They didn’t use the term ‘selling out’ back in those days, but the sentiment was there nonetheless. Jack Millais sold out after he married Effie. Of course he did. He had a wife and kids to support. Remember what Cyril Connolly wrote, “There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall.” And Jack and Effie had eight of the little ‘uns in all. So, of course he sold out.
Or did he? He changed, certainly. His style became looser, more fluid. The tight, highly detailed, closely observed works gave way to freer brushwork, broader strokes and wider scope. Rather than just recording, he began to interpret. He discovered colour and started to use it as an element of his compositions. He turned away from the theories that had governed his early works and looked to other influences and other artists. In short, he developed.
|J E Millais - Ophelia - 1852|
If we look at one of his quintessential Pre-Raphaelite works, Ophelia of 1852, we can see all the elements that were important to him at the time. He painted the background at Ewell, Surrey, in the open air, taking the canvas and his easel out into the field, and faithfully painting what he saw on the bank of the Hogsmill River. It is an observational tour de force, botanically accurate and painted in microscopic detail. The subject comes from Shakespeare’s Hamlet and shows the mad Ophelia as she sinks to her death, surrounded by the flowers she has picked in her insanity.
There is a willow grows aslant a brook,That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream;There with fantastic garlands did she comeOf crow-flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purplesThat liberal shepherds give a grosser name,But our cold maids do dead men's fingers call them:There, on the pendent boughs her coronet weedsClambering to hang, an envious sliver broke;When down her weedy trophies and herselfFell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide;And, mermaid-like, awhile they bore her up:Which time she chanted snatches of old tunes;As one incapable of her own distress,Or like a creature native and induedUnto that element: but long it could not beTill that her garments, heavy with their drink,Pull'd the poor wretch from her melodious layTo muddy death.
The model was Lizzie Siddal, and Millais painted her in his studio in Gower Street, putting her fully-clothed in a large bath of water which was supposed to be heated by lamps underneath it. But he was so intent on the act of painting that when the lamps went out, he didn’t notice and Lizzie was too polite to mention it. The water went cold and she caught a severe chill. Her father threatened to sue Millais for £50 in damages, but accepted a smaller sum and settlement of the doctor’s bill instead. Rossetti blamed Millais for Lizzie’s later ill health, dating it back to this incident.
|J E Millais - The North-West Passage - 1874|
If we turn to a later work, The North-West Passage (1874), there is an obvious difference. The brushwork is much looser, the paint has been applied in broader strokes and Millais has abandoned the wet-into-wet technique that gives Ophelia its luminosity of colour (a ground of wet white paint was applied to the canvas and the colour painted over it in thin glazes. Light is reflected back from the white ground through the glaze, giving it a shining vibrancy). The composition is stronger and the details have been deliberately placed, rather than copied from nature. The subject is a contemporary concern in the British Empire – the search for a North-West Passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans, via a northern route over the American continent. An old, retired sea-dog sits and listens as his daughter reads from an account that failed to find the Passage, and his frustration echoes that of the Nation that the Passage has eluded them. His indignation is palpable, he burns with it, it is etched into the lines of his face.
|Edward John Trelawny|
The sitter for the sailor was a Captain Trelawny, known to his friends as a ‘jolly old pirate’, who had spent his youth sailing the Mediterranean, and had once been captured by Greek pirates, who took him ashore as their prisoner. Trelawny wooed, won and wedded their chief’s daughter, and they honeymooned in a cave. He was a close friend of Byron and Shelley and wrote about them in his autobiography Adventures of a Younger Son.
|Edward John Trelawny in Greek costume|
He was violently opposed to anything he considered modern and resolutely refused to sit for paintings but Mrs Millais won him round eventually. He was an advocate of Turkish baths and struck a deal with her that if she agreed to visit a Turkish bath with his niece on six occasions, he would sit for her husband six times. And so it was agreed. The picture was an immediate success and countless engravings of it were sold. Millais’ son, John Guille, wrote that when he was hunting springbuck in South Africa he was caught in a tropical thunderstorm and sought refuge in the hut of a Hottentot shepherd. There, nailed to the mud wall, was an oleograph print of his father’s painting, the only decoration in the hut. In broken English, the shepherd pointed to the Union flag in the corner of the print and said, “I like that cotton goods. It would make good clothes.”
|J E Millais - A Child's World (Bubbles) - 1886|
But Millais’ popularity was not always well received, as a later work demonstrates. In 1886, he exhibited A Child’s World, which shows his grandson, William Milbourne James, then four years old, blowing soap bubbles with a clay pipe. It is a vanitas painting, illustrating the beauty and fragility of life as symbolised by the bubbles, with a young plant in a pot on the right, and a broken pot, symbolising death, on the left. He saw Willie blowing the bubbles one day, thought it charming, and painted the portrait for his own pleasure. Millais painted several ‘child’ pictures at the time and this may be seen as one of the series. Sir William Ingram, proprietor of the Illustrated London News, visited his studio, bought the picture and issued a coloured print of it in the newspaper. This was seen by Thomas J Barrett, managing director of Pears, who bought the painting (and its copyright) for two thousand guineas. Barrett then approached Millais with an engraving of the painting, which Pears intended to use as an advertisement for their soap.
|Bubbles - Pears' Soap|
Millais was initially outraged, but on seeing the quality of the print, he grudgingly admitted its excellence but added that he regretted that his work was to be used in this manner. The advertisement appeared in print, with a bar of Pears’ soap added at the bottom right, and immediately the popular press went to work with their cries about the ‘degradation of Art.’ In her novel The Sorrows of Satan (1895) Marie Corelli wrote,
“For instance I am one of those who think the fame of Millais as an artist was marred when he degraded himself to the level of painting the little green boy blowing bubbles of Pears's Soap. That was an advertisement. And that very incident in his career, trifling though it seems, will prevent his ever standing on the same dignified height of distinction with such masters in art as Romney, Sir Peter Lely, Gainsborough or Reynolds.”
Millais, who had a slight acquaintance with Corelli, wrote and explained the circumstances, asking, “What, in the name of your 'Satan,' do you mean by saying what is not true?” An apology came back from her, admitting that she had not known the real story and had assumed Millais had painted the picture as it appeared in the advertisement, at Pears’ request. She withdrew the passage from future editions on the novel, and became a firm friend of the family. The painting is now universally known as Bubbles – and young Willie grew up to be an Admiral, although he was always called ‘Bubbles’ too.
|Bubbles - Pears' Soap - Engraving|
There is an argument to be made that the advertisement brought Millais’ work to an audience that might not have otherwise seen it, and raised the standard of commercial advertising. Think about how many people will appreciate a piece of music used in a television commercial or as a theme tune without realizing it is a piece by Mozart or Bach, for example.