Portrait of Effie Ruskin, later Lady Millais (neé Euphemia Chalmers Gray)

PRE-RAPHAELITE (founded 1848) Biography

Portrait of Effie Ruskin, later Lady Millais (neé Euphemia Chalmers Gray) (England, 1853)

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Watercolour on paper
Signed with monogram and dated 1853 lower right


25.50cm high
21.00cm wide
(10.04 inches high)
(8.27 inches wide)
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Sir John Everett and Lady Millais;
By descent in the family

Description / Expertise

In 1853 John James Ruskin, successful wine merchant and father of the celebrated art critic, offered to pay for a portrait of his son. John Ruskin selected John Everett Millais, the leading artist of the Pre-Raphaelite movement which was the avant-garde art movement of which Ruskin was the champion, to paint his portrait. Ruskin, his new wife Effie and Everett Millais set off for a four month stay at a small cottage in Glenfinlas in Scotland to complete the commission. There, while Millais waited for his canvas to arrive, he taught Effie to draw and fell in love with her. Ruskin, introverted and extremely eccentric, who had no idea how to interact with a female partner, if anything unwittingly encouraged the pair. The ensuing scandal within London Society resulted in three extremely unhappy participants and the annulment of the Ruskins’ marriage. Effie and Millais were married in 1855.

History tends to people the past with cardboard cut-outs and clichés. The human beings that we live amongst rarely seem to appear amongst the endless facts, dates and anecdotes of yesteryear. The Pre-Raphaelite world is no exception. The old chestnut that resulted from the Ruskins’ marriage and its subsequent high-profile annulment is that John Ruskin had been unable to consummate his marriage to Effie (whom he had been in love with since she was eight) because of the shock of seeing, on their marriage night, pubic hair on what should have been her perfect naked body. Whether this well worn story is apocryphal or not, the psychological insights that Gregory Murphy and Ludovica Villar Hauser bring to “The Countess” not only help bury the cliché but make credible the very human beings at the centre of this real life drama.

Clear explanations, however, bring forth further questions. How did these three particularly strong characters survive the pressure cooker effect of being cooped up in a tiny isolated croft for months without killing each other? Artistic and creative people are, by their very nature, highly emotional and the cold shower treatment that Millais imposed on himself of long isolated walks and unrelenting hours of detailed work on the background of Ruskin’s portrait hardly seem adequate, taking all the circumstances into account.

Perhaps part of the answer comes from the fact that Ruskin and Millais, although there was a ten year age gap, came from equal social backgrounds. Both their parents had encouraged them in their artistic careers and both had gained a solid self-confidence from their successes. There can also be no doubt that Millais’ lively sense of humour helped enormously.

John Everett Millais’ parents had chosen to settle in London in 1838 so that their son could pursue his art studies. He entered the Royal Academy Schools as a Probationer at the age of ten and became the Academy’s youngest ever student. This child prodigy proceeded to gain a prize in every painting and drawing competition in which he competed. In 1844, a particularly intense student was accepted into the Academy Schools on his third attempt. William Holman Hunt and light-hearted Millais became intimate friends. In 1846 John Ruskin published the second volume of Modern Painters, in which he expounded on the truth and beauty to be found in nature and the purity of the early Italian Masters. This volume of Modern Painters, Ruskin’s most famous work, profoundly influenced Hunt, as did the painting techniques of the Scottish painter David Wilkie, who used pure colours on a white ground (unlike the dull coloured under-painting propounded by the Academy). Hunt discussed these ideas with Millais, who became the innovative experimenter and master of the new techniques.

However, it was William Holman Hunt’s painting, The Eve of St Agnes, which he had painted in the new style and exhibited at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition of 1848 that became the key to the formation of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Hunt had been in danger of missing the deadline for the exhibition and Millais had not only lent him his studio to work at night, but also helped him with certain passages in the painting. Although the painting was hung rather high at the exhibition, it attracted the attention of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who immediately engineered a meeting with the artist. The ensuing friendship of Hunt, Millais and Rossetti became the basis of the formation of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, which was founded at Millais’ family home at 83 Gower Street in September the same year. The triumvirate of Millais aged nineteen, Rossetti, twenty and Hunt, twenty-one, the three lastingly influential geniuses of the group, were joined by four further members. Frederick George Stephens (aged twenty), an aspiring painter who later became an influential writer on art, was introduced by Hunt. Rossetti inducted his next-door neighbour, the sculptor Thomas Woolner (aged twenty-three), Rossetti’s sister’s beau, the artist James Collinson (also twenty-three) and his brother William Michael Rossetti (aged twenty) as secretary. Rossetti’s teacher, Ford Madox Brown, although he advised on the technical aspects of the new style, and was to become the fourth most important Pre-Raphaelite painter, was not admissible to the Brotherhood because of his advanced age; he was twenty-seven.

These seven enthusiastic young students, all deadly serious in art, but less so in the pursuit of beautiful models for their paintings, whom they dubbed “stunners” and competed to acquire the most eligible, became the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and agreed to place the initials PRB after their names when signing their works. They had chosen the title pre-Raphaelite to glorify the early Italian painters pre Raphael who exemplified their principles – sincerity, perfection in small things and truth: perfect, great or small. However, their subjects were to be “important”, religious, literary or from modern life, especially with a moral message aimed at a contemporary audience. It also did no harm to dismiss the Academy’s god, Raphael, from whom, they had been taught, all modern art begins. Student revolutions rarely change.

In their first exhibition at the Summer Academy of 1849, Millais’ and Hunt’s entries hung together. Their intense jewel-like colour and incredible detail shone out and received some critical acclaim. However, the following summer at the Academy exhibition, Millais’ offering, Christ in the House of his Parents, raised a hostile storm of paranoia and was savaged by the critics. The subject and the PRB initials were taken for a papist conspiracy from a secret society, in a year when the Pope had restored a Catholic hierarchy to Britain for the first time since the Reformation. None of the Brotherhood were members of the Catholic church. The young Millais, still only twenty, was so upset by these attacks that he appealed, through a mutual friend, to John Ruskin, the great contemporary art guru, to intervene on their behalf. Ruskin’s letter to the Times supporting the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood appeared the same month.

Here was the basis for the ensuing friendship and Ruskin’s commission of his Scottish portrait from Millais in 1853. For Millais this project gave a public stamp of approval on his already, by then, rising stardom. To put mid-nineteenth century artists in perspective, there were no films or television. The artistic superstars of the day were actors and artists. The more accessible to the greater public were the artists, whose paintings were the equivalent of great movie productions, shown at the Royal Academy and other institutions, and the series of popular prints derived from them could be related today to videos and DVD's. For Ruskin it was an opportunity to exert influence over the young champion of the most advanced art revolution in Britain. Over and above all this they had become good friends and held each other in great respect.

In Scotland, the shock for Millais, who came to respect the intelligent, gentle and determined Effie, was not just the fact of witnessing her coping with her wounded vulnerability in the face of her husband’s complete misunderstanding of mutual love and respect between married couples, but, almost certainly, for the first time, being in such intimate surroundings with a mature and attractive woman of his own age.

Peter Nahum, The Leicester Galleries London, March 2005.

An Unfortunate Marriage

When John Ruskin brought his wife Effie to Scotland, together with John Everett Millais and his brother, for a long holiday and painting trip in the summer of 1853, he was one of the country’s most famous writers – and certainly the best known art critic.
Celebrated as the author of Modern Painters, The Seven Lamps of Architecture and The Stones of Venice, he was now preparing for a series of lectures, the first of many which would lead to his becoming Slade Professor of Fine Art at Oxford.

Having championed the young Pre-Raphaelite painters against hostile criticism, he was looking to help Millais take on the mantle of J.M.W. Turner, whom he had defended passionately, as England’s greatest landscape painter. A commission from his father for a portrait, chosen to be painted out of doors in the Trossachs, would help cement this aim.

“A stone, when it is examined, will be found a mountain in miniature”: Ruskin’s gift as a writer and teacher was in making his audience grasp profound thoughts by such simple striking ideas. The smooth lichen-covered gneiss rock at Glenfinlas seemed a perfect background for the portrait, and work could begin.

But beneath this apparent moment of high achievement lay a strange and unhappy social life. A gifted only child, Ruskin attended no school, receiving private tuition. There were also daily Bible readings with his strict Evangelical mother, whose expectations for her son ran to his becoming at least a Bishop, preferably Archbishop of Canterbury; realising the child’s ease with the written word, John James Ruskin would have settled for Poet Laureate. Little wonder that in a letter of 1866, Ruskin confided to a friend that “I through my whole life have had nothing but restraint or pain – my parents never understanding me in the least – nor being able to guide me in the least – yet loving me so that I should have killed them if I had left them.”

Understandably, Ruskin had difficulty forming normal relationships. In 1867 he could admit that “I don’t love – and therefore I think no one can love me – and this closes me gradually into a merely mechanical life of daily occupation – utterly heartless – which indeed must be my life, and must daily be more exclusively and coldly so.”

Yet there is evidence that he was genuinely in love with Effie. He had written his hugely successful fairy tale The King of the Golden River for her as a child, and wooed her in a most romantic manner: “I am going to Scotland for some six weeks or so,” he told a friend in 1848, “and that for no ordinary purpose – but on a dangerous adventure – even the carrying away a bride, whom nobody is willing to part with – and I don’t know but I may have to do it Lochinvar fashion.”

The wedding itself took place on 10 April 1848 at Bowerswell, Perth, the house where his grandfather had committed suicide, and which his mother, who had held John Thomas Ruskin as he lay dying, refused to enter ever again; neither did John James Ruskin attend. This was inauspicious enough. Although the exact circumstances of the wedding night will never be known, it is certain that Ruskin did not want the immediate distraction of children, and in his sexual innocence this could only have been achieved with certainty by choosing not to sleep with his new wife. Within all too short a time must have come the realization that he and Effie were in fact temperamentally unsuited, and with the additional cloying presence of the Ruskin parents – in this dysfunctional relationship there was a problem not of three, but four – the marriage was doomed.

This is the background to the emotionally draining but cathartic incarceration in the cottage at Brig o’Turk which is the subject of The Countess. The extent of the subsequent scandal, such as it was, remains hard to gauge. There were snide comments from those outside his circle of friends, Ford Madox Brown crudely and unkindly referring to “the Stones of Venice being the only ones as yet of which poor Mrs R has had the advantage.”

But there was also a good deal of sympathy for Ruskin, especially when it was appreciated that his agreement to an annulment of the marriage in 1855 – requiring a (tacit) public admission on his part of its non-consummation – had spared Effie the far more damaging social disgrace of divorce proceedings. Even Millais considered Ruskin “more to be pitied than any other man I know … He has behaved most badly, but he is half mad, and possibly embittered by discovering – when too late – that he ought never to have married – in that case according to his strange education and bringing up he is not to be judged so severely.”

Making up for lost time, Effie would bear Millais eight children, while Ruskin was almost certainly celibate for the rest of his life. There was the agonising hope of something like a normal life with the young Rose La Touche, dashed by her death in 1875 at the age of 26. “My manner in personal intercourse is – not false – but superficial,” Ruskin wrote to another friend in 1878, “ the crust of me shows – not the inner temper . . . my own life is one of intense sorrow and essential separation from nearly all the ordinary feelings of those around me – nor can my work be done but in resolute isolation.” Who in the end suffered the greater agony – the Master or the Countess – is not difficult to determine.

Stephen Wildman, Curator of the Ruskin Library, Lancaster University