Millais's Letters


Surbiton Hill, Kingston

July, 1851

To: Martha Combe

My dear Mrs. Pat,--

I have taken such an aversion to sheep, from so frequently having mutton chops for dinner, that I feel my very feet revolt at the proximity of woolen socks. Your letter received to-day was so entreating that I (reading and eating alternatively) nearly forgot what I was devouring. This statement will, I hope, induce Mr. Combe to write me as a relish to the inevitable chops. The steaks of Surrey are tougher than Brussels carpets, so they are out of the question

            We are getting on very soberly, but have some suspicions that the sudden decrease of our bread and butter is occasioned by the C—family (under momentary aberration), mistaking our fresh butter for their briny. To ascertain the truth, we intend bringing our artistic capacity to bear upon the eatables in question by taking a careful drawing of their outline. [1]

July 28, 1851

To: Martha Combe


John Everett Millais, Ophelia, 1851-2, Tate Britain.

 My dear Mrs. Combe,--

Many thanks for Dyce’s answer which I received yesterday, and as yet have read but little, and that little imperfectly understand.

            In answer to your botanical inquiries, the flowering rush grows most luxuriantly along the banks of the river here, and I shall paint it in the picture [Ophelia][2]. The other plant named I am not sufficiently learned in flowers to know. There is the dog-rose, river-daisy, forget-me-not, and a kind of soft, straw-coloured blossom (with the word “sweet” in its name) also growing on the bank; I think it is called meadow-sweet.

            I am nightly working my brains for a subject. Some incident to illustrate patience I have a desire to paint. When I catch one I shall write you the description.

 March 6, 1852

To: Martha Combe 

My dear Mrs. Combe,--

I promised some time back to write you a letter. Pardon me, for I am a wretched correspondent. I am just now working so hard that I am glad to escape anything like painting, but I confess, writing is almost as difficult a thing with me.

            I have very lately made the acquaintance of Mr. Thackeray, the author of Vanity Fair. He called unexpectedly upon me—not to see my picture, he said, but to know me. I have returned his call, and find him a most agreeable man. Mr. Pollen and his brother also have paid me a visit, accompanied by Mr. Dean. Pollen’s brother is a good judge of painting, which is a rare thing in our days.          

            I am getting on slowly, but I hope surely. Ophelia’s head is finished, and the Huguenot is very nearly complete.

83 Gower Street

December 16, 1852

To: Thomas Combe

My dear Mr. Combe,-

Instead of going to a musical party with my brother and father, I will write you something of my doings. I have a headache, and feel as tired as if I had walked twenty miles, from the anxiety I have undergone this last fortnight [over The Order of Release]. All the morning I have been drawing a dog, which in unquietness is only to be surpassed by a child. Both of these animals I am trying to paint daily, and certainly nothing can exceed the trial of patience they occasion. The child screams upon entering the room, and when forcibly held in its mother’s arms struggles with successful obstinacy that I cannot begin my work until exhaustion comes on, which generally appears when daylight disappears. A minute’s quiet is out of the question. The only opportunity I have had was one evening, when it fell asleep just in the position I desired. Imagine looking forward to the day when next one of these provoking models shall come! This is my only thought at night and upon waking in the morning. When I suggest corporal punishment in times of extreme passion, the mother, after reminding me that I am not a father, breaks out into such reproofs as these: “Poor dear! Was he bothered to sit to the gentleman? Precious darling! Is he to be tormented? No, my own one; no, my popsy, my flower, cherub” etc., etc., dying away into kisses, when he (the baby) is placed upon his legs to run about my room and displace everything. Immediately he leaves off crying, remarking that he sees a “gee-gee” (pointing to a stag’s head and antlers I have hung up), and would like to have one of my brushes. This infant I could almost murder; but the dog I feel for, because he is not expected to understand. A strong man comes with it and bends him to my will, and all the while it looks as calm as a suffering martyr.

April 7, 1856

To: Effie Millais

I cannot express the success of the pictures. It is far beyond our most sanguine expectations. I have increased the price of all three [Peace Concluded, Autumn Leaves, and The Blind Girl], which I shall get without any difficulty; and my studio has been already filled with eager purchasers begging me to remember them next year.

            All other years pass into absolute insignificance compared with this. I shall make a struggle to get the little soldier finished; but I am to go and help a brother artist, poor Martineau, who is in a fix with a picture.

            The artists here imagine that my pictures are the work of years, instead of a few months. There has been a report that I have taken to the most unfinished style, which, like many evil reports, have their good effect on me, for the pictures seem to astonish people more than ever by their finish. 


John Everett Millais, L'Enfant du Regiment, 1854-55, Yale Center for British Art.

April 9, 1856

To: Effie Millais

Dearest countess [Effie],

Yesterday I went to the Royal Academy, and made Luard write to you, as you would be anxious to hear how my pictures were placed. Nothing could be better. The largest [Peace Concluded] is next to Edwin Landseer’s in the large room. Autumn Leaves is in the middle room, beautifully seen; and, I think, the best appreciated. The Blind Girl is in the third room (the first going into the exhibition) and on the line, but rather higher than I like, as its finish it out of the reach of short people. The child on the tomb [L’Enfant du Regiment] is also in this room, and perfectly hung.

April 3, 1859

To: Effie Millais

 In the midst of success I am dreadfully low-spirited, and the profession is more hideous than ever in my eyes. Nobody seems to understand really good work, and even the best judges surprise me with their extraordinary remarks. . . . Nothing can be more irritating and perplexing than the present state of things. There seems to be a total want of confidence in the merits of the pictures, amongst even the dealers. They seem quite bewildered.

Prinsep Face.jpg

Ralph Winwood Robinson, Valentine Cameron Prinsep, 1892, National Portrait Gallery, London.



From: Val Prinsep

It was a great pleasure to me, my dear old chap, to be able to purchase your picture. There is not an artist who has failed to urge me to do so. For the profession’s sake I am glad your picture is in the hands of one of the craft, for it is essentially a painter’s picture. After all, what do the public and the critics know about the matter? Nothing! The worst is, they think they do, and hence comes the success of many a commonplace work and the comparative neglect of what is full of genius. I’ve got the genius bit, and am delighted. Yours ever,

Val Prinsep

 12 Harley Street

April 6 1863

From: Wilkie Collins

My dear Jack,--

I have been miserably ill with rheumatic gout ever since that pleasant dinner at your house, and I am only now getting strong enough to leave England in a few days and try the German baths.

Waltham House, Waltham Cross

June 4, 1863

From: Anthony Trollope

My dear Millais,--

Ten thousand thanks to you, and twenty to your wife, as touching Ian. And now for business, and pleasure afterwards.

            X, [a Sunday magazine] has thrown me over. They write me word that I am too wicked. I tell you at once because of the projected, and now not-to-be-accomplished drawings. They have tried to serve God and the devil together, and finding that goodness pays best, have thrown over me and the devil. I won’t try to set you against them, because you can do Parables and other fish fit for their net; but I am altogether unsuited to the regenerated! It is a pity they did not it out before, but I think they are right now. I am unfit for the regenerated, and trust I may remain so, wishing to preserve a character for honest intentions.

            And now for pleasure. I get home the middle of next week, and we are full up to the consumption of all our cream and strawberries till the Monday—I believe I may say Tuesday, i.e., Tuesday, June 16th. Do, then, settle a day with the Thackerays and Collinses, and especially with Admiral Fitzroy, to come off in that week. I shall be in town on Wednesday night. 

Studley Royal, Ripon

October 3, 1866

From: Sir W. V. Harcourt

My dear Millais, --

I received your insane letter, from which I gather that you are under the impression that you have killed a stag. Poor fellow, I pity your delusion. I hope the time is now come when I can break to you the painful truth. Your wife, who (as I have always told you) alone makes it possible for you to exist, observing how the disappointment of your repeated failures was telling on your health and on your intellect, arranged with the keeps for placing in a proper position a wooden stag, constructed like that of. . . . You were conducted unsuspectingly to the spot and fired at the dummy.


Little Holland House

July 19, 1876

From: G. F. Watts

My dear Millais,--

I cannot tell you how greatly I admire the picture you have sent me! You have never done anything better. I shall have it up in my studio, as an example to follow. I feel proud of the possession. Yours very sincerely,

G. F. Watts 

2 Palace Gate

Kensington, November 25, 1882

To: George Du Maurier


George Louis Palmella Busson Du Maurier, George Du Maurier, 1879, National Portrait Gallery, London.

Dear Du M.,--

Sunday week will suit me best,

Because it is the day of rest.

As painting you will be a pleasure,

I count the operation leisure;

So come to me at half-past ten,

And I’ll begin your portrait then. 

Thorpe Lodge, Campden Hill, W




June 26, 1885

From: H. T. Wells 

Dear Millais,

I have just read the news! At last artists are baronets, and henceforth you and Watts will stand in evidence that doctors, lawyers, and merchants have not the monopoly of that rank. Need I say that my admiration of the man and of the artist makes me rejoice in the fact that you have been chosen for the innovation? My heartiest congratulations to you and Lady Millais. 

Wampach’s Hotel, Folkestone

December 24, 1895

From: Marie Corelli

Bubbles 3.jpg

Pears Soap Adverstiment after John Everett Millais, Bubbles, 1885-6, Lady Lever Art Gallery.

Dear Sir John Millais,

Your letter has had the effect of a sudden bomb thrown in upon the calm of my present sea-side meditations; but I have rallied my energies at last, and I assure you in the name of Satan, and all other fallen and risen angels, that I meant no harm in the remark I put in to Geoffrey Tempest’s mouth concerning you. It is out of the high and faithful admiration I have for you, as a king amongst English painters, that I get inwardly wrathful whenever I think of your Bubbles in the hands of Pears as a soap advertisement. Gods of Olympus! I have seen and loved the original picture—the most exquisite and dainty child ever dreamed of, with the air of a baby poet as well as of a small angel—and I look upon all Pears’ posters as gross libels, both of your work and you. I can’t help it; I am made so. I hate all blatant advertisement; but, of course, I could not know (not being behind the scenes) that you had not really painted it for Pears. Now the “thousands of poor people” you allude to are no doubt very well-meaning in their way, but they cannot be said to understand painting; and numbers of them think you did the picture solely for Pears, and that it is exactly like the exaggerated poster. Of course it makes me angry—even spiteful—and I confess to being angry with you (not knowing the rights of the matter) for letting Pears have it. Bubbles should hang beside Sir Joshua’s Age of Innocence in the National Gallery, where the poor people could go and see it with the veneration that befits all great Art. I hope you will forgive my excess of zeal; for now that I know you had nothing do no in the “soap business,” I will transfer my wrath to the death, and pray you to accept my frank apologies. 

The Athenaeum, Pall Mall, S.W.

March 27, 1895

From: Sir Frederic Leighton

Dear Millais,

Fresh from the meeting and your touching and affectionate expressions, I write a little word which may at first startle you, that you must not answer at once, and that you cannot push away.

            My dear old friend, there is only one man whom everybody, without exception, will acclaim in the chair of the President on May 4th—a great artist, loved by all—yourself. You will do it admirably, that I well know, and you will have the huge advantage of doing it for once only instead of year after year. You have a misgiving about your voice; but, in the first place, it is only at first that your hoarseness hinders you; your voice warms as you go on; and, in the second, it is quite immaterial whether you are heard all over the room. Those nearest will hear and enjoy you; the rest may be read, as the whole English-speaking world will read in the columns of the Times (the reporter is at your elbow, and you will give him your MS.) what you say on this occasion.

            Dear Millais, every man in the profession will rejoice to see you in that chair on that night; and let an old friend of forty years say you may not refuse the honour. You said very kindly just now that all my brothers would come to my aid at this juncture. I ask you, in full confidence, to do so. Ever yours affectionately

            Fred Leighton


The Athenaeum

February 5, 1896

To: William Millais, Millais’s brother

Dear William,

Do not be surprised if, after all my resolutions against being President, I am placed in the chair. I am assured that it is necessary and expedient for me to act.

            The work will often be terribly irksome, but I have thought it over seriously, and I see that the Royal Academy might suffer if I decline. At any rate (if elected, as I have no doubt I shall be), I will P.R.A. until we have settled a bit after this calamity. . . . Your affectionate brother,


This comes just as I was dreaming of retirement! 

[1] Unless otherwise stated, all letters are from John Guille Millais, The Life and Letters of Sir John Everett Millais (New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1899). 

[2] Editorial notes are placed in brackets.

Millais's Letters