J. E. Millais, Princess Elizabeth in Prison at St. James', 1879. This work was apparently painted in Millais's studio, with the cabinet to the left of the fireplace in the background.

Joseph Parkin Mayall himself photographed John Everett Millais in his studio, as Millais had already achieved considerable fame by the time of the publication of Artists at Home. The installment featuring the portrait of Millais was published in April 1884, but the date that Mayall actually took the photograph is unknown because he did not copyright the image until 1896, the year that Millais died. It is possible that a rising interest in the artist after his death convinced Mayall to finally secure the copyright. The pictured studio is located at No. 2 Palace Gate in Kensington, where Millais lived with his wife and children from 1876 until his death. In the photograph Millais sits in his studio, although it appears more like a sitting room than a workspace; this was the largest room in the house, occupying an entire wing.[1]

Millais reclines comfortably in a luxurious armchair, with his legs crossed casually. Although his gaze meets the viewer’s, his body language suggests that his mind is still occupied by the newspaper grasped lightly in his hands. This pose creates the impression that the viewer has walked in unexpectedly on Millais, who was performing his daily routine. Despite the apparent spontaneity of the picture, the portrait was carefully composed; Millais occupies the center of the frame and draws the viewer’s gaze to the large fireplace. An empty chair immediately in front of the viewer, identical to the one in which Millais reclines, invites the viewer not only to join Millais in his home but to do so as an equal. Millais’s chair is turned towards his hand-carved marble fireplace, although no fire is lit; this association with the hearth is likely meant to remind viewers that they are receiving a glimpse into Millais’s life at home. Millais’s status as an artist is not emphasized in this image: the only indication of his profession is the stack of frames leaning against the back corner of the room.

As the Victorian public would already have been familiar with Millais’s popular paintings, there was no need to include them in the portrait. And even without a display of his works, Millais’s status as an artist is apparent in the thoughtful layout and composition of his studio. His collection of Oriental ceramic vases lines the top of his intricately carved chest and marble mantelpiece, identifing Millais as a man of aesthetic tastes. The Oriental rug resting on top of the patterned carpet beneath Millais’s highly polished shoes further emphasizes his worldliness. These features not only attest to Millais’s understanding of contemporary trends in interior design, but also allude to the aestheticist style of Millais’s works during his later career. Portrait of Lady Campbell, née Nina Lehmann (1884), for example, includes a blue porcelain vase that is strikingly similar to the one on the far left of his carved oak cabinet, which once belonged to Charles I.[2] This association reinforces the connection between the style of an artist’s home and the style of his works, and subtly implies that we are looking not only at Millais’s studio, but also at a window into his personality and style. 

-Jenifer Norwalk

[1] "Palace Gate." British History Online. Accessed October 13, 2016. 

[2] Cosmo Monkhouse, “Some English Artists, and Their Studios,” The Century Magazine, August 1882, 559, accessed October 26, 2016, The distinguished provenance of the cabinet may have inspired Millais to use it in the background of his popular historical painting Princess Elizabeth in Prison at St. James's of 1879. In what Charlotte Gere describes as a self-fulfilling prophecy, the cabinet is now at Hatfield House in Herfortshire, the Jacobean stately home on the site of the childhood home of Elizabeth I. Gere, Artistic Circles: Design & Decoration in the Aesthetic Movement (London: V&A Pubishing, 2010), p. 22.