As much as I probably prefer Edmund Burne-Jones to the other Pre-Raphaelite artists, I also love the work of John Everett Millais (1829-1896) and there’s probably no doubt that was the best painter and, if I have to decide about this, his Ophelia is possibly the best painting – it is certainly the most famous. It is much reproduced in books but you really have to be there to appreciate the glorious colours and the emotional impact of all those minute details painted with the outstanding technique that marked him out as a great artist when he was still a child. I spent some time standing in front of it recently at the new Pre-Raphaelite exhibition at Tate Britain, “Pre-Raphaelites, Victorian Avant-Garde” and, as with all A-list paintings, it was always surrounded by adoring fans.
Millais was often at his most inspired when working on subjects drawn from Shakespeare and here, reproducing on canvas what the playwright painted in words, he makes us mourn the death of Ophelia all over again after her flower-decked suicide, or here, possibly, her martyrdom, in a small river after her rejection by Prince Hamlet. In true Pre-Raphaelite style, Millais marries extreme realism, painted from nature, with an emotional symbolism expressed in vivid, vibrant colours in the manner of those early Dutch religious paintings of saints. It is one of those rare images in art that we all remember after seeing it even only once.
“There is a willow grows aslant a brook,
That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream;
There with fantastic garlands did she come
Of crow-flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples
That liberal shepherds give a grosser name,
But our cold maids do dead men’s fingers call them:
There, on the pendent boughs her coronet weeds
Clambering to hang, an envious sliver broke;
When down her weedy trophies and herself
Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide;
And, mermaid-like, awhile they bore her up:
Which time she chanted snatches of old tunes;
As one incapable of her own distress,
Or like a creature native and indued
Unto that element: but long it could not be
Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,
Pull’d the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death.”
Hamlet Act IV Scene vii
Another Shakespearean heroine, Mariana in Measure For Measure is shown in her reaction to the pain of rejected love. She too has been rejected by her lover, Angelo, and Millais shows us that she is suffering from more than pain, her body is contorted, physically yearning for her man, desperate to see him again. Shakespeare describes the dismal house, or grange, where the unfortunate Mariana is pining for love:
“There, at the moated grange, resides this dejected Mariana”. Measure for Measure. Act III. Scene i. Millais is thinking of this quote used by Alfred Lord Tennyson in his poem on the same subject, Mariana (1830). He quoted part of the poem on the picture’s frame when it was first exhibited:
He cometh not,’ she said.
She said, ‘I am aweary, aweary,
I would that I were dead!’
We know, from Millais’ dramatised eroticism, once again heightened by his vivid use of colour and lighting, that when Mariana finally gets her man that neither of them will be disappointed – in spite of those saintly figures in the stained glass.
Millais found inspiration in Shakespeare’s The Tempest too. Prince Ferdinand has been washed ashore on a strangely magical island after the ship with the king, his father and the whole royal court, has been wrecked by a tempest. He wanders around the island believing that he is the sole survivor. The magician Prospero is manipulating all the characters in this drama so he sends the magical air spirit Ariel to lure him across the island where he will meet his future love, Prospero’s daughter, Miranda. Poor Ferdinand is confused, distressed and grief-ridden by Ariel’s macabre song that cruelly rubs in the terrible realities of death at sea. Millais creates a scene of true grotesquerie with a semi-visible chain of air spirits howling in ghostly harmony – insubstantial in livid green. The spirit world is rendered all the more ghostly in contrast to the obsessively detailed painting of the landscape and the bright and historically researched colours of poor Ferdinand’s costume.
Ferdinand:. Where should this music be? I’ the air or the earth?
It sounds no more; and, sure, it waits upon
Some god o’ the island. Sitting on a bank,
Weeping again the King my father’s wreck,
This music crept by me upon the waters,
Allaying both their fury and my passion
With its sweet air; thence I have follow’d it,
Or it hath drawn me rather. But ’tis gone.
No, it begins again.
Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell:
Ferdinand: The ditty does remember my drown’d father.
This is no mortal business, nor no sound
That the earth owes. I hear it now above me.
Isabella (1849) by John Everett Millais. Walker Art Gallery Liverpool.
It wasn’t just Shakespeare that attracted Millais poetic imagination, he went to Keats’ Isabella, or The Pot Of Basil for one of his first great paintings which was also one of the defining works in the newly established Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. The twenty year old artist condensed all the main ingredients of the story in this tightly packed composition.
Isabella loved Lorenzo, a humble employee in her family household. Lorenzo loves Isabella but Isabella’s brothers disapprove and plot to have him murdered. No prizes to work out who is who in this painting. Lorenzo, love-crazed in pink, offered the sickly pale Isabella half of his blood orange. Her loving dog nestles where Lorenzo would love to nestle whilst Isabella’s nastiest brother aims a brutal kick at the poor beast. The brothers are Judas Iscariots at Lorenzo’s Last Supper. The nastiest brother is cracking nuts suggestively and the nutcracker makes an even more suggestive shadow on the tablecloth. Recently art historians suspect was intended to illustrate his sexual agression. We have all sat around dinner tables where all was not as it seemed. On the window sill behind Isabella is a large pot suitable for the basil plant that she would soon use to hide the severed head of her lover. Keats’ poem is encapsulated in this illustration taken from the poems opening stanza:
FAIR Isabel, poor simple Isabel!
Lorenzo, a young palmer in Love’s eye!
They could not in the self-same mansion dwell
Without some stir of heart, some malady;
They could not sit at meals but feel how well
It soothed each to be the other by;
They could not, sure, beneath the same roof sleep
But to each other dream, and nightly weep.
Keats: Isabella, or The Pot of Basil (1818)
These paintings based on poetry and conceived poetically have earned a place amongst the very greatest of British paintings so it was sad that such a gifted artist should abandon his revolutionary fervour and use his talents later in life to make himself a fortune as London’s most fashionable painter of beautiful but conventional pictures and to find himself “elevated” like his friend Edward Burne-Jones to a baronetcy. When I was a student, we called those career moves, “selling out.” Whatever, what he did, he did but before that, the young Millais left us some of the most memorable works from the Pre-Raphaelite movement – true works of poetry.
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COLIN BELL’S PUBLICATIONS:
Stephen Dearsley’s Summer Of Love
Ward Wood Publishing
October 30, 2013
Genius Floored: Uncurtained Window
Soaring Penguin Press
June 15, 2013
Genius Floored: Whispers in Smoke
Soaring Penguin Press
June 6, 2014
Poetry and short story anthology
A Kind Of A Hurricane Press
The Blotter Magazine Inc.
Three pages of poetry in the American South’s unique, free, international literature and arts magazine.
The Fib Review
My Fibonacci poetry has appeared in this journal from 2009 until the present
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Muse Pie Press
My poetry has appeared in various issues of this short form poetry journal
Every Day Poets Magazine
Every Day Poets
I have various poems of the day published in this 365 days a year poetry magazine.
In The Night Count The Stars
March 1, 2014
An “uncommon anthology” of images, fragments, stories and poetry.