Tuesday, 21 May 2013
Ruskin, Millais and a family portrait
When my grandfather, Stephen Edward Comerford, was young and successful, he had his portrait taken in a way that presented him as a young Victorian man with confidence looking forward to the future.
I had always imagined that the photograph was taken in a photographer’s studio, but with the intent of creating the impression of an ideal rustic background, with a cascading waterfall, rocks, rich vegetation, and a clearing in a former thicket.
Stephen is dressed in a three-piece suit and wing-collar short, holding a walking cane in one hand and a hat in the other. But his shoes are well-made and highly-polished, so this is clearly a studio scene rather than a setting at the Powerscourt Waterfall near Enniskerry, Co Wicklow, or at a waterfall in Killarney, Co Kerry. It is certainly not in the Scottish Highlands.
It seemed to be the sort of photograph a man confident that a full successful career lay ahead of him would like to have taken. I only have a copy of the photograph, from the house in Terenure where my grandmother lived, rather than the original. So I have no idea of the original date of the photograph, or of the name of the photographer.
But because of a news story this week, I realised that this photograph of my grandfather is modelled on the formal portrait of John Ruskin (1819-1900) by Sir John Everett Millais (1829-1896). This portrait, painted in 1853, captures the great art critic and inspirational figure for the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in a style that fulfils Ruskin’s ideals.
It was announced on Monday [20 May 2013] that this celebrated Pre-Raphaelite painting, which led to the breakdown of Ruskin’s marriage, has been acquired by the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. The museum said this week it was “one of the most important Pre-Raphaelite paintings” that had remained in private ownership.
Millais was a child prodigy: at 11, he was the youngest ever student to enter the prestigious Royal Academy Schools. There he met William Holman Hunt and Dante Gabriel Rossetti here, and together that formed the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.
The leaders of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood included William Holman Hunt, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais, Edward Burne-Jones, and Ford Madox Brown. They were radicals in terms of technique, choice of subject matter, composition and the way they engaged with the viewer.
They explored religious, social, moral and political themes in a way that was new and often shocking. They rejected High Renaissance artists such as Raphael, preferring earlier artists like Botticelli. Alison Smith, curator of a recent exhibition at the Tate Britain in London, has described the Pre-Raphaelites, founded in 1848, as the Victorian avant garde ... “painters who self-consciously reacted against convention, against orthodoxy and established new a benchmark for modern painting both in Britain and internationally.”
Millais’s famous works include Christ in the House of his Parents, The Princes in the Tower, and Ophelia. Ruskin and Millais became friends, but while Millais had electrified the art world with his Ophelia, Ruskin, as a critic, had declared this Ophelia “insipid,” and he invited Millais to the Trossachs to learn what landscapes were all about.
Ruskin considered landscape painting to be “the chief artistic creation of the 19th century,” and regarded the accurate depiction of nature as a moral activity.
Millais, at 24, was 10 years younger than his sitter, who thought of him as his protégé and regarded him as the most promising member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. But the portrait that was to cement their friendship ended up as the cause of their estrangement.
Millais’s portrait is a distillation of Ruskin’s theories on “truth to nature.” Ruskin stands elegantly and naturally on the rocky edge of a cascading waterfall with luscious flora occupying the upper register of the canvas. As if directly responding to Ruskin’s arguments for detail and truthful representation, Millais carefully renders tin detail the facial features of his subject, the particular grooves in his hat, and the design of clothing and shoes.
The figure, therefore, seems real and specific – as opposed to the generalisation of an anonymous model. The realism captures a precise moment, perhaps a moment of quiet reflection or meditation, suggesting the artist painted at the scene, from nature.
The rocks, the water, and the flora around the subject also fulfil Ruskin’s ideals of colour and depth. The rocks appear gray and blue with detailed green and ochre moss. The vegetation recedes smoothly into a three-dimensional space behind Ruskin, juxtaposing the cool aqua blues of the background with the warm fleshy tones of Ruskin’s skin.
But as he stands and watches the crashing stream flows past him, Ruskin is impassive. That water will never splash him, and he will never step into it. Why are we looking at an aloof subject, painted by an active painter? This is explained in the story behind the painting itself.
The biographer RaleighTrevelyan says Millais’s portrait of Ruskin “has as much drama behind it as any picture in history.” It is certainly hard to think of a painting created in more turbulent circumstances.
Millais, Ruskin and Ruskin’s wife Effie stayed in the Byre Inn pub in Brig o’ Turk while they were in the Trossachs in the summer of 1853. The portrait was to be painted, according to Ruskin’s recipe for “absolute, uncompromising truth”, painstakingly from the life. But the weather in Scotland during the summer of 1853 was atrocious, and in an attempt to cheat the incessant rain, Millais built a kind of tent, so that he could continue to paint under its shelter.
However, the tent turned into a wind tunnel and Millais found that more and more he was confined to the cramped lodgings he shared with the Ruskins.
As weeks turned to months, and Ruskin continued to bury himself in his books, compiling the index for The Stones of Venice, Millais’s feelings for Effie grew stronger and ever more difficult to contain.
And so, as artist painted the critic communing with nature, he was also having an affair with his patron’s wife, the young and neglected Effie. Millais and Effie had fallen in love. Not long afterwards, Effie finally plucked up the courage to challenge the legality of her six-year marriage to Ruskin, claiming it had never been consummated.
The marriage was annulled. Millais belatedly finished his portrait of Ruskin. A year later, Effie married Millais.
Trevelyan has told the whole story in great detail in his book Millais and the Ruskins (1967). But even if the troubled circumstances behind the painting were not known, the viewer might still sense that something, here, is not quite right.
Ruskin stands before us in a wild natural landscape of the kind that he wrote about frequently. His feet are planted on a boulder of crystalline slate rock, the surface of which sparkles with silvery lichen, while behind him a mountain torrent flows and foams. But “the prophet of nature” seems curiously out of place in this particular corner of the natural world.
In his cravat and frock-coat, Ruskin appears to be an incongruously urbane figure. He might almost have been cut out from another picture and arbitrarily superimposed on the background. His glassy stare and his air of introspection seem to tell us that he is alienated from all the life and beauty that surrounds him.
At first, Millais says Ruskin is “perfect” and “gentle and forbearing.” But gradually he becomes a “scoundrel” who unforgivably neglects his wife: “an undeniable giant as an author, but a poor weak creature in everything else, bland and heartless, and unworthy – with his great talents – of any woman possessing affection, and sensibility.”
Millais made these last remarks during the winter of 1853, a couple of months after returning to London with his picture still unfinished. In March 1854, he wrote that “the portrait is the most hateful task I ever had to perform”. But he still felt compelled to complete it, and in the process he had Ruskin pose several times in his Gower Street studio.
At the end of April 1854, Effie left Ruskin for good. In May, as she was being examined by doctors – who found that she was, as she claimed, still a virgin – Millais returned to Glenfinlas to put the last touches to the landscape background. “Although it will be dreadfully strange revisiting it, still I feel it a kind of duty to go there again,” he wrote.
The reasons for Ruskin’s reluctance or inability to consummate his marriage with Effie remain uncertain. Effie, in a letter to her father, says that “the reason he did not make me his wife was because he was disgusted with my person the first evening.” Ruskin, in a legal statement, claimed “there were circumstances in her person” that “completely checked passion.”
Mary Lutyens argues that he was traumatised by the discovery that Effie had pubic hair, unlike the sculpted female nudes he was familiar with. Tim Hilton, in John Ruskin: The Early Years, blames menstruation.
Whatever the truth, Millais came to his own conclusions. He made Ruskin’s perceived “unnaturalness” the theme of his portrait. So it was that the figure of the critic, painted in Gower Street, was patched imperfectly into a Highland landscape. Whether the sense of incongruity and clenched self-absorption that resulted was achieved by accident or design, the portrait sums up what the artist had come to think of the sitter.
Although Millais had declared that finishing the portrait had become “the most hateful task I have ever had to perform,” the portrait would revolutionises landscape and portrait painting in the Victorian period, and the site where the portrait is set has been described as “the most important site in the history of British landscape painting.”
In 1871, Ruskin gave the portrait to his friend Henry Wentworth Acland, who went on to become Regius Professor of Medicine in Oxford. It hung in his home in Broad Street, Oxford, and remained in the family until sold by his descendants at Christie’s in 1965, when it was bought for £7 million by the late owner. It was displayed at an exhibition on the Pre-Raphaelites at Tate Britain in London in 2004 and was loaned to the Ashmolean Museum in January 2012.
Now, rather than pay £7 million in inheritance tax, the owner’s have decided to donate the portrait to the public. On Monday, it was announced in Oxford that the painting has been allocated to the Ashmolean by the Arts Council England under the Acceptance in Lieu of Inheritance scheme.
The Director of the Ashmolean, Professor Christopher Brown, called the painting “extraordinary.” He added: “The portrait is of supreme importance for the study of 19th century British art and it will be shown with the museum’s world-renowned Pre-Raphaelite collection.”
The actress Emma Thompson has written and featured in a film called Effie about the painting which is due to be released later this year.
Meanwhile, my copy of my grandfather’s portrait hangs in my dining room, showing Stephen Comerford standing Ruskin-like in a rugged setting, on a rock before a waterfall, with a cane in one hand, his hat in the other, dressed in cravat and coat. He too is an incongruously urbane figure who might have been cut out from another picture and arbitrarily superimposed on the background.
His portrait was an act of staking his claim to an affinity with the Victorian artists of his time and the values that inspired the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and the Arts and Crafts Movement. But his two marriages appear to have been happy, and I cannot say that he was alienated from the life and beauty that surrounded him.