Room 5: Fancy Pictures

John Everett Millais The Little Speedwell’s Darling Bluen 1891-2

John Everett Millais
The Little Speedwell’s Darling Blue 1891-2
Oil on canvas 

Lent by National Museums Liverpool, Lady Lever Art Gallery

The ‘fancy picture’ first came into existence during the eighteenth century and can be described as genre painting where the sentiment takes precedence over evolved narrative. It was as a father that Millais first began to experiment with the category, as the eight children he and Effie produced between 1856 and 1868 were pressed into service as sitters. Millais developed the fancy picture into a more lucrative kind of painting as he evolved a more painterly style in emulation of past masters who specialised in the genre like Reynolds and Gainsborough. Parody became a means of acknowledging lineage with the past as Millais began to quote from these painters who themselves borrowed from older masters such as Van Dyck.

In taking on a genre widely perceived to have degenerated into something rather trite and whimsical, Millais sought to elevate it by imbuing his child subjects with a sense of mortality. Emblems suggesting the fragility of existence such as flowers, birds and bubbles were common in these works, and models were often posed as philosophers lost in thought or contemplating the beauty and transience of the natural world.

Miss Edie Ramage was the belle of the fancy dress ball given by the Graphic in the year the work was produced. She impersonated Sir Joshua Reynolds’ Penelope Boothby, and was thought to be so charming that she was again dressed in the character and carried off to the artist’s studio. He was so delighted with his little model that it was agreed on the spot that he should paint a portrait of the child, and that the price should be a thousand guineas… So popular was the picture, it is said, that of the coloured reproduction which appeared in the Graphic in 1880 600,000 copies were sold, and that had the unsatisfied orders been met the issue would have reached a million; indeed, the publisher had to return several thousand pounds in cash and sustain actions at law for damages of non-delivery.

M.H. Spielmann, Millais and His Works, 1898 Referring to John Everett Millais Cherry Ripe 1879