Thursday, 24 November 2011

Could’ve been Millias

So, there was this artist. He started off all Pre-Raphaelite in the 1850s until he found a groove painting slightly more saccharine pictures of pretty girls and children, one of which became a famous soap advert. Who am I talking about? George Dunlop Leslie, of course, or Almost-Millais Leslie as I like to think of him. He could have been a contender, and in my opinion, on occasions, he was unbeatable…

Now, I’m not going to sit here and tell you George did anything better than Ophelia as that would be blasphemy on a grand scale. When he started out, George Dunlop Leslie had definitely leanings towards the Pre-Raphaelite in his style and subject.

Matilda - Dante, Purgatorio, Canto 28 'For thou, Lord, hast made me glad through thy work; I will triumph in the works of thy hands' - Psalm XCII, 4 (1860)
Oh, you know how I love a catchy title. Although slightly awkward, I think this painting shows a lot of promise and is a bit Arthur Hughes-y. The perspective is beautiful, with the group of figures seen on the other side of the river, and I love the use of colour at once both strong and muted.
He exhibited every year at the Royal Academy from 1859 onwards, becoming an ARA in 1868 and an RA in 1876, and his work changed to more mainstream subjects, as his wish was ‘to paint pictures from the sunny side of English domestic life'. Take for example this…

The Goldfish Seller
When I saw it, I immediately thought of the Millais portrait of the two young girls with the large glass goldfish bowl. Leslie’s use of the water and glass to distort the shape of the fish is gorgeous, look especially at the bowl in the seller’s hand. I find it interesting that the man kneels before them to show the bowls, in an almost ‘courtly’ way, with the lady in the porch viewing him in a cool but benevolent manner. I want her lace sleeves, by the way.

John Ruskin considered Leslie a great painter of gentle domestic scenes (that’ll learn you to run off with his wife, Millais) and thought his pictures displayed the ‘sweet quality of English girlhood’. Let’s not dwell on that too much, but you can see what he means…

The Daughters of Eve (1883)
Yes, it’s a bit sickly and pretty, but look at the little girl in the background, all in white. If she isn’t an aesthetic metaphor waiting to happen, I don’t know what is. Much like Millais, an awful lot of his work featured children, especially girls and often family. Possibly one of his most famous pictures now is this one…

Alice in Wonderland
Here is Alice Leslie, daughter of the artist, with, presumably, her mother, and she is listening to the story of Alice in Wonderland, and she is dressed in traditional 'Alice' clothes and imagining herself in Wonderland. It’s an interesting picture as you would not guess the title from the painting, but once you know the title the different meanings become apparent. Is the Wonderland in her head, the world of imagination, or does it refer to being safe and warm with a loving parent? Or both? I find the doll strange and its position slightly jarring – why is it not with Alice? Why is it cast aside in such a pronouced manner? Does it represent Alice asleep? I could go on like this forever…

Leslie’s capturing of the sweet quality of English girlhood (yes, that gives me the shivers too) made him an obvious candidate to produce a cutesy soap advert. Move over Bubbles….

This is the Way We Wash Our Clothes
Oh, Lordy, but ignoring the soapy princess for a moment, look at the still life of the basin on the table. Isn’t it gorgeous? Again the colours are beautiful, the teal apron against the russet dress is deep without looking suspiciously dirt-friendly, and contrast nicely with the clean white of the bowl. I’d buy this soap, look how clean that child is. Lily-Rose is rarely that clean, she usually has chocolate or pen up her face, but don’t we all?

Later in his life, Leslie seems to have had moments of Pre-Raphaelitism again. I was surprised when I found out that the following came from 1904…

In the Wizard's Garden (1904)
This reminds me so much of early Pre-Raphaelite stuff, a bit Burne-Jones in subject, possibly with a bit of Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale thrown in for good measure. Look at her dress - that is a fabulous shade of red. I have no idea what is going on – is she being held prisoner? Is she his daughter? The wizard seems to be a dark figure, not very sympathetic, whereas she is giving us her best bambi-eyes. The garden looks bleak and autumnal, possibly reflecting the wizard, whereas the girl looks out of place, in need of rescue. It is an ambiguous picture, but a beautiful one.

Faith (1858)
The Nut Brown Maid

So what have I learnt from hanging out with George Dunlop Leslie? Well, his work is beautiful, whether or not you like the subject matter. His use of colour in paintings such as Faith or The Nut Brown Maid is exquisite, and he seems to be able to handle different palettes of colour with equal ease. Look at the slap-your-face red and green of Faith as opposed to the muted brown and dark teal of The Nut Brown Maid

I find a lot of parallels between his work and Millais’. Compare Millais’ Cinderella and Leslie’s Her First Place

Cinderella J E Millais
Her First Place

It’s tempting to say Leslie was paying homage to the pose of Cinderella with the young maid, to suggest that young girls were used inappropriately in our houses. Obviously my heart belongs to Millais in so many ways (that little red hat!) but Leslie’s light touch with colour and detail lifts this picture from being yet another Victorian domestic interior. Plus she has the sweet quality of English girlhood (God, I can’t stop it now…).

Mollie, 'In silence I stood, your unkindness to hear...' (1882)
Sally in our Alley (1882)

 To sum up, I think there will come a day when Leslie is regarded as highly as Millais, especially Millais’ later work, and rightly so. A part of me wonders if Millais reputation will end up depending solely on his few years of Pre-Raphaelite output, because I think Leslie deserves at least as much regard for his later work. 

Plus, he painted the Queen. Hurrah!

Queen Victoria George Dunlop Leslie and James Hayllar


  1. I must say, as always, thank you for introducing me to another artist who makes my eyes and my heart pause. Yes, sickly sweet, yet well-crafted and with colors handled deftly.

    Happy thanksgiving!


  2. Great to see his pictures again.
    I would have added Sun and Moon flowers and some of the landscapes to make the point about PRB influence but he sold well and was successful which is hard to knock. Madox Brown was always broke is that a better way of life?

  3. He does have a beautiful way with colour. The red dress in 'In the Wizard's Garden' is amazing, there is such narrative in that picture. Both this and the 'Alice in Wonderland' painting leave you wondering what's happening.

    There's almost something quite worrying about both the expression of the subjects of these paintings - the worried frown on Alice's face and the desperate, frightened look on the face of the girl in the red dress.

    Thanks for the post, you've opened my eyes to Leslie.


  4. Thanks for the comments, I'm glad you enjoyed the blog.

    Hermes: As I am currently poor and misunderstood, I'd much rather be a rich sell-out...


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