From around 1852 Millais’s art struck out in a new direction, entering its mature Pre-Raphaelite phase. Medievalism and willful distortions of form gave way to a wider range of subjects which were more open-ended in meaning and invited an emotional response from the viewer. During the 1850s he developed a new type of historical anecdotal painting that focused on ordinary people trapped in situations of conflict, as well as scenes from contemporary life. While Millais continued to aim at precision, he began to experiment with looser brushwork, varying the degree of finish within a picture.
Given the broad appeal of Millais’s art, his style was still viewed as defiantly eccentric. His figure types were often criticised for being plain and even ugly and his narratives hard to decipher. It was at this time that Millais found it difficult to sell his work despite its powerful sensory appeal.
I thought, some time ago, that this painter was likely to be headed by others of the [Pre-Raphaelite] school; but Titian himself could hardly head him now. This picture is as brilliant in invention as consummate in executive power… I see no limit to what the painter may hope in future to achieve. I am not sure whether he may not be destined to surpass all that has yet been done in figure-painting, as Turner did all past landscape.
John Ruskin, Academy Notes, 1856 Referring to John Everett Millais Peace Concluded, 1856 1856
Millais in Scotland
In June 1853, after exhibiting The Order of Release, 1746, Millais travelled to Scotland with his brother William Henry and John and Effie Ruskin. The group settled in Brig o’Turk in the Trossachs and remained in the region until October. Millais’s famous portrait of Ruskin was painted in this location.
On this first of many visits to Scotland, Millais found release from family obligations, critical approbation, urban squalor. He was able to pursue his love of sport, and he also fell in love, with Ruskin’s wife Effie. One of the great scandals of the age, Millais and Effie would endure two years of agony before they could marry, after Ruskin brought shame to himself and his family as his marriage was annulled on the grounds of non-consummation.
Designs for Illustration
Millais’s long career as an illustrator ran from 1852 to 1883 during which time he produced over three hundred designs for reproduction. He made illustrations for single volumes such as the Moxon Tennyson of 1857, and for periodical publications like Once a Week. He also made his mark as an illustrator of novels, particularly those of Anthony Trollope with whom he developed a close working relationship. Millais’s designs for Trollope’s Orley Farm are ranked among his most distinguished contributions in this field.
Millais’s illustrations were made to be used as facsimile reproductions. Once a design was completed it was submitted to a firm of wood engravers such as the Dalziel Brothers or Joseph Swain to be engraved. Millais had an intuitive feel for what the medium could achieve in portraying character and drama and understood what was required of his engravers to achieve a good result. The inclusion of a number of corrected proofs in this section reveals his extraordinary attention to each line scratched into the surface of the wood.