Magazine article The Spectator

Something Happened

Magazine article The Spectator

Something Happened

Article excerpt

What went wrong with John Everett Millais? More or less from the day he died the question has been asked. It is still mulled over today -- except, that is, in the catalogue to the current exhibition Millais at the National Portrait Gallery. The various essays printed there prefer, in the modem, academic manner, not to believe that art can be good or bad. Therefore, in their eyes, Millais merely progressed from painting one kind of historical evidence small, jewel-like - to another - life-size, mud-coloured, hastily executed. The exhibition itself, however, leaves no doubt that something fundamentally dreadful happened to Millais, the artist.

He began, enormously precocious, as the most naturally talented of the PreRaphaelites. The very small, very early portraits at the beginning of the exhibition are marvellous: Wilkie Collins and Emily Patmore, for example, painted when he was barely into his twenties, are among the best. They look back to Van Eyck and Holbein, forward to the young Lucian Freud; and they have, with their delicate, miniaturist's precision and acid colour, a strongly personal quality of their own. The effect, detailed yet distant, is a little like looking at the world through the wrong end of the binoculars.

It didn't last long - only, in portrait terms, until he went to the Trossachs in 1853 with John and Effie Ruskin. There, as everyone knows, he painted John and fell in love with Effie. In due course, the Ruskins were divorced in a celebrated scandal, and Millais married Effie (interestingly, Ruskin remained friendly, but Millais didn't want to have any more to do with the man whose wife he had stolen). The Ruskin portrait itself is good, though it shows up some limitations. The subject standing on a slab of the gneiss he loved, in front of a mountain stream - does not seem to be in the landscape, but rather, to be standing in front of a back-projection, like an old-style movie star. There is often a strangely airless feel to Pre-Raphaelite paintings.

The marriage was in 1855. It was not quite downhill all the way from then Millais continued to produce good paintings for several more years - but the Ruskin portrait is certainly the last completely worthwhile exhibit in this show. The rest range from flawed to dull, then on down through mediocre, embarrassing and, frankly, dire. Millais was certainly not the only major artist in history to have gone off - many of them do, at one stage or another - but he is one of the more spectacular cases.

The arrangement of the later works in the exhibition is thematic, not chronological, which makes it difficult to spot whether he became steadily worse. But the categories are not bad in the same ways. The child-portraits are embarrassingly maudlin, the female ones, on the whole, tepid, timid and boring. The room devoted to Great Men contains the best of late Millais. Standing amid weltering clouds of brown Windsor soup though they are, Tennyson, Carlyle and Cardinal Newman are quite impressive (though nowhere near up to Watts or Sargent at their respective best). But even these Great Men are often painted with a strange crudity - the hard black line down Gladstone's back in the threequarter-length makes him look like a cardboard cut-out; Disraeli is no better.

So what went wrong? The standard explanation is that Effie was at the root of the problem. She and her numerous children required to be kept in a certain style - large houses in London, dinner-parties, dances, by and by a place in Scotland with excellent fishing attached. …

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