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How one bad review can really change your life

John Everett Millais, Charles Dickens, and the Pre-Raphaelite vision. By Neal Von Flue

1: Ways that mothers make us

Charles Dickens was 12 years old when his father was forced into a debtor’s prison. As was customary for the time, his mother and youngest siblings went along with his father, and Charles was sent to live with a family friend. In order to pay his way in this new arrangement, he was made to leave school and start work in a blacking factory.

For 10 hours a day, he worked in a dingy alcove within the counting house of the miserable factory, where he wrapped tins of polish and pasted blue labels to the outside. When the factory moved to a new location in Covent Garden, the labeling boys were put in a room that featured a window which looked onto the street. People walking by would peer in and watch them work, as if the children were a shop window display, or animals in a zoo. To Charles Dickens, this added a new depth of misery to his labor.

When his father was released from prison they were reunited, but his mother initially declined to remove Charles from his labor. He later said:

I never afterwards forgot, I never shall forget, I never can forget, that my mother was warm for my being sent back.

This affront wounded young Charles deeply. His mother’s lack of empathy and her unwillingness to save him from his torture would rule his opinions of motherhood, and a woman’s place in the Victorian family structure. Eventually his mother relented and Charles was removed from the factory and sent again to school. But this time in his life would prove defining for his work and character.

As an adult, he was deeply ashamed of this experience, and yet it would inspire David Copperfield. The people he met during these formative years would become inspirations for many of his incredibly detailed and rich characters. His great shame would provide kindling for the largest theme in his life’s work- shining a light on the disproportionate burden carried by the poor.

John Everett Millais was 11 years old when he was accepted into the Royal Academy of Arts. He was the youngest artist ever accepted and unlike Dickens, he spent his formative years in comfort and ease. Raised by a mother who bent the entire family to the service of John’s talent as an artist, she moved them all to London in order to grow contacts and influence within the Academy. She converted their sitting room into his studio, and denied him nothing in his pursuit of becoming a recognized artist.

And by 20, Millais had learned all that he felt he could in the Academy and, in his sitting room studio, formed the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood which aimed to overthrow the Academy teaching, much to the dismay of his mother. The Pre-Raphaelites declared that painting had lost it’s way. They were inspired by the vivid colors, flat compositions and decorative patterns that were prevalent in medieval painting before the time of Rafael. And they felt that the faithful detailed representation of nature was key. So they set out to make work that featured these qualities; They flattened the picture plane again, tossed out the umbers and darkness of the renaissance, washing out their characters, and posing them with an old-world stiffness that bent towards a theatrical sort of symbology.

For their themes, they drew mainly from two sources. First was the romantic poets like Keats and Byron- and their love of medievalism. They worked to apply a new sort of naturalism to these myths. But they also worked with religious themes, turning devotional art on its ear. And this- at least at the start- would prove the more sensational.

John Everett Millais had caught some attention with his first fully-formed PRB work Isabella, based on a Keats poem. But it was his second work with the Brotherhood’s ideals that would push Millais to the forefront of his group and catapult their little art movement into the limelight.

Christ in the House of his Parents debuted in 1850, shocking the English art world. It seems hard to believe now, but this painting’s debut was so controversial that Queen Victoria requested it be taken off the wall of the exhibition and brought to the palace under a sheet, so that she could see it for herself in a private viewing.

2: The Painting

Why was it so controversial? It’s clearly a competent painting with fine detail, It’s symbology may be considered a little heavy-handed today, what with the sheep in the background and the dove on the ladder etc., but it was likely considered engaging for its time. This painting drew attention and ire largely for one reason: it dared to show the holy family as less than an ideal; as rough working people in a dingy carpenter’s shop. Millais sought to shine a light on the plight of the average man. And the most popular writer in England- Charles Dickens- hated it. In his book on the Pre-Raphaelites, Timothy Hilton writes:

“In religious painting, the Pre-Raphaelites attacked convention mainly by their democratization of holiness. This is what so displeased Dickens when he saw Millais’s painting…”

An outraged Dickens takes to the papers, writing an essay lambasting the work and the movement that had birthed it. In his essay he describes the painting from his perspective:

You behold the interior of a carpenter’s shop. In the foreground of that carpenter’s shop is a hideous, wry-necked, blubbering, red-headed boy in a bed-gown, who appears to have received a poke in the hand from the stick of another boy with whom he has been playing in an adjacent gutter, and to be holding it up for the contemplation of a kneeling woman, so horrible in her ugliness that (supposing it were possible for any human creature to exist for a moment with that dislocated throat) she would stand out from the rest of the company as a Monster, in the vilest cabaret in France, or the lowest ginshop in England. Two almost naked carpenters, master and journeyman, worthy companions of this agreeable female, are working at their trade; a boy, with some small flavor of humanity in him, is entering with a vessel of water; and nobody is paying any attention to a snuffy old woman who seems to have mistaken that shop for the tobacconist’s next door, and to be hopelessly waiting at the counter to be served with half an ounce of her favourite mixture.

Wherever it is possible to express ugliness of feature, limb, or attitude, you have it expressed. Such men as the carpenters might be undressed in any hospital where dirty drunkards, in a high state of varicose veins, are received. Their very toes have walked out of Saint Giles’s.

He goes on in his article to spear the very conceit of the PRB. He doesn’t like the attitude of a group of upstarts saying “things were better before” and he shows it through parody by creating 7 other “brotherhoods” that we can expect to see now that the PRB has claimed their regressive intents.

He says that we’ll soon see a Pre-Newtonian Brotherhood that has decided to enlighten people on how things were better before the discovery of gravity. A medical society that denies the circulation of blood. He foretells of the P. G. A. P. C. B., or Pre-Gower and Pre-Chaucer-Brotherhood, which will throw out those author’s contributions, along with “a person of loose character” named Shakespeare. And he caps it off with the Pre-Henry-the-Seventh Brotherhood which will aim to throw out 400 years of every advancement in English culture and how we’ll all be happier as barbarians again.

Charles Dickens is swinging for the fences, he hates this painting so much.

The man who wrote Oliver Twist and A Christmas Carol, and whose life’s work will revolve around exposing the plight of the poor and working class, can not get his head around the idea that someone would dare to show the home of the holy family in an uninspired fashion.

And Dickens isn’t the only one. The Times of London said “The picture is plainly revolting”, The Literary Gazette declared it “A nameless atrocity….there is neither taste, drawing, expression, or genius.”

But to Dickens’ dismay, his review and the discussion around the painting has the opposite effect. Christ in the House of his Parents will be a sensation, and will catapult Millais and his brotherhood into the spotlight.

The hugely influential artist, critic and writer John Ruskin- outraged by Dickens’ vicious article- writes a passionate defense of the work and the PRB, which will cement their legacy in European art. Ruskin’s ideas were an influence on the group’s initial formation and he was a patron to some of the members. But this defense of the Brotherhood’s biggest star will kick off a series of events which will wreak havoc on his reputation and unwittingly set Millais on a new trajectory.

3: A not-so-brief sidebar about John Ruskin

In the wake of Christ in the House of his Parents, Ruskin will become more closely allied with the Brotherhood, paying stipends to each artist and some of their wives and models. He invites them all to his estate regularly, and during a trip to Scotland, convinces John Everett Millais to paint his portrait.

Ruskin is ecstatic about having the revolutionary Millais paint him. He writes to his father about the work, claiming that the Ruskins’ will soon own another work of genius.

And later, Ruskin’s wife Effie Gray will sit for Millais, posing as the wife in his sentimental piece The Order of Release, 1746. The painting depicts a Scottish Highlander’s wife, delivering a notice of release to her husband’s jailers.

In retrospect, it’s an ironic title and character to play because not long after this work, Effie Gray will leave Ruskin for John Everett Millais.

She’ll file for annulment on the grounds of an unconsummated marriage, citing Ruskin’s “incurable impotency” as the cause. Ruskin will deny her claim and state in turn that she is deformed or unfit- a less than ideal woman. She is examined and found to be in average health and to still be a virgin. These facts and vague insinuations will all feed into one of the biggest scandals of the time, and speculation on reasons for the famous couple’s lack of intimacy will become public discussion. Some will claim Ruskin fell in love with her before she was pubescent (he dedicated a novel to her when she was 12 years old.) And in a letter to her father, Effie will explain that Ruskin gave her many reasons over the years for why she was undesirable, finally insinuating that his distaste for her lie with her less than statuesque form, being marred by the human qualities of menstruation, or the presence of pubic hair.

What we know is that after the annulment is finalized, John Millais and Effie Gray get married. And they have eight children. But Effie’s first marriage will be a spectre that hangs over their relationship.

About 10 years after the very public annulment, John Ruskin falls in love with another girl, Rose La Touche. She is a student of his and 30 years his junior. Her family is aware of the rumors of Ruskin’s first marriage, and being concerned with his reputation, decide to contact Effie and John Millais, who warn them about Ruskin’s troubles and temperament. Despite his towering reputation as a teacher and critic, and his position in high society, Rose’s family refuses Ruskin’s proposal.

In an interesting turn, had Ruskin married Rose and she bore children, this would have disproved Effie’s annulment claim of incurable impotency which would have invalidated both the annulment and all subsequent marriages. It’s likely that the La Touche and Millais family would have considered this, and therefore in the interest of everyone (except Ruskin and Rose) made sure that Ruskin was rebuffed.

When Rose comes of age (yes, all of that took place before she was 18…) she consents to marry Ruskin on the condition that their relationship will remain sex-free. But being fearful of more damage to his reputation, and beginning to feel that Rose might be looking to gain status from the marriage, he refuses. So while each reportedly loved the other, Rose La Touche and John Ruskin would stay separate. Rose develops depression and mania (the diagnoses that were recorded at the time) and will die at 27 years old in a mental hospital. Her death will push the 52 year old Ruskin into despair. He has a crisis of faith and turns to spiritualism in order to try and contact her ghost.

Despite all this turmoil, Ruskin continues to patronize the Brotherhood and it’s members during the 1850’s and on. He praises their work, keeps them afloat, and even tries to maintain a patronly relationship with Millais, but to no result.

In this era, the Brotherhood were devouring English culture. They will have a long roster of affiliated artists during their tenure- both official and unofficial- and with each member that came and went, there were wives and models and relationships alongside; all in one swirling mess. There are dozens of stories of romance and artistic achievement, jealousy and tragedy within the PRB’s history. They are the kind of convoluted and interwoven storylines that you only seem to get from long-running soap operas, or from impulsive young people who are spending tons of time being inspired by nature, medievalism, and romantic poets.

The PRB would include artists like Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his wife Lizzie Siddal (who would pose for Millais’ most famous work Ophelia, catching cold in the process from laying in a full bathtub in a medieval gown for hours on end), William Morris and his wife Jane Morris (who will inspire dozens of paintings by Rossetti, and who’s transformation from uneducated girl to socialite would inspire Eliza Doolittle’s character in Shaw’s Pygmalion and the later adaptation, My Fair Lady.) There was also William Holman Hunt and his on-again-off-again muse Annie Miller (who would pose for all of them at varying times) and Charles Allston Collins, who had married Kate Dickens, the daughter of the most famous writer in England- Charles Dickens.

Which should bring us back to where we left off.

4: Kate Dickens the healer

Charles Dickens’ 10th child was strong-minded. The rest of the family concurred that she was favored by her father, and she had a fiery and artistic temperament. She earned the nickname “Lucifer Box” for her headstrong outbursts as a child.

She married Charles Allston Collins in 1860. Charles and his brother- the writer Wilkie Collins- were friends of John Everett Millais since the PRB’s inception and Charles wore a heavy PRB influence in his work, though he was never considered a full member. This relationship put Kate Dickens and Millais on a path to friendship, despite her father’s ire for his work. And in this, we see one of several factors which will conspire to bring Millais and the elder Dickens out of their enmity and into an admiration.

It would be convenient to say that as Dickens got older, his attitude towards Millais’ softened. And by all rights it seems to have. But there were more factors at work than that. Charles Dickens will fall in love with an 18 year old actress. In another bit of evidence to support the idea that the creative gene pool of Victorian England was too small and overflowing with “enthusiasm”, Dickens met the actress, Ellen Ternan, when he was the lead actor in a play written by Kate’s future brother in law, Wilkie Collins. Kate and two of her siblings will act alongside their father and his new barely-of-age obsession.

Two years later in 1858, Dickens’ wife accidentally receives a bracelet meant for Ternan and, upon being confronted, he decides on drastic measures to end his marriage. Still influenced by his resentment of his mother’s family control at an early age, he strong-arms his wife into a divorce, forces the children to stay with him, and makes her sign a contract to not discuss his infidelity. He then issues a statement to the public (on his and his wife’s behalf) denying all rumors of affairs (there were actually two affairs suspected.) All of the children fell in line with Dickens demands also, except two. The oldest child, Charles Jr. feels a duty to be with his mother and moves with her. And Kate, who showed promise as an artist herself, bristled at her father’s rough treatment of her mother and let him know. It strained their relationship, yet she never gave him up completely.

I imagine- like Ruskin- that the sort of humiliation which comes in the public discussion of your personal life would have a humbling effect on the man that just a few years before, would so publicly look down on an image of the child Jesus and his concerned family.

And Millais had his own sort of awakening. Very soon after his marriage to Effie, his work drifts from the PRB ideals and takes broader appeal. He was never a strict medievalist like some of his brethren, but as time passes he begins to chase more modern themes. Following the success of The Order of Release, he developed more heart-stirring and military-themed pieces such as this one, with the precise and heavy-handed title: A Huguenot, on St. Bartholomew’s Day, Refusing to Shield Himself from Danger by Wearing the Roman Catholic Badge.

But not every work Millais paints at this time can be considered saccharine. He is prolific and doesn’t stay in one mode strictly. But it’s clear that he has struck upon a formula and he will cash in on it’s success with work like this painting, that his friend Kate Dickens will pose for in 1860; The Black Brunswicker.

John Everett Millais: The Black Brunswicker.

According to Kate Dickens in a book written by JG Millais about his father, she was asked to pose for the work and was not looking forward to the task, but quickly became fascinated by Millais’ vivacity in the studio. She would listen to him excitedly discussing everything but painting with any friend who happened to stop by.

Soon Kate was looking forward to her posing appointments, despite the fact that it meant hours of leaning against a dressed-up wooden doll. Until one day, when she experienced a darker mood from Millais. He was restless yet quiet and snapped at her to move one way or another, even in the presence of another old friend who was waiting patiently for his jovial mood to return. He couldn’t continue and finally broke the silence. Kate describes:

At last, turning impatiently to his old friend, he exclaimed, “Come and tell me what’s wrong here, I can’t see anymore, I’ve got blind over it.” She laughingly excused herself, saying she was no judge, and wouldn’t be of any use, upon which he turned to me. “Do you come down, my dear, and tell me”, he said. As he was quite grave and very impatient, there was nothing for it but to descend from my throne and take my place beside him. As I did so I happened to notice a slight exaggeration in something I saw upon his canvas, and told him of it. Instantly, and greatly to my dismay, he took up a rag and wiped out the whole of the head, turning at the same time triumphantly to his old friend. “There! that’s what I always say; a fresh eye can see everything in a moment, and an artist should ask a stranger to come in and look at his work, every day of his life. There! get back to your place, my dear, and we’ll begin all over again!”

Kate will become a painter of renown herself, and build a wide circle of friends and influences. But times like this would form a strong bond between her and John Everett Millais, which would no doubt serve to warm the relationship the painter had with her father.

5: So many partings, welded together

So Dickens’ family trials would serve to humble him. And his daughter’s fondness for a painter who rendered the savior as a “hideous, wry-necked, blubbering, red-headed boy in a bed-gown” must have served to erode his strong opinions. And Millais had renounced his fiery start in some ways, by moving towards more accepted topics- stirring dramas of love with a Victorian attitude, sweeping women in gowns and heavy-hearted men off to war. His work drifts away from the boldness of Isabella, Ophelia and Christ in the House of his Parents, so Charles Dickens has less to disapprove of.

But why would an artist who birthed and fostered a group of establishment rebels- and who is responsible for some of their boldest statements- begin to abandon the cause? One reason might be simply to make a living. Because of Effie’s annulment, she is barred from going to any event where the queen would also be present, hindering their social world (and by proxy some of Millais’ livelihood through commissions.) Having a wife and family to feed- and leaner commission prospects to do so- may have provided an excuse for painting faster and more attractive works, which would make him quick money.

But money doesn’t figure as the sole reason, there are other causes. Millais never leaves the Royal Academy- the foundation that he and his group of iconoclasts sought to revolutionize. He will become an associate of the Academy just three years after Christ in the House of his Parents debuts. And his broadening of style and themes- and abandonment of PRB principles- will gain new enemies. His friend William Morris will call him a sell out for churning out popular sentimental works. And many of his friends will continue to be patronized by John Ruskin, the spectre haunting his marriage (and the towering creepy uncle of English painting.)

All of this will bring Charles Dickens and John Everett Millais into a kinder association. They will meet on common ground, each having been through a great deal since the divisive painting of Christ had debuted.

And when Charles Dickens dies in June of 1870, there will be only one artist- out of all her associations- that Kate will call to the home.

By candlelight, John Everett Millais will draw this delicate death portrait of Charles Dickens. He said later that he only intended to do a small line drawing, but that he was moved in the moment to do a more careful study. I think it’s hard to leave someone in those moments. You wish that time would stop. Or you wish it might go backwards.

Her husband will deliver the portrait, and Kate Dickens will write a thank you letter to her friend:

My dear Mr. Millais,
C– has just brought down your drawing. It is quite impossible to describe the effect it has had upon us. No one but yourself, I think, could have so perfectly understood the beauty and pathos of his dear face as it lay on that little bed in the dining-room, and no one but a man with genius bright as his own could have so reproduced that face as to make us feel now, when we look at it, that he is still with us in the house. Thank you, dear Mr. Millais, for giving it to me. There is nothing in the world I have, or can ever have, that I shall value half as much. I think you know this, although I can find so few words to tell you how grateful I am.”
Yours most sincerely,

In 1880, Millais will finish another portrait of Kate Dickens. By this time her husband has died of cancer and she has remarried- to another Charles- the Italian painter Charles Perugini. Millais began the portrait in 1874 as a wedding gift, but it took him six years to complete.

A lot of his work from this time wavers pretty wildly. There is a high quality in most of it, but he doesn’t dip into the Brotherhood ideology often- and this is no exception. It’s a modern portrait- present are the muddy umbers of the renaissance, and the vignetting shadows. No bright colors or bold medieval patterns; no studied natural world as a setting. The background looks rushed and scrubbed-in.

It’s hard not to think of the fact that in his fiery youth Millais knocked out incredibly-detailed paintings like Ophelia and The Huguenot at the rate of two or more a year. Go back up and Look at Kate Dickens’ dress in The Black Brunswicker. Compare it with this dress, which took him six years.

But even in it’s roughness, it is hard to deny the beauty.

In the loose handling he finds a novel kind of warmth, or lushness. He has looked back on Velasquez with new eyes, and we can see glimpses of what we will come to define as “painterly”. However, the face is well cared-for, and brought to sensitivity by detail, yet bordered on all sides by rough handling. The lace is merely dry-brushed in; and dress seams that a younger Millais would have painted the stitching into are reduced to shaky, buttery lines; hinting at impressionist theories which are just gaining steam in France.

In truth, he’s paving the way for the next generation who will take the loose and lush ideal of painted beauty to its conclusion through portraiture- Whistler and John Singer Sargent.

Not all of Millais’ later work can be considered as lovely and forward-looking as this portrait of his dear friend. But he will become such a popular figure that Queen Victoria will forget the annulment and eventually make him a Baron- Millais will be the first artist to receive such an honor. And- in an interesting example of how he bounces between artistic integrity and popularism- he will be the first painter to license one his works for advertising, selling a dreary renaissance-inspired Vanitas painting of his grandson to advertise Pears Transparent Soap.

He will also become the president of the Royal Academy of Arts. But he will only hold the post for 6 months, dying soon after from throat cancer. The Times of London– the paper which called Christ in the House of his Parents “plainly revolting” will say in his obituary:

His popularity achieved early enough to turn the head of an inferior man, was due to nothing vulgar or pretentious, but solely to charming work and wholesome sentiment.

It’s clear that they have some amnesia. Or maybe they’re just choosing to treat kindly those that have passed. Besides, there had been a lot of years since then, and if Charles Dickens could move on then maybe the Times of London should be allowed to also.

In Great Expectations– a story all about second chances- Joe Gargery is Pip’s kind-hearted blacksmith brother in law. He visits Pip in his new lush London apartment. Being vain and still needing to learn a lesson or two, Pip treats Joe poorly, looking down his nose. Joe bears this disappointment in stride; as he has done with each pain in his humble life. And as an end to their strained visit, this spokesman for the working class parts with this lesson:

Pip, dear old chap, life is made of ever so many partings welded together, as I may say. And one man’s a blacksmith, and one’s a whitesmith, and one’s a goldsmith, and one’s a coppersmith. Divisions among such must come, and must be met as they come.

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