Lindsay Wells is a Ph.D. student and 2016-17 Chipstone – James Watrous Fellow in the Department of Art History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA. Her research explores the reception of botany, gardening, and floriculture in Victorian art, with a particular focus on the paintings of the Pre-Raphaelites and British Aesthetic Movement. She completed her M.A. in History of Art at the Courtauld Institute of Art in 2014. You can find her on Twitter @LindsayFWells19
If there was one Victorian artist who took center stage at the BAVS 2016 conference in Cardiff last month, it was Sir John Everett Millais (1829-96). This founding member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and eventual President of the Royal Academy enjoyed a prolific career that spanned the second half of the nineteenth century and produced some of the most iconic paintings of the period. Many are likely familiar with his Ophelia (1851-52, Tate Britain, London), Mariana (1850-51, Tate Britain, London), and other oft-discussed early works; however, during BAVS, the focus was shifted onto several of his later paintings. [For images, see <http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/millais-ophelia-n01506> and <http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/millais-mariana-t07553>%5D
Millais was the main subject of two papers delivered over the course of the three-day conference. The following is a summary of some of the ideas and arguments addressed in each that I found particularly thought-provoking. The first presentation was given by independent scholar Camilla Adeane, who appeared on the Wednesday, 31 August panel “Imagining and Representing Real and Unreal Others” alongside fellow speakers Dr. Areej M.J. Al-Khafaji (Al-Qadisiya University/Cardiff University) and Dr. Mary L. Shannon (University of Roehampton). The second paper about Millais was delivered on Thursday, 1 September by Dr. Kumiko Tanabe, Associate Professor at Kansai Gaidai University in Japan. Dr. Tanabe spoke on the “Visual Culture Strand: The Pre-Raphaelites” panel, which also included papers by Dr. Serena Trowbridge (Birmingham City University) and Maria Cohut (University of Warwick).
Adeane’s paper “Imaginary Voyages: The Late Paintings of John Everett Millais (The Boyhood of Raleigh,1870; The North-West Passage, 1874)” investigated two paintings by the artist now currently housed in London at Tate Britain. [For images, see <http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/millais-the-boyhood-of-raleigh-n01691> and <http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/millais-the-north-west-passage-n01509>%5D Combining attentive visual analysis with an examination of historical data, she invited her audience to reconsider the complexity of The Boyhood of Raleigh and The North-West Passage. This first painting depicts an invented scene from the life of a young Sir Walter Raleigh, the sixteenth-century British explorer who, as Adeane explained, spent his life searching for the fabled city of El Dorado before his eventual incarceration and execution for treason. Dressed in a smart green suit, the youthful Raleigh sits beside a companion in black on a sandy beach. The two boys fix their attention upon an older sailor seated in the foreground. Adeane mentioned that this man is presumably regaling his captive audience with tales—or rather, tall tales—of maritime adventure. Pointing out such details as the dead bird lying by the sailor’s side and the somber expression worn by Raleigh, Adeane drew attention to the sense of melancholic gloom that permeates this work. She argued that Boyhood of Raleigh explores the tension between realistic detail and more conceptual expressions of interiority, an interpretation she also proposed for The North-West Passage.
This second painting of Millais’s depicts an aged sea captain charting an expedition alongside his young daughter seated at his feet. The pair surrounds a table strewn with papers and maps. A view of the sea appears just outside a window located on the wall behind them along the leftmost edge of the canvas. However, as noted by Adeane, the overall mood of the painting is far from optimistic and intrepid. Once again, the juxtaposition of age with youth and the careful arrangement of multivalent details conveys a feeling of contemplative reflection. Adeane concluded that we ought to question the subtext of “heroic national masculinity,” to borrow her phrase, typically read into both of these paintings.
Dr. Kumiko Tanabe, meanwhile, presented on Millais’s Bubbles (1885-86, currently on loan to the Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight), one of the artist’s most well-known “fancy pictures” of children in period costume. [For images, see <http://www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/picture-of-month/showlarge.aspx?id=299>%5D This particular painting depicts a young boy in olive-green finery blowing soap bubbles, his attention transfixed upon one of his pearlescent creations floating above his head. As Dr. Tanabe noted, Bubbles was widely reproduced during the Victorian period. Her paper, “J.E. Millais and the Fancy Picture,” address the theme of commercialism in Millais’s art and how the appearance of Bubbles in periodicals and advertisements has influenced its reception. She also referenced some of the artist’s other famous fancy pictures that were popular with the public during the nineteenth century, such as Cherry Ripe (1879). Brining a critical eye to the common assumption that such paintings were pure “pot boilers,” Dr. Tanabe invited us to read Bubbles as psychologically nuanced.
What I enjoyed most about both Dr. Tanabe and Adeane’s papers was the thoughtful insight they offered into the latter half of Millais’s professional life. The Boyhood of Raleigh, The North-West Passage, and Bubbles constitute an important facet of the artist’s career that, like his Pre-Raphaelite endeavors of the 1850s, is intellectually rich and innovative. In their arguments, both Dr. Tanabe and Adeane called for a reexamination of our preconceived notions about Millais’s mature work. They each offered a refreshingly perceptive interpretation of their selected paintings, all of which touch upon sentimental and aesthetic themes beyond their literal subject matter.
For additional information on the above-mentioned Millais paintings, see:
Barringer, Tim, Jason Rosenfeld, and Alison Smith. Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Art and Design. London: Tate Publishing, 2012, 58 and 96.
Rosenfeld, Jason. John Everett Millais. London: Phaidon Press, 2012, 184-185 and 223-225.