Friday, 26 August 2011

Millais and Me

When I was about seven years old, I received a jigsaw of Millais’ Cherry Ripe for Christmas from my maiden aunt.

Don't laugh, it was the 1970s
Nothing strange in that, that sort of thing happened a lot in the 1970s, before ChildLine existed. I look somewhat unimpressed, and that was before I’d opened the box and worked out exactly how many of the 500 pieces were brown (495 of them) and, after you’ve done the figure, how utterly soul-destroying it is.

Skip forward almost thirty years, and I was stood in the Tate Gallery, at the Millais exhibition a few Christmas’ ago, and what should I see?

Cherry Ripe (1879) John Everett Millais
Bloody Cherry Ripe. If any picture epitomises how much of a sell-out Millais was, it has to be bloody Cherry Ripe. Ripped gleefully from a Joshua Reynolds picture, after the little girl went to a fancy-dress party as Penelope Boothby and her father thought it was so darling he got Millais to paint her like that.

Penelope Boothby (1788) Joshua Reynolds
There are so many things wrong with that, I don’t know where to begin. Next time one of Lily-Rose’s friends has a fancy-dress party, I’ll send her as Penelope Boothby and see how quickly Social Services contact me.

As if to increase the level of nausea, the Tate had displayed the original ickle tiny shoes with Cherry Ripe. God preserve me, I thought. Then I realised something horribly depressing. Yes, Cherry Ripe is a revolting piece of saccharine commercialism, but bloody hell, it’s good. Unlike Sir Slosh’s fuzzy cuteness, you can see the curl of the hair on Cherry Ripe’s sleeves, and the lace of her gloves. The background is dull brown, but you can see random foliage, and cherries, together with some foxgloves symbolising youth (I have a weakness for foxgloves) and it only serves to draw your eye back to the sullen dumpling and her blushing cheeks. I wanted to loathe it, I really did…

One thing we are sure of, as Pre-Raphaelite fans, is that Millais went crap and commercial after the 1850s. While it can’t be argued that he made a shed-load of cash from his work, is that necessarily a reflection in a decrease of quality? Take this for example…

Leisure Hours - Portrait of Ann and Marion Pender, the daughters of Sir John Pender (1864) J E Millais
I saw this one at the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition on Millais portraits and I was blown away by the goldfish bowl. Yes, the girls are great, but look at how the image of the fish is slightly distorted by the water and the curve of the bowl. Then look at the reflection of the girl in the top of the bowl. Amazing. Try this one…

Cinderella (1881) J E Millais
It’s a quite odd image of Cinderella, a mixture of all parts of the story. She is wearing a rough grey dress that she rapidly seems to be growing out of, and her feet are bare. She holds a peacock feather and seems to have a tiny red cap on. She is holding onto her dream of one day having vanity rather than just an enormous broom. I began to wonder about the glass slippers – if they were pictured would we be able to see them as they are clear glass? Maybe she is already wearing them and one day the magic will kick in and she’ll realise they are there.

I feel like I’m asking for sympathy for the devil, but have a look at these images…

 It seems to be almost unforgivable to say that actually (whispering) Bubbles isn’t entirely without merit. Millais apparently used glass baubles to get the shape of the bubbles and the way the light hits them. Yes, I know, the poor child was forever known as ‘Bubbles’ even when he was an Admiral in the Royal Navy, but as a vanitas / momento mori image it’s pretty good. There is a lot of brown in the background again. Mind you, he does a good shoe.

I remember seeing Bubbles at the Tate and being horribly surprised at the quality, but that is the terrible thing about Millais. His style changed, but his ability to capture an expression never faltered. Look at this…

Sweetest Eyes Were Ever Seen J E Millais
Some of Millais’ girls are almost unbearably wistful, as if they are quietly desperate in their anticipation that something will happen, something good will come along and change their lives. Yes, she is a million miles away from The Blind Girl with its intricate detailing, but still the internal world of a pre-pubescent girl is just glimpsed in their expressions.

Little Speedwell's Darling Blue (1892) J E Millais
 As he was so prolific in his kiddie pictures, the sheer volume of them makes them easy to dismiss as Millais sell-out period. However, consider the white dresses and the vagueness of theme, and replace the adjective ‘crap’ with ‘aesthetic’ and see if you see them differently…

Dropped From the Nest J E Millais
Pomona (1882) J E Millais


To sum up my defence, Millais painted children, he liked children and a good many of them were related to him and his affection shows. Just look at some of Holman Hunt's pictures of his kids.

The King of Hearts (1862) William Holman Hunt
 They are terrifying and cute all at once, mainly terrifying. See the pictures in the flesh, then really look at the details – Bubble’s blue eyes waiting to see how long his bubble lasts, the shiny red apple in Pomona, Cinderella’s feather, and bloody Cherry Ripe’s exquisite hands.

Then again, I might have grown up funny if my Aunt had given me a jigsaw of Ophelia….


  1. delightful post... had me laughing out loud :)
    Do you still have that puzzle?

  2. I do enjoy your posts. I smiled a lot too. Millais did go 'straight' unlike say Rossetti but he joined in the Victorian zeitgeist for cute children and telling tales (usually with a message). We all grow old and loose our revolutionary edge and don't want to live in garret's anymore.

  3. Yes, I still have bloody Cherry Ripe, and attempted to do it a couple of months ago. Managed the figure, but the brown just kills me. Glad you enjoyed the post :) xx

  4. I'd probably sell out too if I had that many children to feed. Goodness, he and Effie were busy!


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