Bonnie Prince Charlie (1720-1788) was defeated by the English at Culloden on 16 April 1746 and many of his supporters were imprisoned. The subject of this picture is the release of one of these Jacobite rebels from prison. Millais appears to have invented the incident, but may also have been inspired by the novels of Sir Walter Scott, which provided a wealth material for artists and illustrators in the second half of the 19th Century. The rebel's wife, supporting their small child and comforting her exhausted, wounded husband, hands an order of release to the gaoler. The expression on her face is inscrutable. She appears strangely detached from the action, and the suggestion is that she may have been forced to sacrifice her virtue in order to save her husband. The picture's original title was The Ransom and early sketches reveal that Millais originally showed a purse of money being handed over. However, in the finished work he substitutes the order of release which gives the painting its current title. The signature on the document is clearly visible as that of Sir Hilgrove Turner, who encouraged Millais's artistic talent from an early age.
Following the Pre-Raphaelite credo of truth to nature, Millais painted the picture in intricate detail and went to great pains to make the scene authentic. For the tartans he consulted Robert McIan's Highland Clans. The Jacobite wears the Gordon tartan and the little girl the Drummond, presumably the mother's clan. The only indication of a setting is provided by the prison door. The faded primroses which have fallen from the child's hands indicate the time of year, and also symbolise her youth. Millais used a professional model called Westall for the father and his future wife, Effie Ruskin (with her hair darkened) for the woman. He had tremendous problems with the child, who, according to Millais, 'seemed so obstinate that she would not do anything I wanted, and when forced, by Westall's superior strength, squalled and foamed at the mouth'(quoted in Parris, p.108).
Millais sold the picture to the lawyer Joseph Arden for £400. When it was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1853 it proved so popular that a policeman had to be installed in front of the picture to move the spectators on. The Illustrated London News reported that Millais had attracted 'a larger crowd of admirers in his little corner than all the Academicians put together' (7 May 1853).
Leslie Parris (ed.), The Pre-Raphaelites, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1984; reprinted 1994, pp.108-10, reproduced p.109, in colour.
Elizabeth Prettejohn, The Art of the Pre-Raphaelites, London 2000, p.238, reproduced p.238, in colour.
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