JG Millais (the seventh child of John Everett Millais) wrote The Life and Letters of John Everett Millais in 1899. The two volumes contain letters and diary extracts written by his father that tell us a lot about his working practice and lifestyle. The following quotes are taken from volume I, 1899, and show what it was like for Millais to paint Ophelia.
In a letter on October 15th 1851, Millais describes a little of what life was like on the farm and the problem of the weather:
Two of the children belonging to the house have come in and will not be turned out. I play with them till dinner and resume work afterwards. The weather to-day has prevented my painting out of doors, so I comfortably painted from some flowers in the dining-room. Hunt walked to his spot, but returned disconsolate and wet-through. Collins worked in his shed and looked most miserable; he is at the moment cleaning his palette. Hunt is smoking a vulgar pipe
Millais started to keep a diary in October. On the 17th he wrote, ‘At five gave up painting. Bitter cold. Children screaming again’ (p.126).
October 18th.-Fine sunny morning. Ate grapes. Little Fanny worked at a doll’s calico petticoat on a chair beside me. Driven in by the drizzling weather, I work in the parlour; Fanny, my companion, rather troublesome. Coaxed her out. Roars of laughter outside the window - F. flattening her nose against the pane.
(October 18th, p.126).
It is not easy being an artist. Regularly Millais would write in his dairy that he was feeling uninspired or low spirited. Even when he received a letter from a Mr James Michael, who predicted that Millais shall be the ‘greatest painter England ever produced’, he wrote ‘felt languid all day.’ (October 20th, p.126).
October 24th. - Another day, exactly similar to the previous. Felt disinclined to work. Walked with Hunt to his place, returned home about eleven, and commenced work myself, but did very little. Read Tennyson and Patmore. The spot very damp.feeling very depressed.
(October 24th, p.128).
November 4th. - Frightfully cold morning; snowing. Determined to build up some kind of protection against the weather wherein to paint. After breakfast superintended in person the construction of my hut-made of four hurdles, like a sentry-box, covered outside with straw. Felt a ‘Robinson Crusoe’ inside it and delightfully sheltered from the wind, though rather inconvenienced at first by the straw, dust, and husks flying about my picture. Landlady came down to see me and brought some hot wine”
On November 7th Hunt constructed a similar straw hut to work in.
On the November 17th, Millais wrote in a letter to his friend and patron Mr Combe, ‘The cold has become so intense that we fear it is impossible to further paint in the open air. We have had little straw huts built, which protect us somewhat from the wind, and therein till to-day have courageously braved the weather’ (p.132).
In his diary on December 5th, ‘Requested landlady to send in bill, intending to leave tomorrow. Had much consultation about the amount necessary for her, in consideration of the many friends entertained by us’ (p.143).
Millais did not work on just one painting at a time. After finishing the background to Ophelia and before returning to London to paint the figure, Millais also painted the background of A Huguenot, on St Bartholomew’s day, Refusing to Shield Himself from Danger by Wearing the Roman Catholic Badge, 1851-2 (see above). Hunt also worked on another painting whilst in Ewell called The Light of The World, 1851-3 (owned by Warden and Fellows of Keble College, Oxford).