This picture depicts William Gladstone in the crimson robes of a Doctor of Civil Law, an honour which he and Millais were awarded by Oxford University in 1848 and 1880 respectively.
Infamously difficult to paint (both William Blake Richmond and George Frederic Watts had failed to produce works of suitable likeness), Gladstone first sat for Millais in 1878, when he was leading the Liberal opposition against Disraeli. The sittings for Millais' second portrait were held between July 1884 and February 1885, whilst Gladstone was still Prime Minister. Once finished, the work was exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1885, where it was purchased by Lord Rosebery, much to the chagrin of Christ Church College, who wished to acquire a portrait of their alumnus. Upon hearing that Millais was proposing to produce a replica, Gladstone, having promised to never sit for a portrait again, decided that he would pose one final time for his college. This he did in June and July of the same year, after having been outvoted on the budget bill and forced to resign as Prime Minister.
Four portraits in all of Gladstone were produced by Millais, of which the present lot is after the third. The other three are to be found in the National Gallery, London, Eton College, and the National Portrait Gallery, London.