y first recollection of Millais was at a party at my father's house, when he and Holman Hunt were the centres of attraction. It must have been very early in the fifties, not later certainly than 1853, when I was eleven years old. As if it were yesterday I recollect the strong impression made upon my childish mind, which had, I suppose, already keen perception of beauty, by the curly-headed young man. whose work I had already heard discussed; and I recollect trying to get near to him, and then, as I ever did afterwards, admiring him with a kind of hero worship, which was more common five-and-forty years ago than it is now.
At my father's house much discussion took place about the Pre-Raphaelite movement, in which he took a very lively interest, and was ever upon the side of that group of artists who did so much to remove the English school of painting from the commonplace. He often used to tell us, when we were children, various comments upon the Pre-Raphaelite movement which he heard in Society; and I remember one occasion (where the discussion took place I do not know, but it was evidently animated, and there were two opposing sides) he was appealed to as a kind of centre as to the merit of the then young Millais. As far as I can recollect his verdict, it was this: "Millais is already famous; you are adding to his fame by your discussion as to the existence or non-existence of his merits. You are only adding to a reputation already discovered by any praise or blame."
I remember the keen admiration with which I and my friends regarded everything that came from Millais' brush, and the almost worship with which we regarded his pictures. Fred Walker, Albert Moore, Simeon Solomon, Henry Halliday and I fed our young minds upon such pictures as "The Return of the Dove to the Ark," of which I remember my father saying, "It is the most poetic picture exhibited in the Academy in my recollection," and indeed the centres of interest at the Royal Academy Exhibition year by year were the places where Millais' pictures hung. There were ardent discussions among us when Leighton appeared upon the scene, as to the relative merit of the work of the two brilliant young men. My friends were perhaps more faithful than I was to the Pre-Raphaelite. With, I suppose, a natural leaning towards eclectic Art and a sense of style, which Leighton's work presented, I found something congenial to my own taste that I missed in the more romantic spirit. As time went on, I think that we all were able to differentiate qualities which exist in the works of two of the most interesting painters of this century, and we learned not to compare them, but to admire them both.
Millais was kindness itself to me as a boy. When I was a lad of sixteen I remember his coming to see me in my father's house to criticise the picture that I was then painting of "Enid and Geraint," and his taking the trouble to draw for me, in a book which I now have, a head of Geraint, which he advised me to substitute for the one which I had already painted, which was a portrait of Carlo Perugini, who became afterwards one of Millais closest friends; and I remember thinking that Millais' criticism was slightly paradoxical in that he wished me to introduce into a picture an ideal system when I knew that all the heads in his earlier work had been uncompromising portraiture. But that mixture, or infusion, of the real and the ideal became later on a strong feature in Millais' work. His sense of character and his appreciation of personality had always about it a wonderful evidence of a selective power. He saw the beauty that lay under character, and in that respect he was like a Greek. I apprehend that no member of the English school has ever had a finer feeling for form than was his, but his selection of it was never conscious. Under his discriminating eye the beauty of even common forms was evident. He touched nothing that he did not ennoble by an artistic perception entirely innate, never reasoned. That is why, I suppose, his Art has moved the world, because at its. best, as well as at its worst, it was always spontaneous.
I have never known a better critic than he was, for two reasons. In the first place, he was entirely sympathetic; in the second, his marvellous accuracy of eye enabled him to drop upon a fault of proportion or incongruous design in a manner which in anybody else would have been called commonplace. United with a highly poetic instinct and a romantic spirit that I have often compared to that of Keats, Millais had an abundance of common-sense and a love of accuracy which might have injured his poetical faculty if that had not been in the first place pre-eminent. His great success naturally made him impatient of criticism. A remarkable instance of that impatience I can give you.
I met him not many years ago in Hyde Park looking as dejected as I felt. He sympathised with me upon the subject of the reception of a picture of mine, of which he spoke in kindly terms. He was suffering under the same smart, and with indignation he turned round to me, and bitterly said, "Why do we cast our pearls before swine? The best we give to the English public they abuse; the vulgarest they accept and applaud." This, of course, was a mood, because Millais had a high regard for public opinion, and he believed, as many of us do not believe, that public opinion in the matter of Art is right. In earlier years, as far as I remember his opinions to have been, he did not very highly estimate the old masters, excepting, perhaps, Holbein; but as years went on his admiration for Titian and Vandyck grew to be almost adulation. Perhaps, as compared to Leighton's and some others, his artistic sympathies were somewhat narrow. I do not think that design, qua design, which, had not in it some human interest, had much to say to him, and I imagine, or rather I gathered from his conversation, that his admiration for Greek Art was more cultivated than spontaneous. While he was a poet he was also a novelist; people interested him more than things. Even in his landscapes I think I can always detect a kind of human sentiment pervading them, a mood of Nature akin to a human mood which had prompted the initiation of his vision. He was a great story-teller; his Art is extremely dramatic; he arrived at the roots of the sentiment that was prompting the actors of his drama with whom he became, as a great novelist does, intimately acquainted. Millais' literary sympathies were with Scott, Thackeray, and Dickens, and lastly Louis Stevenson. He loved anecdote and story as well as the literary embodiment of character; but I question if philosophical problem had much place in a mind that was essentially modern. It was in no sense retrospective intellect; it cared for the things that moved around it, and lived in the life of its own time. His illustrations to the poets could have been painted in no other century but this, and could have been done only by Millais. Keats's poem, "St. Agnes' Eve," he made his own. The picture is not an illustration of Keats's poem; it is an interpretation of Millais', conceived entirely in the spirit of the nineteenth century. It has none of the mediaeval qualities. What seems to have attracted him in the poem has been the moonlight, and that with an unrivalled painter's gift he presented to the world, as I venture to think no painter ever presented it before. He is therefore, in this instance, not so much an illustrator as an originator; and I think this criticism might be said to be true to his Art throughout. Precedent had no charm for him ; his vision was a painter's vision entirely his own. He never saw through the spectacles of others, and when he painted a souvenir of Velasquez it was Millais that was evident, not Velasquez; and when he reminded us of Gainsborough it was more upon account of the oval shape of the frames than of the artistic handling. I do not think that England has ever produced an artist more entirely individual, and one who has been, upon the whole, truer to his native instincts; and my firm belief is that as long as the memory of English Art exists the name of Millais will go down to posterity as among her truest and most individual exponents. [added by GPL]
Millais, John Guile. The Life and Letters of John Everett Millais, President of the Royal Academy. 2 vols. New York: Frederick A. Stokes, 1899. Pp. 439-45.
Last modified 19 September 2004