Sophie Gray (1843?-1882) was the sister-in-law of Sir John Everett Millais (1829-1896) who, along with William Holman Hunt and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, was one of the three principal founding members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Arguably the most successful of the late-Victorian society portraitists, Millais became the first painter to be made a baronet in 1885; he was elected President of the Royal Academy in 1896 after the death of Lord Leighton and shortly before his own demise. In 1855, in what was to become one of the most notorious scandals of the Victorian era, Millais married Effie Gray, Sophie's older sister, after her famously unconsummated marriage to the celebrated art critic John Ruskin had been annulled.
While still a child, Sophie found herself at the center of the drama unfolding around her. In the messy manoeuvring that immediately preceded the dissolution of the Ruskins' unhappy marriage, Sophie unwittingly acted as a conduit for the many barbs of spite exchanged between Ruskin's parents' household at Denmark Hill and her sister; she also facilitated communication between the frustrated lovers Effie and Millais. The effect of all this on one so clever and impressionable was of tremendous concern to Effie Ruskin, who told her mother she did not think 'such goings on at all fit for so young a girl,' and expressed her fear that Sophie would learn 'both to exaggerate a little and to act a part.' Whatever the damage done by her enforced role in the lead-up to the Ruskins' divorce it seems certain that Sophie became hopelessly trapped between two overlapping stories of love - for it is generally acknowledged that John Everett Millais conceived a passion for both Effie and Sophie herself.
From the first, Millais appears to have been entranced by the beauty of his future wife's sister. At the conclusion of several sittings with the ten-year-old Sophie in early 1854, the product of which was a sensitive watercolour drawing in oval form, Millais wrote to Mrs. George Gray (Sophie's mother):
'What a delightful little shrewd damsel Sophia is... I do not praise her to please you, but I think her extremely beautiful, and that she will even improve, as yet she does not seem to have the slightest idea of it herself which makes her prettier - I am afraid that ignorance cannot last long...' (17 January 1854)
Millais's feeling for Sophie appears only to have grown and deepened following his marriage, and with the passage of time. The artist used Sophie as a model for several of his most esteemed Pre-Raphaelite works produced in the 1850s, and the overt sensuality of her portrayal in these is telling. It is Sophie, her hair loose and tumbling about her shoulders, who commands the centre of the mesmerizing Autumn Leaves (1855-6, Manchester City Art Gallery); it is Sophie who sits embowered beneath the blossoming apple tree in Spring (1856-9, Lady Lever Art Gallery), and whose gaze and profile confront the steely arc of the scythe directly opposite her in the picture space - a striking visual alliance of sexuality and death thought to confirm the desire of the artist for the lovely young woman he sought to emblazon on his canvases. Ultimately, of course, a situation so fraught became untenable. On 2 March 1869, Millais wrote to Holman Hunt that Sophie had 'been ill a whole year, and away from home, with hysteria.' According to a story in the Millais family, however, the truth behind Sophie's 'breakdown' at the age of twenty-four was that she and her sister's husband could no longer conceal their love for one another, and that Effie, sensing this, sent her sister away.
Despite her great beauty, Sophie did not marry until 1873, at what was then considered to be the very advanced age of thirty. Her marriage to Sir James Key Caird (1837-1916), a wealthy jute manufacturer, was by all accounts extremely unhappy. Their union produced just one child, a daughter Beatrix Ada (1874-1888), who in turn was painted by Millais (1879, private collection).
The last known portrait of Sophie Gray was painted by Sir John Everett Millais in 1880, and exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery the same year (no. 54). Mary Lutyens has written of this poignant, lovely image, that Millais 'perhaps more than anyone, knew the secrets of Sophie's short life, and in her hauntingly sad expression portrayed an old sadness of his own.' The painting was evidently created by Millais for his own pleasure, rather than to be given to Sophie or to the Gray family; he kept it close to him, displayed prominently in his studio.
Sophie Gray died in 1882, apparently by her own hand.
So intense was the relationship between Millais and Sophie, and so often was she the focus of his artistic attention, that the present portrait was for many years thought to have been painted by Millais himself, and was, in fact, exhibited as such in the important Millais retrospective exhibition held jointly by the Royal Academy and the Walker Art Gallery in early 1967. The painting is certainly very close in treatment, costume and date to the final portrait painted by Millais of Sophie in 1880, although it has since been shown to bear the monogram of Charles (Carlo) Edward Perugini.
Perugini and his wife, the former Kate Dickens (1839-1929) - favourite daughter of the novelist Charles Dickens, widow of the Pre-Raphaelite painter Charles Allston Collins, and a talented artist in her own right-were intimates of the Millais circle. Millais was a friend of Charles Dickens and knew Kate when she was a young girl; he used her as the model for The Black Brunswicker (1859-60, Lady Lever Art Gallery). Millais attended the Perugini wedding in 1874, and painted a magnificent portrait of Kate as a belated wedding gift for her husband.
Charles Edward Perugini was born in Naples, and trained in Paris with Ary Scheffer. He came to London in 1863 with the encouragement of Frederic, Lord Leighton (1830-1896), and he is believed to have worked as Leighton's studio assistant for a time. Perugini was without question a favoured Leighton protégé, and one of the most successful; the influence of the illustrious master is to be felt in many of Perugini's finest works, such as the graceful Peonies (1887, Walker Art Gallery), or The Loom (1881, private collection) - a veritable homage to Leighton's Winding the Skein (1878, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney). Perugini, again like Leighton, was a highly-skilled portrait artist, as well as a genre painter.
Given its intimate scale, Perugini's portrait of Sophie Gray was presumably painted informally; there is a sensitivity and a tenderness about the picture that would seem to indicate considerable warmth between artist and sitter. Surely Perugini would have been aware of the great sadness encircling Sophie, although he might not have been able to identify its source. In this highly evocative portrait, he has imbued her with an aura of mystery and melancholy that must reflect, if not allude to, the tragic circumstances surrounding her troubled existence. Like the story of her young life itself, it is affecting.
We are very grateful to Kendall Smaling Wood for providing the above catalogue entry.