The Violet’s Message is an intimate, jewel-like picture that Millais painted in 1854 at a critical moment in his personal and professional life. It is one of the few oils from the artist’s Pre-Raphaelite period still in private hands, and represents Millais’s incisive move to painting contemporary life, as well as signalling the transition in advanced British art from Pre-Raphaelitism to Aestheticism.
In November 1853, the Royal Academy of Arts voted Millais into its ranks as an Associate, and the following year found the artist in a state of soul-searching, both artistic and personal. He was duty-bound to complete his portrait of John Ruskin, begun the previous autumn in the Trossachs in the Scottish Highlands (fig. 1. 1853-1854, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, negotiated in lieu of tax by Christie's, 2013), but found the task increasingly odious. By early 1854 he was in love with Ruskin’s wife Effie, and incensed by the writer’s treatment of her and blithe attitude to the increasingly fraught situation. He described painting the Ruskin portrait as ‘the most hateful task I have ever had to perform’ in a letter from 83 Gower Street of 3 March 1854 to Effie’s mother Mrs Sophie Gray in Perth, in which he later mentioned ‘a little girls [sic] head I have painted’ (Lutyens, 1967, p. 150, quoting a letter in the Bowerswell Papers, Morgan Library, New York). The experience with the Ruskins was trying, and consequently his art suffered. In the wake of his extraordinary output of the previous five years, when he was the most innovative and industrious artist in Britain if not in all of Europe, producing Isabella (Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool), Ferdinand Lured by Ariel (private collection), Christ in the House of His Parents, Mariana, Ophelia (all Tate Britain, London), and The Order of Release, 1746 (fig. 2, Tate Britain, London), and A Huguenot (private collection), Millais settled on producing small canvases and panels until beginning his majestic The Blind Girl (Birmingham) in Winchelsea in the autumn. He resumed exhibiting at the Royal Academy in May, 1855, and on 3 July 1855 Millais married Effie Gray, the former Mrs Ruskin.
These small pictures and sketches, however, represent an important moment in Millais’s artistic evolution, as he sought out the stillness and poetry of contemporary life in intimate works, akin to those of Vermeer, that helped him develop a newly realistic vision in his craft, and led him away, for a time, from historical or Shakespearean or religious subjects made for public exhibition (fig. 3, Woman in Blue Reading a Letter, circa 1663-4, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam). The Violet’s Message is the finest of these intensely observed and intimate subjects and, along with The Bridesmaid and Emily Patmore of 1851 (both Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge), is one of the earliest examples in English art of the kind of concentrated bust-length pictures of women that would become fully evolved in Millais’s impressively direct portrait of Sophie Gray in 1857 (fig. 4) and form a key strand in Aestheticist painting in the 1860s. M.H. Spielmann described it as “true Pre-Raphaelite painting” in 1898 due to its handling, though he misidentified it as a portrait of Elizabeth Eleanor Siddall (1829-1862), an error repeated in John Guille Millais’s posthumous biography of his father from 1899 (Spielmann, p. 160).
Malcolm Warner has observed that these were “cabinet” pictures, small-scale works for private sale and destined for domestic environs (Letter dated 10 April, Huntington Library, cited in Millais: Portraits, 1999, p. 99). Not meant for the walls of the Royal Academy at Trafalgar Square, they were less stressful endeavours that gave Millais a chance to clear his mind of thoughts of Effie Ruskin, although the format and downturned gazes of his sitter recalls an image of her sewing that he painted in Glenfinlas in July of 1853 (fig. 5). Here, the painter’s adoration is evident, along with his embrace of aesthetic beauty in the vivid foxgloves in her hair, and complementary green of her collar and bow. The Violet’s Message bears a more reserved palette. Yet it is the extraordinary observed light that entrances here: the glints on the gold hoop earring, the minutely observed lashes of the model’s right eye, the sheen on her carefully combed chestnut hair. In a pendant to this picture, painted probably simultaneously that April or May (fig. 6), the same model wears a similar choker, hoop earrings, and bow, now shaded blue, but she is viewed from her left and looks down, focusing on something below the frame. Her eyes are visible, however, through a scrim of intricately painted lashes.
The model for both pictures was Annie Miller (1835-1925), a Londoner and daughter of a veteran. Millais’s great friend and fellow Pre-Raphaelite brother William Holman Hunt (1827-1910) had met her when she was working as a barmaid in the Cross Keys Pub on Lawrence Street, near his 5 Prospect Place, Cheyne Walk, residence in Chelsea. He had developed an affection for her, and determined to raise her in life through intellectual and social education with the aim of eventually marrying her. It is possible that Millais painted Miller to provide her with a little money, as Hunt had been supporting her but had gone to seek subjects in the Holy Land that January. Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, George Price Boyce, and Millais’s good friend Michael Frederick (Mike) Halliday would employ her as a model, as in a Rossetti drawing of 1860 sold in these Rooms on 4 June 2009, lot 21 (See A. Smith in T. Barringer, J. Rosenfeld and A. Smith, Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde, Exh. cat., Tate, 2012, p. 134). Millais wrote to Hunt on 10 April 1854 that ‘Annie Miller has been sitting to me and I have been painting a little head from her. She is a good girl, and behaves herself very properly’ (Lutyens, 1967, p. 150n). The reference to her as a ‘girl’ may seem curious, as Millais was 24 and Miller 19 at the time, but was clearly his way of casually informing Hunt that Miller was not engaged in any impropriety, although this eventually would not prove the case with regard to her relationships with Rossetti and Boyce, to Hunt’s great consternation.
Famously, Miller was both subject and model for Hunt’s Awakening Conscience (fig. 7), begun in 1853 and a picture whose provenance is intertwined with The Violet’s Message as detailed below. The resemblance is complicated: while Millais prominently included the dimple in her chin in his images of her, a feature evident in a contemporary photograph, Hunt’s picture appears to omit it, but that is because Hunt repainted the face in 1856 and 1857 for its first owner, Thomas Fairbairn. Millais also seems to have darkened her hair. With the exception of his Peace Concluded, 1856 (Minneapolis Institute of Arts), Millais did not favour the intricate disguised symbolism of Hunt’s cluttered and modern moralizing Awakening Conscience. Instead, he preferred intimate pictures such as The Violet’s Message that contained a more direct and unembellished naturalism: a girl tentatively unseals an envelope and extracts violets from within—a message of love. The painting continued the precisely observed figures on dark backgrounds that Pre-Raphaelitism produced as modern forms of works by Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543), such as The Hanseatic Merchant George Gisze of Danzig (fig. 8, 1532, Deutsches Museum, Berlin), or Jan van Eyck (c. 1390-1441), with the notable addition of a somewhat mysterious narrative. As Smith writes, the flowers were a sign of ‘deep affection or fidelity’, and aimed to cue a feeling of empathy (Rosenfeld and Smith, 2007, p. 99). Similarly intimate pictures include The Wedding Cards, also of 1854 (sold in these Rooms on 5 June 2008, lot 47), Wandering Thoughts of around 1855 (Manchester City Galleries), wherein a woman sinks resignedly into a chair in reaction to news delivered in the letter on her lap, Only a Lock of Hair of c. 1857-58 (Manchester) with its sharp-focus image of a raven-haired woman who snips her hair while staring intently off to her left, and Meditation of 1859 (The Provost and Scholars of King’s College, Cambridge) (see Rosenfeld and Smith, 2007, pp. 106, 107, and 140, and see J. Rosenfeld, John Everett Millais, London, 2012, pp. 125-128). Such works revealed Millais’s extraordinary sensitivity to the situations and inner lives of modern women, and positioned him to be the illustrator of choice for contemporary novels by the likes of Anthony Trollope, and numerous literary publications into the next two decades.
The picture was in the collection of Millais’s important early patron Joseph Arden (1799-1879) of Rickmansworth Park, Hertfordshire, who also owned his early Death of Romeo and Juliet (Manchester), Waiting of 1854 (Birmingham), the following year’s The Rescue (National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne), and had commissioned The Order of Release, 1746 (Tate). James Orrock (1829-1913), a watercolourist and oil painter, subsequently acquired the picture. He also owned Millais’s portrait Mrs Heugh of 1872 (Musée d’Orsay, Paris), a lost work, Olivia of 1882, and Shelling Peas of 1889 (private collection, on loan to Leighton House, London) (See E. Morris, ‘James Orrock, dentist, artist, patron, collector, dealer, curator, connoisseur, forger, propagandist,’ Visual Culture in Britain, November 2005, 6 (2), pp. 85-98). Orrock was involved in the establishment of the National Gallery of British Art, now Tate Britain (C. Monkhouse, ‘A Connoisseur and his Surroundings. Mr James Orrock, R.I., at 48, Bedford Square’, Art Journal, 54, January 1892, pp. 12-17).
The picture then passed into the collection of the ship-owner Sir Colin Skelton Anderson (1904-1980) of Admiral’s House, Hampstead, a close friend from Trinity College, Oxford, of the eminent art historian, Kenneth Clark (1903-1983), who lived nearby at Upper Terrace House (fig. 10) (see V. Sekules, ‘The Ship-owner as Art Patron: Sir Colin Anderson and the Orient Line 1930-1960’, The Journal of the Decorative Arts Society 1850 - the Present, No. 10 (1986), pp. 22-33, and K. Clark, The Other Half, a Self-Portrait, Harper & Row, 1977, p. 193). Anderson gifted to Clark Millais’s The Bride (Head of a Woman) of c. 1858-1859 (private collection), a picture posed by Fanny Eyres, and Clark assisted Anderson in forming his collection of 19th and 20th century British art (Information kindly proved by Dr Malcolm Warner, 10 October 2003. The picture was shown in the Millais exhibition of 1967 (no. 56). Their correspondence is in the Tate Gallery Archive, TGA 8812). Anderson’s father was Sir Alan Garrett Anderson (1877-1952), M.P. for the City of London who was involved with the railways and shipping, and his brother was Donald Garrett Anderson of Notgrove Manor, Gloucestershire, who also bought Victorian pictures, including in 1958 Edward Burne-Jones’s exquisite Love Among the Ruins, which sold for a record in these Rooms on 11 July 2013, lot 3 (fig. 9). Colin Anderson, like his father, served as Chairman of P & O lines, and was also Chairman of the Tate Gallery Trustees (1960-1967), the Contemporary Arts Society, the Royal Fine Art Commission, and the Royal College of Art. He also owned Hunt’s Awakening Conscience, and he and his wife, the former Miss Morna Campbell MacCormick (1906-1982) of Sydney, Australia, presented it to the Tate Gallery in 1976 through the Friends of that institution. They also gifted their remarkable collection of Art Nouveau materials to the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts at the University of East Anglia, Norwich, in 1978. (Lucien Freud drew Mrs Anderson's portrait in circa 1952 (private collection c/o Stephen Ongpin Fine Art)).
We are grateful to Dr Jason Rosenfeld, Distinguished Chair and Professor of Art History, Marymount Manhattan College, New York, for providing this catalogue entry.