Obituary of Sir John Everett Millais by The Times

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Obituary of Sir John Everett Millais

by The Times

(14th August 1896)

Obituary

The Royal Academy has again lost its President. Lord Leighton died in January, and now, in late summer it is our sad duty to record the death of his successor, Sir John Everett Millais , whose loss will be felt not only by his brother artists within and without the Royal Academy, but by many hundreds of others who admired and enjoyed the pictures that made him famous all over the world. He had been in ill health for a long time. Nearly two years ago the first indications of the disorder of the throat declared themselves, but down to about March last, though hoarseness was troublesome, Sir John Millais's general health was not affected. At that time however, a change for the worse took place. Early in May he caught a cold; the difficulty in breathing became much aggravated, and it was found necessary to perform a tracheotomy. This gave considerable relief for a time, and the improvement was such that Sir John was able to leave his bed and see his friends, with whom he conversed by means of a slate. A few days ago the disease took an unfavourable turn, the distinguished patient became unconscious. The end which was quite peaceful and without pain came at half-past 5 last evening, Lady Millais, Mr Everett Millais, and other members of the family being in the room.

Though some critics may be found to deny that Millais was one of the two or three greatest English painters of this century, declaring that in each direction of his art others have excelled him, some in portraiture, some in landscape, and some in genre, he was undoubtedly one of the most popular and, from some points of view, one of the most interesting of our artists. When one hears of a popular painter, one inevitably recalls that cheap art for the people, religious it may be, or melodramatic, but always very cheap indeed, which serves to bring mediocrity into prominence. With Millais the case was different. His popularity achieved early enough to turn the head of an inferior man, was due to nothing vulgar or pretentious, but solely to charming work and wholesome sentiment. His pictures appeal to us sometimes by the mere force of beauty, and sometimes by their plain pathos and their noble humanity. The Huguenot, for example, who refuses to accept from his lady the badge that is to save him at the expense of his honour, is just as popular as Colonel Lovelace's famous lines have been for more than two centuries, and for precisely the same reason. The Highlander, again whose order of release is brought to him by his young wife, is as pathetic and as popular a figure as can well be put upon canvas. The Black Brunswicker, and The Gambler's Wife, are in much the same vein of sentiment. Cinderella, even in its sixpenny reproductions, had delighted children of all ages; a still more recent picture, unhappily lending itself to the purposes of advertisement, has been an isolated thing of beauty on all our hoardings. Certainly no painter of any eminence has been a more general favourite, while preserving his art and refinement than Sir John Millais.

Nor, probably, are there many painters whose artistic development is more instructive. It often happens that an artist does not develop at all — that is, that his progress consists only in increased technical skill. In Millais's case though the plenitude of skill came long ago, there came also change, development, and progress of a higher and an intellectual kind. Early genius, early enthusiasm for a particular school, and an almost radical change in mature manhood — this is briefly the history of Sir John Millais. Of his early genius he gave ample proof while he was yet only a small boy. His later works have been for many years among the principal attractions at he Academy and other exhibitions.

John Everett Millais, son of John William Millais and Mary daughter of Richard Evermy was born on June 8, 1829. His birthplace was Southampton, but he must be reckoned as a Jerseyman, seeing that his family were among the natives of that island. The earliest recorded fact concerning him is that in 1835, the family being resident at Dinard, in Brittany, the child was in the habit of making vivacious sketches of French artillery officers stationed there. It was evident that he had already found his vocation in life. Drawings and sketches were produced by the dozen, and seemed so promising that when he was only eight years old-terrible ordeal for so young a boy-some of his performances were submitted to Sir Martin Shee, President of the Royal Academy. Sir Martin told the boy's mother that it would be better to train him for a sweep than an artist. But what successful man ever recommends his own profession? The result, however, of an inspection of the boy's work was that in the following year young Millais was sent, with the concurrence of the President to Sass's Academy, where his earliest successes brought him a silver medal from the Society of Arts. His second prize was gained two years afterwards when he was a student at the Royal Academy, and only eleven years old. About this time he was sent to a private school in Caroline Street, Bedford Square, where he remained for two or three years. The master was an able teacher, but young Millais's ruling passion was too strong for his other studies; he preferred his pencil to his books, and drew incessantly; he was nominally a schoolboy, but in reality an art student. The art training of that period was in every respect not absolutely unlike that received by Clive Neecombe and his friend Ridley. Historical pieces, such as would provoke a smile nowadays, were then much in vogue, and were the object of many a young painter's ambition. A good deal of well-painted drapery, and a number of figures, more or less skilfully grouped and all studied from the hantique, Sir, the glorious hantique, constituted as a rule these intelligent compositions. All the same it was not given to every boy of 16 to exhibit his pictures in public, and Millais was only 16 when he painted his first Academy picture of Pizarro seizing the Inca of Peru, The work, boyish as it was, was much praised, and was immediately succeeded by more history — Dunstan's Emissaries seizing Queen Elgiva, and in another year or so by The Tribe of Benjamin seizing the Daughters of Shiloh. Then after The Widow's Mite, came the picture of Isabella, in 1849, which marks a turning point in Millais's artistic career. We may note in passing that this picture contains portraits of Mrs Hodgkinson, the wife of Millais's half-brother; of Dante Gabriel Rossetti ; and of W. Bell Scott . The picture emerged from retirement not many years ago, and was purchased by the Corporation of Liverpool for their Art Gallery.

It was at this time that that a remarkable, if not enduring, movement began in English Art-a movement which proceeded on definite principles, and had definite results. So much has been written from time to time of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood that we need only remind our readers in a few words that Millais at the age of 20, was one of it's members, the others being the two Rossettis, Holman Hunt , Woolner, G. Collinson, and F. G. Stephens. Their journal The Germ was started in 1850 and preached above all things the earnestness of the new group. Their artistic creed enjoined the literal rendering of natural objects, no interference with nature, and no selection beyond the selection of the model. Details, even minute details were not to be generalised or omitted, but were to be rendered in a detailed manner. Roughly speaking the extreme of Pre-Raphaelitism was diametrically the opposite to the extreme of Impressionism. How far the truth of fact is compatible with the truth of Impressionism is a problem for philosophers as well as artists. We need not handle even the question, but note only the fact that at this period of his life Millais, with the natural and laudable enthusiasm of youth, was a member of the straitest sect his fellow artists. It was under this influence that he painted in 1850 Christ in the house of his Parents, a famous work with all the most marked Pre-Raphaelite characteristics, which excited a furious controversy and was condemned by a literary journal as a nameless atrocity. Abuse, of course, is not criticism; but the picture was undoubtedly strong meat for critics meagrely nurtured on the art of 50 years ago. To this period also belong Ferdinand lured by Ariel, Marianna in the Moated Grange, The Woodman's Daughter, and a very large number of drawings for illustrated books. The two following years were years of great success and popularity. We need only mention The Huguenot, Ophelia, The Order of Release, and The Proscribed Royalist, as the work of 1852 and 1853.These but especially The Huguenot, are as widely known as any pictures that have been painted in this century. We wonder in how many houses The Huguenot, and The Order of Release, hang side by side as companion engravings. The Huguenot, sold, we believe, for £150 to Mr Miller, of Preston; it was not seen again in public till the Millais Exhibition at the Grosvenor. To this sum another £50 was afterwards added; a still better result, from the young artist's point of view, was that in 1853 he was elected an Associate of the Academy, and had an assured future before him. He had touched the public sympathies, and the greatest critic of his day, both in letters in our own columns and in his lectures, had publicly commended his work. But for Sir Isumbras at the Ford, his Academy picture of 1857, which is a distinct relapse into Pre-Raphaelitism, and as such was brilliantly caricatured by Frederic Sandys , one would have thought that Millais was forsaking his earlier tenets, for the four pictures of 1852 and 1853 show little enough of the more pronounced mannerisms of the PRB. They are detailed it is true, but not affected or overwrought. Perhaps there is room for the suggestion that Millais, becoming more and more conscious of his versatility, was not long a convinced Pre-Raphaelite, but only reverted in Sir Isumbras, to a style that seemed to suit a romantic subject. One thing alone is certain — that the real course of mental and artistic development is each man's own secret, even if it be not actually unknown to himself. The year before Sir Isumbras, Millais had proved his versatility by turning landscape painter and producing Autumn Leaves, a picture of great beauty, which Mr Ruskin described as by much the most poetical work the painter has yet conceived, and also, as far as I know, the first instance of a perfectly painted twilight. The Black Brunswicker followed in 1861, and the painter of My First Sermon was a full-blown Academician in 1863. It should also be added that about this time he made a great mark as an illustrator of books, working especially for Good Words and the newly established Cornhill Magazine.

The most brilliant artist may consider himself exceptionally fortunate if he receives the highest honours of the Academy at the age of 34; and the Academy which is usually in no feverish haste to recognize genius, was not less fortunate in its new member. Millais's genius had never suffered from disappointment; his whole life, indeed, had been a series of successes; the only question now was how he would bear the full tide of prosperity, which is not less trying than failure to a man of ability. A successful artist, rejoicing in his strength, and presumably free from urgent cares, would he grow and develop, or subside into a comfortable and lucrative groove of his own? Now Millais was by no means a picture manufacturer, and was not content to turn out popular pieces of genre, one after another, as fast as each could be dismissed from the easel. Ambition, an absorbing love of art, and that versatility to which we have already referred, kept him from any such commonplace course. Gradually he drifted away from his earlier manner — Jepthah, in 1867, perhaps marks a turning pint in his career; and if Hearts are Trumps, Yes or No! and similar works lack something of the charm of The Huguenot, the landscapes and admirable portraits of his later years, showing, as they do, the wide scope and range of his powers are an ample compensation. Whether the landscapes would have been better still if he had confined himself to landscape work, or the portraits if he had resolved to paint only portraits, is, of course, another question.Apart from speculations of this kind, Millais's chief characteristic in the eyes of the public was his versatility and his success in distinct branches of the painter's art. His landscapes certainly bear the impress of his own precept that the painter ought to go on his knees before Nature as though he were worshipping in a temple. His object was not to render bizarre effects, not to catch nature in her violent moods, but to study beautiful scenes at the precise time when each is most beautiful. Chill October, painted in 1871, the whole field of nature cold and dying after the usage of the year, and Over the Hills and Far Away, a Perthshire Moor, the work of 1875, are probably his best and best known landscapes. Chill October, by the way, was shown at the Paris Exhibition of 1878, together with A Yoeman of the Guard, and The Gambler's Wife, and is said to have elicited from Meissonier the remark that the English could paint. Among Millais's other landscapes, mostly painted in Scotland are The Fringe of the Moor; 1875, Sound of Many Waters; 1877, Martin's Summer; 1878, Tower of Strength; 1879, The Moon is up, and yet it is not Night; and Dew Drenched Furze; 1890. Glen Birnham; 1891, Halcyon Weather; and Blow, Blow Thou Winter Wind; 1892.

On the whole the 20 years that followed 1871 may be taken as the period of Millais's greatest work, for, besides, these landscapes of somewhat unequal merit, he produced at this time such well-known pictures as Yes or No? with its less successful sequel Yes; the Princes in the Tower, and a Yoeman of the Guard — remarkable if only for black velvet and dexterous scarlet respectively — Cinderella, which an illustrated journal soon sent to the ends of the world; Sweetest Eyes were ever Seen, Cinderella's model only three years older; An Idyll of 1745, in which two or three timid little Scotch lassies listen, after Culloden to an English soldier boy who is playing the fife for their amusement. All these, or certainly most of them, have been rendered familiar enough by engravings to justify our earlier remarks as to Millais's popularity. If they pleased the public so much better for the public. Unpopularity is neither a criterion of art nor a moral obligation. But still greater works than these belong to Millais's last 20 years-that is if portrait painting is the artist's greatest achievement. It says much for the singular flexibility of his genius that, though he had several accomplished rivals, and one or two superiors, he more than held his own with the long series of portraits that began about 20 years ago. A fashionable portrait painter has to paint a good many undistinguished people, and it is only a consummate artist who can make a mere Portrait of a Nan, interesting. Millais, perhaps had not this supreme gift, but for his best work very high excellence may justly be claimed. He was extremely fortunate in his subjects — Tennyson, Disraeli, Newman, Bright, Mr Gladstone, and a host of minor celebrities are among them. We do not pretend to give anything like a complete list, but most of our readers will remember the Lord Shaftsbury, painted for the Bible Society in 1878; Mrs Langtry, the Jersey Lily of the same year; and Mr Gladstone in 1879. In 1890 he contributed a portrait of himself, for a collection of similar artists in the Uffizi Gallery; Mr Bright, Mr Luther Holden, President of the Royal College of Surgeons, and Catherine Muriel Cowell Stepney, a child in black velvet, one of his best works, were at the Academy; and a portrait of Mrs Louise Jopling at the Grosvenor Gallery. In 1881 he exhibited Lord Beaconsfield, at that time unfinished; Fraser of Manchester; Sir John Astley; Principal Caird, and Wimborne. Cardinal Newman — engraved by T. O. Barlow — Sir Henry Thompson, and Princess Marie of Edinburgh, appeared in the following year; and in 1883 Lord Salisbury, and his greatest portrait of all Mr J. C. Hook, RA. A break in the series followed, other works mainly occupying the artist in the interval, until we come to the portrait of Mr John Hare in 1892. Then came a long attack of influenza and a blank year, but in 1893 we had two or three striking pictures, and in the exhibition of this year were the Lady Tweedsdale, and the Sir Richard Quain, and others to which we return in other articles.

We might easily follow out the chronicle of his works to a much greater length.; for in these days of artistic appreciation the smallest works of so great an artist as Millais, their history and present home, are objects of professed interest to a number of people. It is, perhaps, enough to mention in this relation that the English public will soon come into possession of several of the painter's finest works, for the Tate Gallery will contain Ophelia, The North-West Passage, The Vale of Rest, and three or four more. Owners of many pictures by him were the late Mr W Graham, the late Mr Price of Queen Anne-street, and Mr Matthews; it is said that Mr C. Wertheimer has whole room full of the more decorative pictures, such as Cherry Ripe, and Christmas Eve. To attempt to to fix the artistic position of all these, or of the artist and his work as a whole is as premature as it would be difficult. Time alone can judge, for to time alone must be left the task of assigning modern art its relative place by the side of the art from bygone centuries. At least, however, it may be said that our age has seen no English painter at once so variable and so powerful. He passed in the course of 50 years of healthy strenuous work, from the ideal represented by The Huguenot, to the ideal represented by Saint Theresa, and at least every other year he produce what the best judgement of the day pronounced a masterpiece. What exquisite quality and finish in the early work — in the flowers of the Ophelia, for example! What an understanding of childish beauty in My First Sermon and in The Minuet! What brilliancy of painting, what sympathy with the root — sentiments of our British nature in The Boyhood of Raleigh! What grasp of character in, and what powerful pictorial effect, in such portraits as the Gladstone, and the Tennyson, and the J. C. Hook! What a power of rendering external nature as the eye of ordinary humanity perceives it in Chill October! Immense range, unswerving fidelity, and an almost invariable distinction — these are the qualities in Millais's art which are admitted by all the world. They were brought home to the public mind with irresistible force at the Millais exhibition at the Grosvenor Galley in 1886, and in the work of subsequent years has not weakened the hold which the great artist the once for all obtained.

We need hardly remind our readers of the final honour paid to Millais by his election to the Presidency of the Academy in succession to Lord Leighton. As to his claims and qualifications both social and professional, there could be no doubt. It was only a question of whether his health would prove equal to new and onerous duties. And now that the end has come, all too soon for the Academy and his many friends, it can only be said that, when he was elected, there was reason to hope that these forebodings would not be realized. It should be added that he became a Knight of the Legion of Honour in 1878, a Trustee of the National Portrait Gallery in 1881, an Associate of the Academie des Beaux Arts in 1882, and a baronet in 1883. His handsome face and healthy frame suggested rather the country squire than the artist; and, indeed, he made no secret of the fact that he loved the moor and the salmon river, especially at Murthly where he spent so many autumns, even more than his brush. He married in 1855 Euphemia Chalmers, daughter of Mr George Gray, of Bowerswell, Perth, and is succeeded in the barontecy by his son Everett, who was born in 1856, and married in 1886 a daughter of the late Mr W. E. Hope-Vere. One of his daughters is the wife of the Right Hon. Charles Stuart-Wortley, MP.

The Queen, having been apprised of the death of Sir John Millais, last evening telegraphed her condolence. The Prince of Wales, the Duke and Duchess of York, and Princess Louise have also telegraphed sympathetic messages. During yesterday there were many callers at Palace-gate, and numerous telegrams were received from America, Paris, and Berlin.

A special executive meeting of the Royal Academy has been called with reference to the funeral, which will probably take place on Tuesday next.

Comments

Whilst researching a number of the obituaries of 19th century artists which have become a speciality of this website, it has been very obvious how well written they are, and what depth of knowledge, learning, and observation they show. This obituary is no exception, and I doubt if any modern day journalist could produce anything approaching this standard. There is though one common area of fault with these obituaries-the elimination of anything considered distasteful; thus the first marriage of Lady Millais to Ruskin is not mentioned, and Ruskin himself not mentioned by name.

The obituarist makes a number of highly perceptive observations, some of which I highlight in these comments. Firstly he debunks many of the prejudices of Millais's detractors, without claiming that the artist was faultless, or without peer. The wonderfully astute remark is made that the popularity of Millais's work is not due to vulgarity or pretentiousness, adding the even more apposite observation that unpopularity is neither a criterion of art or a moral obligation. He also refers to the purchase of Bubbles, the portrait of Millais's grandson by Pears Soap, as bringing an isolated thing of beauty to advertising hoardings. The obituary is very perceptive in recognising pivotal points in the artist's career, an excellent illustration of this being the recognition of Isabella, being the first mature painting of Millais's Pre-Raphaelite phase.

The obituarist also refers to Pre-Raphaelitism as being the diametric opposite of Impressionism; obvious when one thinks about it, but our man had the shrewdness to put this observation into words. The statement is made that works with perhaps the strongest claim to greatness, were painted in the last twenty years of the artist's career.

About People Mentioned in this Obituary

The obituary mentions that an avid collector of Millais's more populist work (including the awful Cherry Ripe) was a Mr Wertheimer. This refers, I think, to Asher Wertheimer (1844-1918), a sophisticated, and successful Jewish businessman who was a friend of Sargent . Sargent painted a wonderful portrait of Wertheimer, and a number of pictures of his attractive, high-spirited daughters. That the highly intelligent Wertheimer liked and owned Cherry Ripe, probably the worst thing Millais ever did is very surprising.

Tantalisingly the obituary refers to the painter's painting of Mr J. C. Hook, RA, as his greatest portrait. I have not seen or heard of this painting before. James Clarke Hook (1819-1907), was a painter of coastal scenes, seascapes, and historical genre. He was elected RA in 1860, and had previously won an award for a decorative scheme for the new Houses of Parliament. His seascapes, and coastal scenes were highly critically acclaimed.

Princess Marie of Edinburgh was the daughter of Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh (1844-1900), second son of Queen Victoria; she ultimately became Queen of Rumania, and lived until 1938.

Millais's daughter Alice, who became the wife of Charles Stuart Wortley, MP, is also mentioned. She was a close friend and muse of Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934), the composer, who dedicated his Violin Concerto to her, under the name Windflower. I have already mentioned Bubbles, the famous picture used as an advertisement for soap. The sitter for the picture was the grandson of the painter, who later became an Admiral in the Royal Navy. In the early 1930s as Captain James, he commanded the ill-fated battlecruiser the Hood, and was called Bubbles by everyone from the most senior officer, to the lowliest rating. I doubt, however, that they used this name in his hearing.

In the short paragraph showing the messages of sympathy from the Royal Family, mention is made of Princess Louise (1848-1939), a daughter of Queen Victoria. The Princess was a generally outrageous character, a gifted sculptress, and an early advocate of the education of women. Princess Louise is long overdue a biography.

The day following this obituary, a poem appeared in The Times by Alfred Austin (1835-1913), the newly appointed Poet Laureate. I do not claim that Austin was a great poet, but produce this poem to illustrate the exalted place and status of Millais in late Victorian society.

Now let no passing bell be tolled,
Wail no dirge of gloom,
Nor around the purple pall enfold
The trappings of the tomb!
Dead? No; the artist doth not die;
Enduring as the air, the sky,
He lets the mortal years roll by,
Indifferent to their doom.

With the abiding he abides,
Eternally the same,
From shore to shore Time's sounding tides
Roll and repeat his name.
Death, the kind pilot from his home
But speeds him into widening foam,
Then leaves him sink from sight, to roam
The Ocean of his fame.

Nor thus himself alone he lives,
But by the magic known
To his so potent art, he gives
Life lasting as his own.
See on the canvas, foiling the Fate,
With kindling gaze and flashing gait,
Dead Statesman still defend the state,
And vindicate the throne.

Stayed by his hand, the loved, the lost,
Still keep their wonted place,
And, fondly fooled, our hearts accost
The vanished form and face.
Beauty most frail of earthly shows,
That fades as fleetly as it blows,
By him arrested, gleams and glows
With never waning grace.

His too, the wizard power to bring,
When city-pent we be,
Slow-mellowing Autumn, maiden Spring,
Bracken and burchen tree.
Look! twixt grey boulders fringed with fern
The tawny torrents chafe and churn,
And lined with light, the amber burn,
Goes bounding out to sea.
Toll then for him no funeral-knell,
Nor around aisle and nave,
Let sorrows farewell anthem swell,
Nor solemn symbols wave.
Your very brightest banners bring,
Your gayest flowers! Sing! Voices, sing!
And let Fame's lofty joy bells ring,
Their greeting at his grave.

The Reaction of The Royal Academy

(Also in The Times, August 15th:)

A meeting of Royal Academicians was held at Burlington-house yesterday afternoon and it was agreed that, subject to approval of relatives and the consent of the Dean, Sir John Millais should be buried at St Paul's, like his illustrious predecessor, Lord Leighton. The Dean was not in town, but a telegram was sent placing the matter before him and soliciting his consent. A large number of telegrams expressing sympathy was received at Palace-gate during the day.

(Also reported in The Times, 15th August - A meeting of the Sunday Society.)

(Note: At this time ordinary people had to work extremely long hours to make a living, not untypically six twelve hour days per week. Such organisations as The Lord's Day Observance Society tried to ensure that museums and art galleries stayed closed on Sundays, thus depriving the poor of their only chance to visit these institutions. Millais, to his great credit was opposed to these intolerant people.)

At a meeting of the Sunday Society, on Saturday, the following resolution was unanimously passed: That the committee of the Sunday Society hereby record their deep sense of loss to the Society, as well as to the nation at large by the decease of Sir John Everett Millais, PRA. As a member of the Sunday Society for many years Sir John rendered great service by his advocacy of the opening of museums on Sunday, and it is a gleam of sunshine amongst the gloom that he lived to know that his work was not in vain.