Down with Effie
By ROY STRONG
T REMEMBER once, after a lecture on Henry VIII,
a member of the audience sprang to her feet, shook a menacing finger at a portrait of Anne Boleyn and cried 'Everything was all right until that woman came along!' In the case of Sir John Everett Millais, baronet, whose first extensive exhibition since 1898 is now at the Royal Academy, everything was all right until Effie came along. On arrival at the exhibition take yourself at once to the largest of the galleries and make straight for number 82, a por- trait of Euphemia Chalmers Gray. There she is, smouldering in crimson velvet, leaden eyes staring outwards from a puffy face, jaded and unloving. Married off at twenty to the precocious Ruskin, she set her cap at Millais during a wet and boring Scottish holiday. She got him. Two years later, in 1855, Ruskin being usefully declared impotent and the match annulled, she married Millais. The year after, he produced his last good painting, Autumn Leaves. Effie has an awful lot to answer for.
Millais's early pictures and drawings, executed between the ages of nineteen and twenty-seven before the advent of Effie, are marvellous in their revelation of imaginative power and tech- nical brilliance. They open with the famous Isabella which, along with Holman Hunt's Rienzi, launched the Pre-Raphaelite manifesto in the Academy of 1849, followed by the brutal Christ in the House of His Parents, painted in a carpenter's shop in Oxford Street. The shock that this treatment of a religious subject caused at the time is reflected in Dickens's denunciation of it as the 'lowest depths of what is mean, repulsive, and revolting.' Strange reaction for a man who must surely have been in sympathy with the implied social indictment inherent, for example, in many of Millais's early drawings. Take The Race Meet- ing. 'Such tragic scenes I saw on the race course!' the artist wrote, and the scene he draws has the macabre horror of a taunted Christ: lecherous, cunning, grotesque faces press in upon a debtor lolling back in his coach seat while, at his side, a woman, convulsed with grief, buries her face in her hands. Compare this in all its compassionate terror with the engaging but vapid jollities of Frith's Derby Day and we have the measure of the promise at one time in Millais's work.
This alignment of brilliant draughtsman- ship with intense feeling for human emotion is sustained through a whole series of drawings : a dying man, a blanched and shrouded corpse, livid by the hearthside surrounded by his family; a wedding at which a bride sees the ghost of her first husband inscribed 'I don't, I don't'; and The man with two wives, the first hysterical on her knees imploring before him. Even the wild strangeness of Stanley Spencer's religious subjects are anticipated in the frenetic Disentombment of Queen Matilda. In these years of Millais's close association with the Pre- Raphaelite Brotherhood the masterpieces come thick and fast : Ophelia and The Huguenot, both 1852, The Order of Release, 1853 and his greatest picture, The Blind Girl, 1856. All vibrate with paroxysms of intense emotion and draw forth new depths of loveliness in their attention to un- expected detail, like the butterfly alighting on the Blind Girl or the crumpled primrose fallen from the child's hand in The Order of Release. Then came Effie.
If Millais had been drowned in a Scottish loch instead of running off with Mrs Ruskin, our assessment of him would no doubt be radically different. We can see the rot set well in with Apple Blossoms of 1859 which shows an alarm- ing decline in his ability to draw and paint the human figure. Ruskin spotted it at once and lamented Millais's falling 'thus greatly beneath himself.' For over thirty years, drugged by sweet success, Millais trod the tiara-littered path up- wards to the presidency of the Royal Academy. And here come those pictures one tries hard to forget actually exist : The Little Prince in the Tower, Bubbles, and The Boyhood of Raleigh. By the time you have staggered to Dew-Drenched Furze, 1890, you wonder whether, by some chance, you have not wandered into a more than usually appalling Christie's nineteenth-century- and-other-masters sale. The change to a broader, "more impressionistic style of brushwork and Millais's abandonment of preparatory draw- ing seem to have been less on account of any artistic principle than because it meant he could produce more 'masterpieces' more quickly.
Millais's aim in later life was to emulate the great masters of the past, in particular Van Dyck, Velazquez, Reynolds. One can pinpoint the canker within by his Hearts are Trumps painted to rival the Three Ladies Waldegrave of Sir Joshua Reynolds, another artist whose debt was overt to the great masters who went before him. In Reynolds's case the debt is part of a whole philosophy of art expounded in his celebrated Discourses. But compare the intellect which moti- vates Reynolds's Ladies Waldegrave with the vapid product of Millais, a cheap, vulgar, surface imitation; a whirlpool of crumbly paints, silks, ribbons, lace, flowers, marquetry and lacquer work.
Where exactly does this exhibition get us? If its purpose was to reassess Millais's late work it cannot be said to have achieved it. Nothing short of a flame-thrower could evacuate the feel- ing of depression those acres of paint exude. They have succeeded in drawing our wonder even more forcefully to his few brief years of fertile inven- tion. I left the exhibition with three thoughts: that the Royal Academy must find a fairy god- mother who will do something about those terrible walls on which the exhibition has been sacrificed—late Millais desperately needs dressing of some sort; that Miss Mary Bennett had really produced a very good catalogue; and that the sooner we have a major winter exhibition in the grand old post-war tradition the better.
Meanwhile an exhibition of James Gillray's original drawings and satirical prints is at the Arts Council until February 4 and will then travel to York, Bristol and Leicester. The ex- humation of eighteenth-century English petits maitres goes on apace but there is some point to this one, for from Gillray's violent, jumbled, cudgel-bashing caricatures the modern newspaper cartoon as we know it was born. To enjoy this show to the full one really must be tops in late eighteenth-century English political history, otherwise one feels like an Eskimo faced by Osbert Lancaster's latest outrageous piece of wit. The trouble is that by the time one has read the explanatory text in the catalogue the joke has been killed. Immediacy is both the point and drawback of modern political caricature. There are, however, some splendid frenzied drawings and some wickedly naughty cartoons. My prise goes to Fashionable Contrasts: — or — The Duchess's little Shoe yielding to the Magnitude of the Duke's Foot. No prize, however, for guess7 ing what this is about.