Wednesday 8 June 2016

Millais's Rascally Paradise

Today is the birthday of John Everett Millais (born 1829), so here is one of his finest paintings, Ophelia, depicting that unhappy young lady's death, as described in Act IV, scene VII of Hamlet. The chief beauty of the picture is the meticulously rendered, exquisitely detailed setting, painted from nature on the banks of the Hogsmill river, a tributary of the Thames that reaches the river at Kingston (Millais's spot was upriver in Old Malden). It was not unalloyed fun: 'The flies of Surrey [wrote Millais] are more muscular, and have a still greater propensity for probing human flesh. I am threatened with a notice to appear before a magistrate for trespassing in a field and destroying the hay ... and am also in danger of being blown by the wind into the water. Certainly the painting of a picture under such circumstances would be greater punishment to a murderer than hanging.' Those Victorians weren't given to understatement...
 Famously, the figure of the drowned Ophelia was posed by the Pre-Raphaelite muse Lizzie Siddal, lying in a bath in Millais's London studio. It was winter so, to prevent hypothermia, the bath was heated by oil lamps under the tub. However, Millais let them go out, Lizzie caught a severe cold, and the artist had to pay her medical expenses.
 When the painting was displayed, the response was as tepid as Lizzie Siddal's bath water. Even Ruskin, at this stage a staunch champion of Millais, praised only the technique, deploring the artist's decision to set the picture in a Surrey landscape: 'Why the mischief should you not paint pure nature and not that rascally wire-fenced garden-rolled nursery-maid's paradise?' This seems more than harsh; if the setting of Ophelia is not beautiful, I'd like to see what is. I should add that the river in Millais's painting resembles parts of the cleaned and restored - indeed reborn - Wandle as it flows through Carshalton.

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