (who commented on Millais’s concentration) gave him no more than five hour-long sessions for a portrait. And the subject-matter? Well, the portraits (unlike some of the subject pictures) present few problems there. So can we learn to love him? Having described a number of exhibitions which have tried over the last few decades to rescue Millais’s reputation, Funnell prepares a fall-back position. He hopes we will like the pictures, but is sure they are historically interesting. One thing they do bring home is that it is no longer possible to have a public face. His Gladstone portraits are one reason we might think prime ministers were different then. A firmer, bigger, better breed. There are few new pictures of important men looking important and when a college or livery company does feel the need to keep the line of faces on the wall up to date, additions look sheepish, like members of a wedding party not used to their morning-coats.
Funnel points out that contemporary press accounts of Millais stress his manliness. He dressed (and hunted and fished) like a gentleman. He was a professional; like a lawyer or surgeon he was very good at doing a job which was well understood. And like a popular novelist (his Trollope illustrations are among the best made for 19th-century fiction), he was at one with his public.
Burne-Jones, who has had a better posthumous press and prices, was a bohemian. He was making beautiful paintings when you could call a painting ‘beautiful’ in much the same way you could a girl, a horse or a grove of trees. Beautiful pictures were of beautiful things: in his case slim girls with sunken, lustrous invalid eyes (he had nightmares about finding himself in bed with a fat woman), young men with the kind of body you now see in jeans advertisements, Greek drapery, Renaissance bowers and flowers, all seen in a curious dusky light – his people flee the sun like ghosts at cock-crow and come out as the last light gilds the hilltops, their funeral-going faces wiped clean of intelligent vivacity. Physical beauty expressed beautiful thoughts. The Pre-Raphaelite label, which is more confusing than useful when you get beyond the earliest years of the Brotherhood, does make sense of connections. So Burne-Jones can be seen to share, via Rossetti, in dreams of fair women and melancholy men. The big exhibition which was in New York and Birmingham, and is in Paris until June, is comprehensive. The first thing that strikes you is his tremendous skill as an organiser of elements on a flat surface. Filling a space – a tapestry, a book illustration or a stained-glass window – with figures seems to have come naturally to him; the productions of Morris and Company show him to have been a highly effective designer. Then you ask who are these people: the faces which seem all to come from the same set of templates, portraits which are no more than adjustments to the desired and perfect type?
I saw the Birmingham exhibition just after reading Penelope Fitzgerald’s Edward Burne-Jones, a wonderfully good biography. Burne-Jones’s relationships with the young women who appear in the paintings in various mythical guises, with his clients (he didn’t need very many but they had to be rich and patient), with Morris and with his entirely admirable wife Georgiana present opportunities for an unsympathetic Life. Fitzgerald puts him so perfectly in context (the book is worth reading for the portrait of Morris alone) that, without feeling any truth is being sidestepped, you like him. I found him more interesting than I would have thought possible and decided I must try harder to like the pictures. Another man’s obsessions, when they are as personal as his were, demand that you join up or turn away. Although he is much more interesting than Millais as a person, although he created a personal world which still has the power to win passionate advocates (the catalogue essay by John Christian headed ‘A Critical Somersault’ is almost triumphalist), I find myself unable to get on board. To be wholehearted about Burne-Jones is not very different from liking Millais’s more sentimental numbers: both demand that too many critical ejector-mechanisms be disabled.
Why does one have these reactions: why is it not possible to be indifferent? Tim Barringer and Elizabeth Prettejohn have written an introduction to the latest of the Mellon Centre Studies in British Art, Frederic Leighton, which worries at the subject. The centenary exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1996 was greeted with critical abuse: ‘flamboyant displays of hypocrisy’, ‘empty pomp’, ‘short on emotion and physically repulsive’ are just a few of the brickbats Barringer and Prettejohn record. As art historians they find themselves searching for positions from which to defend the work, or at any rate the time spent studying it. There are at least five, by my count.
The critics were blinkered by a Modernist view of the history of art. They were unable to judge work which is theoretically out of bounds. The pictures are wonderful. This is the lie direct. The work is interesting; its value now can be left on one side because its significance in any history of 19th-century taste is unquestionable. This is the evasion historical. Leighton is important not just in the history of 19th-century but in the development of modern art. Flaming June, like any number of paintings since, particularly abstract ones, is about shapes on surfaces. This is the counter-claim vigorous. Sales of prints, attendance at exhibitions, sale-room prices show that his work still touches the aesthetic nerve of people at large. This is the appeal populist.
Critics don’t understand how advanced Leighton was and how wide his interests were. Sickert thought he was sound on drawing (the figure, when you are drawing it, should be at the distance which would allow it to be seen in its entirety when you held up a piece of glass no larger than the smallish sheets Old Master drawings are usually made on). Sickert was particularly keen on Summer Moon: ‘I think now, as I did then,’ he said, ‘that the kind of ordered and conscious accomplishment represented by Leighton’s picture was the real road of art, the only road for students to tread in order that they might become masters.’ But Sickert did like to trail his coat. In a review of a book about the technique of painting and drawing by the portrait painter Solomon J. Solomon he wrote that ‘Mr Solomon is an academic in the good sense of the word – I hope I am myself’ and went on to say that those (like himself) who had found a new truth in Impressionism had ‘sacrificed honourable competences, and all that these bring with them, nearly all the rest, and most material peace, by following the line of most resistance’. He enjoyed being contrary. He admired Cézanne, but also enjoyed saying why he thought him overrated. He wrote wonderfully about how pictures are made and how they work. Actually liking them was a matter for the individual (‘a critic’s preferences are not of the slightest importance’). This is the alliance opportunistic.
Positions, evasions and rebuttals like these make it possible to write about Leighton to some effect. Dispassionate interest, historical depth and subtlety, technical analysis and profound iconographic knowledge can all be displayed. But the question doesn’t go away. What are we to do about paintings which we cannot stand? To say ‘don’t look at them’ won’t work. There they are, reproduced on huge posters on the Underground, in books, in galleries. And once they are there you can’t ignore them. The modern visual environment is like a table loaded with many dishes. You are forced to nibble at all of them. Some are revolting. They are not to your taste. You are allergic to them. The stomach defends the body. It heaves. If uncomfortable images cannot be expelled we have to live with the queasiness they produce.
There are pictures we would hate not to have seen. There are others we wish we had no memory of. Knowing what you do not like is a defence, a gate behind which it is possible to sustain an idea of what painting can and should be. The great universal gates – of which Modernism was the last – allowed, if you signed up, judgment and justification in absolute terms. The vocabulary of criticism suggests that judgment is what it always was. The facts of what is admired and appreciated, what is officially sanctioned and privately enjoyed, show not just that it is relative, but that the fact no longer worries anyone.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.