John Everett Millais (1829-1896)
Dew-Drenched Furze, 1889-90
Oil on canvas
173 x 1230 x 27 mm
Presented by Geoffroy Millais in memory of his late father, Sir Ralph Millais Bt 2009
Dew-Drenched Furze is widely regarded as one of the great achievements of Millais’s later art, and is also uncharacteristically abstract for the artist. It was painted on site in Perthshire in a wood on the Murthly estate near Birnam Hall which the Millais family had rented for recreational purposes from 1881. According to the artist’s son and biographer, Millais’s objective was to capture the morning sun streaming through a clearing of gorse illuminated by droplets of dew, a subject ‘probably never painted before’, and one that as he begun he feared ‘might be unpaintable.’ (Millais p.213.)
The vaporous atmosphere conveyed by pigment laid on with a dry brush recalls Constable’s ‘snow’ effects, while the obliteration of form by the rising sun suggests the Turnerian sublime. Although the different elements of the picture evoke Romantic landscape painting, the artist’s treatment of his subject also opens up a new symbolist perspective on nature. Despite traditional framing elements, the central vista does not lead the eye to a central point, but rather allows it to wander through a gap in the densely worked surface. The cool grey-green tones of the foreground give way to a warm glowing light in the centre that suggests an unknown space in the distance. Millais’s use of paint to suggest a veil hiding the mystery of nature is enhanced by the allusion to Tennyson’s poem In Memoriam A.H.H. of 1850 in the title:
‘Calm and deep peace on this high wold,
And on the dews that drench the furze,
And all the silvery gossamers
That twinkle into green and gold...’
(In Memoriam, stanza XI)
Dew-Drenched Furze was first exhibited at the New Gallery in London, which by 1890 had taken over from the Grosvenor Gallery as the main venue for showing advanced art in Britain. The painting originally included a cock pheasant in the right foreground to add a feeling of repose to the scene. This was painted by Millais’s son, the ornithological artist J.G. Millais, and was posthumously removed leaving just the nesting hen, thereby making the image bolder in its representation of nature consumed in light.
A photograph of the artist standing by the artificial pool in the American Garden on the Murthly estate, close to the site where Millais painted Dew-Drenched Furze, is in the Tate archive. This was probably taken by Millais’s son Geoffroy. On the verso is a sketch for Speak! Speak! of 1894-95 (N01584). The annotations by the artist on the card on which the photograph is mounted are religious quotations concerning the raising of the dead, and testify to the artist’s interest in spirituality in the final years of his life.
J.G. Millais, The Life and Letters of Sir John Everett Millais, London 1899, vol 2, p.213.
Paul Barlow, Time Present and Time Past: The Art of John Everett Millais, Aldershot 2005.
Jason Rosenfeld and Alison Smith, Millais, exhibition catalogue, Tate, London 2007, p.238.