Audio transcript

According to the Pre-Raphaelite belief in ‘truth to nature’ Millais based the setting for this scene from the childhood of Christ on a real carpenter’s shop in Oxford Street.

It combines this minutely observed realism with an elaborate symbolism to tell the story, and it’s a picture that has long intrigued writer, Alan Bennett:

‘Millais’s Christ in the House of his Parents shows an imaginary moment in the childhood of Christ when Jesus, visiting his father Joseph’s carpenter’s shop, snags his finger on a nail and the blood from his hand drips onto his feet, thus prefiguring the wounds he would receive at the crucifixion. Jesus’ childhood and youth must often have skidded to a halt for such rather cinematic moments, and thirty years later Holman Hunt nicked the idea for his painting, The Shadow of Death, in which Jesus, now a young man and actually working in the shop, stretches after a hard day at the bench, and in doing so casts the shadow of the crucifixion on the wall. And in both paintings, it’s Mary who gets the message and is appalled. There’s something of Hollywood about both moments, though, which would have appealed to Cecil B. De Mille. When the painting was first showed in 1850, it was greatly disliked, particularly by Dickens, who took exception to what he saw as the overly realistic presentation of Joseph, and in particular, his varicose veins. Whereas actually, it’s a relief to have Joseph presented as a serious craftsman. In so many early pictures, anyway, he’s just a buffoon. With more justification, Dickens also disliked Jesus, who does look rather wet and over angelic, although since Dickens was not above including figures of such unlikely delicacy in his novels, he ought to have kept his mouth shut. The figure that always fascinated me was the boy on the right bringing the bowl of water. I didn’t know when I first saw the picture that he was meant to be, or to prefigure, John the Baptist, who would in due course baptise Jesus. His job was obviously just to sweep up the shavings, and do the errands and the menial tasks. He enlisted my sympathy because he contrasts so sharply with the pampered boy Jesus, who certainly doesn’t look as if he could handle a brush, let alone a chisel. This rang bells in my own life; my father was a butcher, and I was never allowed to work in the shop either, but there was always what was called ‘The Lad’ – a boy who, like the one in the picture, ran the errands and did the sweeping up. He worked, I didn’t. So I feel John the Baptist slightly resenting Jesus, as The Lad probably resented me. But as with so many Pre-Raphaelite paintings, I feel it’s slightly sinister – full of a doom that has nothing to do with the painting’s actual subject.’