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Around 1870 Millais developed a manner of working that was particular to him and which endured until the end of his career. Although his subject pictures continued to focus on the predicaments of ordinary individuals in historical circumstances, they can also be seen as a reaction against his earlier work in terms of their size and robustness of execution. As well as expressing the persona of the artist, gestural brushwork also communicated his identification with an Old Master tradition in painting epitomised by Titian, Velázquez and Rembrandt.

The synthesis between past and present Millais aimed for was undertaken with the aim of embracing a wide audience, not only connoisseurs sensitive to issues of style and influence, but also non-specialists eager for drama, characterisation and narrative. Millais’s great achievement with his late subject pictures was in involving the viewer in the interpretation of his subjects. This approach not only allowed him to offer complex readings of historical and religious subjects, but also encouraged the production of ‘problem’ pictures like ‘Speak! Speak!’ which have no basis in a specific history or text.