This portrait was bequeathed to the Tate Gallery in 1904 by the sitter, Sir Henry Thompson (1820–1904), a surgeon whose speciality was the removal of bladder stones. Napoleon III, Emperor of France (1808–1873), was among his patients. In addition to his career as a surgeon, Thompson dabbled in a variety of other professions, including astronomy, writing (he was the author of two novels) and painting. He studied painting under the tutelage of Lawrence Alma Tadema (1836–1912) and Alfred Elmore (1815–1881) and between 1865 and 1885 showed a number of his pictures at the Royal Academy. Thompson’s portrait was among the commissions for portraits of major public figures which Millais began to take regularly from about 1871. Other sitters included the poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809–1892) and the British Prime Ministers, Benjamin Disraeli (1804–1881) and William Ewart Gladstone (1809–1898).
On its exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1882, Millais’s portrait was declared to be ‘an absolute likeness, of our famous surgeon’ (Art Journal, 1882, p.179). It was perhaps a testimony to the fame of his sitters that Millais declined from adding many background props or ornamental accessories to indicate status and profession. Rather, he located his subjects in shallow space set against an uneven tonal ground which enlivened skin tone and drew emphasis onto the face. The severe black coat of Sir Henry Thompson is relieved only by a glinting, silver-rimmed speculum which hangs from his pocket, an allusion perhaps to the surgeon’s keen eye. Millais’s portraits of eminent public figures were often compared with those by his contemporary G.F. Watts (1817–1904), who since the 1850s had been adding to his ‘Hall of Fame’ project to record for posterity the likenesses of the great celebrities of the age. Whereas Watts’s portraits were noted for their atmospheric rendering of the emotional and intellectual personality of the sitter, Millais, it was declared by the critic Claude Phillips, ‘gives us the whole man with mind and body in perfect balance, with breath in his nostrils as well as speculation in his eyes’ (quoted in Funnell and Warner, p.27). Millais’s working methods as portraitist were notoriously energetic and were noted by several of his sitters. Sir Henry Thompson reckoned that the artist must have walked at least a mile in the course of each sitting.
Peter Funnell, Malcolm Warner, Millais: Portraits, exhibition catalogue, National Portrait Gallery, London 1999, pp.171–2, no.43, reproduced p.172.
J.G. Millais, The Life and Letters of Sir John Everett Millais, vol.2, London 1899, pp.143–7.
Sir Vincent Zachary Cope, The Versatile Victorian: Being The Life of Sir Henry Thompson, Bt., London 1951, p.103.