"Speak! Speak!" was painted at Millais's Scottish home near Bowerswell and the interior setting for the painting was modelled on the turret room of the castle at Murthly in Perthshire, the estate that Millais rented from 1881 for shooting and fishing and where he spent much of his time during the later years of his career. The four poster bed which occupies a large portion of the canvas was copied from a bed bought in Perth expressly for this purpose. The lamp was likewise painted from a specially-made copy of a lamp that Millais had seen and made a sketch of in the Victoria and Albert Museum. Such details are evidence of Millais's observance of the principle of truth to nature that he had practised throughout his earlier Pre-Raphaelite phase of the 1840s and 1850s.
The meaning of the painting was felt generally to be obscure and the story as related by Millais's son J.G. Millais, locates the scene in Ancient Rome: 'It is that of a young Roman who has been reading through the night the letters of his lost love; and at dawn, behold, the curtains of his bed are parted, and there before him stands, in spirit or in truth, the lady herself, decked as on her bridal night, and gazing upon him with sad but loving eyes' (Millais, II, p.304). The critic of the Art Journal described "Speak! Speak!" as 'a powerful canvas, broadly handled and eloquently telling its tale' (Art Journal, 1895, pp.164-6). In fact, the identity of the female figure at the foot of the bed caused some consternation, an effect which Millais had fully intended, as Millais's biographer M.H. Spielmann recorded: 'When I remarked that I could not tell whether the luminous apparition was a spirit or a woman he was pleased: "That's just what I want", he said; "I don't know either, nor", he added, pointing to the picture, "does he" ' (quoted in Flint, p.261).
Millais viewed "Speak! Speak!" as one of his most serious and profound works, although it was not widely regarded as an example of the artist at his best. Following its exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1895, "Speak! Speak!" was bought for the nation under the terms of the Chantrey Bequest for £2,000, an enormous sum in 1895 which marked the high esteem of Millais's professional reputation at this date. Millais was to become President of the Royal Academy in the following year.
J.G. Millais, The Life and Letters of Sir John Everett Millais, II, London 1899.
Kate Flint, The Victorians and The Visual Imagination, Cambridge 2000, p.37 and pp.259-61, reproduced p.261.