Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Hungerford Arcade Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood

We are very lucky at Hungerford Arcade to have such a good friend and writer as our brilliant Stuart Miller-Osborne. Stuart has written this remarkable story which I am sure will have you riveted as it did me. Sit down with a nice cup of tea and enjoy.


Quite often when you stroll around the Arcade here in Hungerford or, if you are elsewhere, you will find a book about the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood which was essentially a collection of English painters and poets and critics which was founded in 1848. 

If you are lucky, you might find a framed print of their work. 

The brotherhood initially consisted of William Holman Hunt (1827-1910), John Everett Millais (1829-1896) and Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882).

Its aim was to reject the approach adopted by the Mannerist artists.They considered the classical poses and compositions especially from Raphael to have been a corrupting influence on the teaching of the day.

Hence the title of the group. 

They drew up a doctrine in the early days which read as follows. 

1/ to have genuine ideas to express

2/ to study nature attentively, so as to know how to express them (nature)

3/ to sympathise with what is direct and serious and heartfelt in previous art, to the exclusion of what is conventional and self-parodying and learned by rote

4/ most indispensable of all, to produce thoroughly good picture and statues

In short, it was a freedom of expression with the members being able to express themselves without borders and by doing so, getting the work to breathe and be approachable.

If one looks at works by members (or later members) of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood then, I personally think that their ideas are still attractive. 

Although one must have something of knowledge of their work, I feel that these paintings still speak to us today as much as they did some one hundred and fifty years ago.

But what of the models. Do we ever consider the models who posed for these famous works? 

There are the famous ones such as Lizzie Siddal (1829-1862) who is forever connected with Rossetti.

But who was the girl in the centre of the Millais painting, Autumn Leaves (1856), it certainly was not the tragic Lizzie?

I first saw this painting in Manchester many years ago and was struck by the two figures to the left of the painting. Although unable to help, the gallery assistant did point me in the direction of a book which revealed that the models were in fact the sisters Alice and Sophie Gray.

I made a mental note of this and really forgot about the sisters for many years until I saw a copy of a painting completed a year later by Millais called simply, Portrait of a Girl.

The artist had used the same model as he had in Autumn Leaves and after further research, I found this was indeed Sophie Gray (1843-1882) whose life was equally as tragic as that of Lizzie Siddel.

What struck me about the portrait was the sensuality and erotic charge that this simple painting gave to the viewer.

I initially thought that the artist might have been the lover of the sitter, but there is no evidence to suggest that Millais and Sophie were ever physically involved and also, she was only fourteen when it was painted.

But this is where my researches became interesting, as did not John Everett Millais run off with a certain Effie Gray (1828-1897), the wife of the famed art critic John Ruskin (1819-1900) and was Sophie indeed related to Effie and how long had she known the artist?

My research was easy, Effie was indeed Sophie’s sister, although some fifteen years her senior. Sophie had first met Millais in 1853 and he had completed a rather nice oval watercolour of her in 1854. 

Indeed, both she and Effie and her sister Alice sat for the artist. 

Millais was taken by Sophie’s prettiness and wrote to Sophie’s mother of this 

“…What a delightful little shrewd damsel Sophia is…I do not praise her to please you, but I think her extremely beautiful, and that she will even improve, as yet she does not seem to have the slightest idea of it herself which makes her prettier—I am afraid that ignorance cannot last long…”  

Indeed, when he painted Sophie in 1857, she was as I have noted, only fourteen but the charge of the painting hints at a much older model. The sitter of this unusual work looks as she has attained early adulthood.

Sophie occupies a large part of the canvas and is lit in a delicate fashion from the left which highlights her golden brown hair and hints at its auburn highlights. Her clothes are not memorable and are simply decorated with an embroidered heart containing three flowers within. 

I have often thought that this simple embroidery contained a secret message and to some extent, my enquiries continue. I believe that the artist left a quiet message in the decoration.

Maybe it is a declaration of his attraction or love for the sitter or, it might be my own fancy and it is a simple decoration and like others I am reading too much into it.
Sophie’s long hair frames the portrait and mingles with the dark background. There is a sniff of lace at her throat and her pale face contrasts with the darker colours used. 

She stares at the viewer with her cold blue eyes which are expressionless to the extreme. There is no clue as to what she was thinking or maybe she is challenging the viewer to probe her thoughts (or, this might have been Millais and Sophie’s jest who knows)?

Her lips and rosy cheeks again contrast the darkness and the light of the painting. Her lips are ruby red and are pursed in defiance and her rosy cheeks hint at fluster. These are all enigmatic clues which suggest things unseen.

Sophie’s chin is defiantly but subtly tilted, hinting at self-confidence (which might again be a jest). 

It is obvious that there was a connection between Millais and Sophie as the artist has produced a very haunting portrait which celebrates the beauty of the sitter and the fondness that he had for her.

One has only to look at his paintings of the other Gray sister's. These are excellent works in their own right but they are just portraits. There is no connection between the sitter and the artist and certainly no erotic charge. 

It is well known that Millais ran off with Effie Gray and many stories were created at the time especially the one about Ruskin’s horror at the sight of his wife’s pubic hair.

It was really a case of two people in a marriage not hitting it off and drifting apart. 

Victorian society was easily shocked at abandonment especially if the wife eloped with her lover, so stories were made up to cover some of Ruskin’s peculiarities.

Effie was the scarlet woman who had run off with an artist, although Millais was quite a respectable one. 

On researching this, I found out that Sophie actually helped her sister to elope by train (Effie travelled to Scotland whereas Sophie alighted at Hitchin where she met her father as they were to deliver a package on to their solicitors who would forward it on to Ruskin noting his wife’s actions).

This package included her wedding ring and the keys to the house.

Indeed Ruskin came across as being a rather nice fellow who I believe, understood in time why Effie ran off with Millais.

Others may disagree with my thoughts, but there are always two or three ways to look at everything. 

I personally think that if Millais had not met Effie, then he would have married Sophie and the story that I am about to tell might not have had such a tragic ending.

Sophie sadly had always been highly strung and was further damaged when she acted as a go-between between Ruskin and Effie. 

She was also indulged by Ruskin’s domineering mother in an attempt to turn her against her sister. But being loyal she kept her sister informed of everything that was said. 

Sophie began to exhibit major mental health problems in her mid-twenties and was, in 1868 sent away from her home to stay in Chiswick under the care of a certain Doctor Thomas Tuke who specialised in mental health.

Sadly, conditions such as Sophie’s were often diagnosed as hysteria which was thought to be quite common in young women.

What is known, is that Sophie suffered from Anorexia Nervosa which contributed to her overall condition.
In 1873 she married (unhappily it turned out), to a Scottish Jute manufacturer James Key Caird.

He was wealthy but neglected Sophie when she needed him most. They had a child Beatrix Ada (who was later painted by Rossetti) and she lived mostly alone with her daughter in Dundee and Paris.

As with patient’s suffering from this condition, she lost weight rapidly and her health deteriorated and she was again committed to the care of Doctor Tuke, but she never really recovered and passed away on the 15th of March 1882.

Her cause of death was recorded mysteriously as exhaustion and atrophy of the nervous system.

There were rumours of suicide but these were never really followed up.

I would like to think that given the right circumstances, Sophie might have been able to conquer or at least live with her demons and a late portrait by Millais painted in 1880, shows a much different Sophie.

She has aged and looks older than her thirty-seven years. Her once luxurious hair is showing evidence of greyness and is tightly wound. 

Sophie’s posture is nervous almost insular and she bends her fingers with nervous impression. She is dressed modestly and could almost be a spinster hidden away in the shadows. 

Her colours are sombre and Millais has almost created a ghost like figure in complete contrast with the sensuous portrait painted some twenty-three years previously.

It is one of the most tragic of his works and in my view, should be hung next to the 1857 portrait but this unlikely to happen.

Other interesting facts I found whilst researching this article was that sadly, Sophie’s daughter died in 1888 at exactly the same age as her mother had been when she sat for the famous portrait. .

Her husband, although neglectful of Sophie, helped to fund Ernest Shackleton’s Trans-Antarctic expedition (1914-1917) and was a major benefactor to the city of Dundee.

Although he has been painted as being neglectful of Sophie, the death of his wife and his daughter within six years of each other seemed to have hit James Caird hard and he became increasingly philanthropic in his later years (he died in 1916).

He contributed £18,500 to the Dundee Royal Infirmary so that they could erect a hospital for the treatment of cancer. This was one of his many generous gifts to the city.

I believe that James was just a typical Victorian businessman but in Sophie’s case, his neglect was not helpful. Maybe he did not fully understand Sophie’s condition and the dangers it presented.

If I had the funds available (and if the present owners would sell), I would purchase Sophie’s 1857 portrait and loan it to a gallery so that visitors could examine this astonishing work and maybe try to discover some of its secrets.

It is one of the most enigmatic of paintings. 

Stuart Miller-Osborne             

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