At Tate Britain

Julian Bell

Millais was adept at many things. At theatre, for instance: in his 1878 Royal Academy showpiece, he cast the supposed murder victims of Richard III as two pretty, tremulous schoolboys poised on a dungeon’s downward-winding stair, their spotlit heads peering into the darkness confronting them, hands anxiously linking, blond chevelures merging into one. The casting, the lighting and the face and body language that Millais drew out of his actors secured The Princes in the Tower an instant niche in Britain’s national image repertory, where it has remained ever since. Millais’s portraiture could grapple confidently with the auras of the mighty: Tennyson, Gladstone, Disraeli. He could also interpret religious themes with flair. In a mid-1860s engraving, the Sower of Jesus’ parable strides forth on his mission on a high bank above us: the bank is one of those ‘stony places’ where his seed cannot thrive, and we find ourselves facing its random rocks, lost in the unconsoling bleakness of geology. Here and elsewhere, Millais attends to the way that working lives interact with their terrain. You see it in his expansive late views of the Scottish countryside, for instance, or in the strong-armed nun who shovels brown earth from a grave in the 1858 Vale of Rest. At such points, Millais rubs shoulders with Jean-François Millet, his near homonym in France, and with 19th-century Realism in general.

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[*] The exhibition runs until 13 January.