Letters and the Studio House

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John Everett Millais, The Order of Release, 1852-3, Tate Britain.

In his early letters, Millais presents himself as a hard worker, fully devoted to his challenging and arduous craft. Throughout the 1850s, Millais corresponded primarily with Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Combe, who were among the first to “recognize and encourage the efforts of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood,” and who treated Millais “with almost parental consideration” (1:88). As superintendent of the Clarendon Press at Oxford, Thomas Combe cultivated a refined social presence and a stable income, which allowed him to generously support Millais during his early years as an artist. In his letters to the Combes, Millais stresses the difficulties of painting and his constant efforts to achieve favorable results: “I am nightly working my brains for a subject” (1851); “I am just now working so hard that I am glad to escape anything like painting” (1852); and “I have a headache, and feel as tired as if I had walked twenty miles, from the anxiety I have undergone the last fortnight (over The Order of Release)” (1852) (1: 123, 161, 186). Millais’s self-portrayal as an industrious laborer contrasts in nearly every respect with his portrait in Artists at Home published nearly thirty years later. In Artists at Home, Millais reclines comfortably in a luxurious (and, one can assume, expensive) armchair, freed from all signs of his craft aside from a stack of easels in the corner of the room.  Millais’s correspondence provide justification for his repose in the photogravure: he worked diligently and suffered the anxieties of his profession in his youth, and thirty years later is able to enjoy the fruits of his labor, including the intricately carved oak cabinets and ceramic vases visible in his portrait. 

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After J. P. Mayall, John Everett Millais, 1883, Artists at Home, 1884. 

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Rupert Potter, Portrait of John Everett Millais in His Studio, 1886, Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

This is apparent in another portrait of Millais, taken by Rupert Potter two years after Artists at Home was published. In Potter’s portrait, Millais rests in the same luxurious armchair while reading a newspaper. His leisure is juxtaposed with proof of his hard work: two finished portraits resting on easels tower over Millais in the center of the composition. Millais need not make eye contact with the viewer; his paintings speak for themselves. The relationship between Millais’s letters and his studio-house is aptly expressed in a letter written to the artist from the novelist Anthony Trollope: “now for business, pleasure afterwards” (1863) (1:183).

While acknowledging the daily stresses of his career, Millais maintains a humorous, kind-hearted nature in nearly all of his letters.  He jokes with Mrs. Combe, “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.” (1851) (1:121) Later, he writes to the Punch cartoonist George du Maurier entirely in rhyme:

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 (1882) (2:268).

These letters illustrate the skill Millais possessed that was as important for Victorian artists as their talent with a brush:  a convivial social presence. Millais thus portrayed himself as not only a skilled laborer, but also a gentleman, two social distinctions previously regarded as incompatible. While an overturn in social convention often elicits a negative response from those privileged by the convention, the aristocracy reciprocated Millais’s good nature. The Duke of Westminster jokingly wrote to Millais in 1875, “Elcho. C. Lindsay, and self rather broke into your house burglariously yesterday afternoon. I hope you will forgive us” (2:76). In part because of the emergence of the “artist gentleman,” Millais achieved a baronetcy, and, as expressed by artist G. F. Watts in 1875, stood “in evidence that doctors, lawyers, and merchants have not the monopoly of that rank” (2:102). Millais’s portrait in Artists at Home further perpetuates his identity as a gentleman, as Millais is dressed in a suit and engaged with a newspaper, attesting to his involvement in the cultural sphere. 

While often the recipient of praise from fellow artists (Watts once wrote to inform Millais that he had hung one of his paintings in his studio), Millais rarely flaunts his wealth in his letters as openly as in his portrait in Artists at Home. He does, however, share his successes in his letters to his wife, Effie. In 1856, Millais wrote: “I cannot express the success of the pictures. It is far beyond our most sanguine expectations. I have increased the price of all three,” referring to Peace Concluded, Autumn Leaves, and The Blind Girl; and, on the placement of his pictures in the Royal Academy exhibition, he wrote, “Nothing could be better.” Of all of Millais’s letters, these come across as perhaps the most “private.” Unlike his studio-house, these letters were never intended for the public, and as a result they demonstrate a boastfulness otherwise lacking in his correspondence. His display of humility, an act of gentlemanliness, is remarkable considering the immense success Millais enjoyed; he was even appointed President of the Royal Academy in 1896. Although this was a grand achievement, Millais, in his usual comedic manner, described the position to his brother as “terribly irksome,” a potent statement as just six months after the appointment, Millais died at home.  

-Jenifer Norwalk 

Millais's Letters
Letters and the Studio House