SIR JOHN EVERETT MILLAIS, BT., P.R.A. (BRITISH, 1829-1896)
SIR JOHN EVERETT MILLAIS, BT., P.R.A. (BRITISH, 1829-1896)

A DREAM OF THE PAST: SIR ISUMBRAS AT THE FORD

Details
SIR JOHN EVERETT MILLAIS, BT., P.R.A. (BRITISH, 1829-1896)
A DREAM OF THE PAST: SIR ISUMBRAS AT THE FORD
OIL ON PANEL
10¾ X 14.3/8IN. (27.3 X 36.5CM.)
Provenance
JOHN MORLEY; CHRISTIE'S, LONDON, 16 MAY 1896, LOT 43 (AS THE GOOD KNIGHT), 860 GNS. TO VOKINS FOR HOWARD MORLEY, WHO BEQUEATHED IT TO THE HON. CHARLES LAWRENCE, LATER LORD LAWRENCE OF KINGSGATE.
Literature
M. H. SPIELMANN, MILLAIS AND HIS WORKS, WITH SPECIAL REFERENCE TO THE EXHIBITION AT THE ROYAL ACADEMY, 1898, 1898, PP. 178 (NO. 346), 183 (AS THE GOOD KNIGHT).
J. G. MILLAIS, THE LIFE AND LETTERS OF SIR JOHN EVERETT MILLAIS, 1899, VOL. II, P. 486 (AS THE GOOD KNIGHT).
MILLAIS, P.R.B., P.R.A., EXH. CAT., WALKER ART, LIVERPOOL, AND ROYAL ACADEMY, LONDON, 1967, PP. 42-3, NO. 55.

Lot Essay

THE PRESENT PICTURE IS A SMALL AUTOGRAPH VERSION OF MILLAIS' WELL-KNOWN PAINTING IN THE LADY LEVER ART GALLERY, PORT SUNLIGHT (FIG. 1). WHEN THIS WAS EXHIBITED AT THE ROYAL ACADEMY IN 1857, IT WAS ACCOMPANIED IN THE CATALOGUE BY SOME VERSES PURPORTING TO COME FROM AN OLD METRICAL ROMANCE BUT IN FACT WRITTEN IN MOCK MIDDLE ENGLISH BY THE VERSATILE TOM TAYLOR, DRAMATIST AND ART-CRITIC OF THE TIMES. THE LINES DESCRIBE HOW AN ELDERLY KNIGHT CARRIES TWO WOODCUTTER'S CHILDREN OVER A FORD ON HIS CHARGER, AN ANIMAL SO ENORMOUS THAT

IN LONDE WAS NONE HIS PEER.
N'AS HORS BUT BY HIM SEEMED SMALLE.
THE KNYGHTE HIM YCLEPED LAUNCIVAL;
BUT LORDS AT BORDE AND GROOMS IN STALLE
YCLEPT HIM GRAUND DESTRERE.

EXECUTED IN THE WINTER OF 1856 WHEN MILLAIS AND HIS WIFE WERE LIVING AT ANNAT LODGE NEAR BOWERSWELL IN PERTHSHIRE, THE PORT SUNLIGHT PICTURE MARKED A TURNING-POINT IN MILLAIS' CAREER. THE SUBJECT WAS CERTAINLY PRE-RAPHAELITE, AND MILLAIS TOOK GREAT PAINS TO STUDY EACH DETAIL FROM NATURE, BUT THE COMPARATIVELY FREE HANDLING HERALDED THE MORE RAPID AND PAINTERLY STYLE THAT CHARACTERISES HIS LATER WORK. JOHN RUSKIN, WHO HAD CHAMPIONED THE EARLIER PRODUCTS OF THE PRE-RAPHAELITE BROTHERHOOD, WAS APPALLED. 'THE CHANGE IN HIS MANNER ...', HE WROTE IN ACADEMY NOTES, 'IS NOT MERELY FALL - IT IS CATASTROPHE; NOT MERELY A LOSS OF POWER, BUT A REVERSAL OF PRINCIPLE'. THE PICTURE ALSO EXCITED A GOOD DEAL OF MERRIMENT. THE ARTIST FREDERICK SANDYS PUBLISHED A SATIRICAL PRINT ENTITLED A NIGHTMARE, IN WHICH THE COMPOSITION WAS ADAPTED TO SHOW MILLAIS AND HIS FELLOW PRE-RAPHAELITE BROTHERS, ROSSETTI AND HOLMAN HUNT, RIDING ON A BRAYING ASS (FIG. 2), AND MANY CRITICS HAD FUN AT THE EXPENSE OF THE COLOSSAL HORSE THAT MILLAIS HAD PAINTED IN ACCORDANCE WITH TOM TAYLOR'S TEXT.

THIS HORSE HAD GIVEN MILLAIS IMMENSE TROUBLE. NOT ONLY HAD HE PAINTED IT OUT OF DOORS IN BITTER WEATHER; HE HAD ALSO ALTERED IT DRAMATICALLY, ENLARGING IT UNTIL IT ALMOST TOUCHED THE FRAME WHEN THE DEALER ERNEST GAMBART TOLD HIM THAT IT WAS TOO SMALL. CLEARLY HE HAD OVER-REACTED, AND WHEN THE PICTURE RETURNED UNSOLD FROM THE ACADEMY, HE TOOK OUT THE OFFENDING BEAST AND REPAINTED IT FROM ANOTHER MODEL. THE HORSE WAS TO BE RETOUCHED YET AGAIN BEFORE THE PICTURE APPEARED AT HIS RETROSPECTIVE EXHIBITION AT THE GROSVENOR GALLERY IN 1886.

EVEN THIS, HOWEVER, WAS NOT THE END OF THE STORY. MILLAIS ALTERED THE PICTURE FOR A FOURTH TIME WITHIN A FEW YEARS OF HIS DEATH, AND OUR PANEL IS A FASCINATING RECORD OF THE COMPOSITION BEFORE HE MADE THESE FINAL CHANGES. IN 1887 THE PORT SUNLIGHT PAINTING ENTERED THE COLLECION OF ROBERT HENRY BENSON. A WEALTHY BANKER WHOSE NAME LIVES ON IN THE FIRM OF KLEINWORT BENSON, BENSON HAD MARRIED EVELYN HOLFORD, THE DAUGHTER OF ROBERT HOLFORD, THE MAECENAS OF DORCHESTER HOUSE; AND, LIKE HIS FATHER-IN-LAW, HE WAS AN OUTSTANDING COLLECTOR OF OLD MASTER AND MODERN PAINTINGS. HIS ITALIAN OLD MASTERS WERE BOUGHT EN BLOC IN 1927 BY SIR JOSEPH DUVEEN, WHO TOOK THEM TO AMERICA WHERE MANY ARE NOW AMONG THE GREAT TREASURES IN MUSEUMS. MUSIC, ONE OF HIS NUMEROUS WORKS BY BURNE-JONES, WHOM HE KNEW WELL, WAS SOLD IN THESE ROOMS ON 14 MARCH 1997.

AS BENSON LATER RECORDED FOR MILLAIS' SON AND BIOGRAPHER (SEE J. G. MILLAIS, OP. CIT., VOL. I, PP. 317-9), HE FELT THAT THE HORSE IN SIR ISUMBRAS WOULD BE IMPROVED BY 'SOME TRAPPINGS', AND ASKED MILLAIS TO ADD THEM. MILLAIS FOR HIS PART 'JUMPED AT THE IDEA, SAYING THAT HE SHOULD LIKE TO HAVE THE CHANCE OF IMPROVING THE OUTLINE' OF THE ANIMAL, AND TO 'RELIEVE AND BREAK [ITS] BLACKNESS'. IN FACT BY THE TIME THE ALTERATIONS WERE MADE IN 1892, BENSON AND HIS WIFE HAD COLLECTED EXTENSIVE DATA ON THE SUBJECT OF HORSE-TRAPPINGS, NOTABLY 'IN THE ESCORIAL, IN THE ARMOURY AT MADRID', WHILE THEIR IDEAS ON THE WHOLE CONCEPTION OF THE HORSE HAD DEVELOPED. THEY SENT MILLAIS A PHOTOGRAPH OF THE PICTURE, INDICATING THE DESIRED CHANGES, 'VIZ., A FULLER THROAT, A CREST, A DILATED NOSTRIL, A TWISTED TAIL, A DEEPER GIRTH (TO GIVE THE HORSE STRENGTH TO CARRY THE MAN IN ARMOUR, NOT TO SPEAK OF THE CHILDREN), A BROAD BRIDLE, INSTEAD OF THE THIN GREEN AND YELLOW REIN, AND LASTLY THE TRAPPINGS. WE ALSO WANTED THE GREEN AND YELLOW BRIDLE ABOLISHED, AND A CERTAIN GARISH FLOWER BY THE HORSE'S EAR'.

MILLAIS KEPT THE PICTURE A MONTH, AND THE BENSONS BEGAN TO FEAR THAT THEY HAD OFFENDED HIM, OR THAT HE WAS FINDING IT DIFFICULT 'TO MATCH THE WORK OF 1857'. IN THE EVENT, HOWEVER, EVERYONE WAS HAPPY, ARTIST AND OWNERS ALL FEELING THAT THE PICTURE HAD BEEN GREATLY IMPROVED. WITH THE AID OF OUR VERSION AND BENSON'S ACCOUNT, THE CHANGES CAN BE PRECISELY MEASURED. THE HORSE IN THE BIG PICTURE DOES INDEED HAD A DIFFERENT 'OUTLINE', INCLUDING A 'FULLER THROAT', A MORE 'TWISTED TAIL' AND A 'DEEPER GIRTH', WHILE ITS 'BLACKNESS' HAS BEEN 'RELIEVED' BY MAKING THE BRIDLE 'BROADER' AND ADDING VARIOUS 'TRAPPINGS', AND THE 'GREEN AND YELLOW REINS' AND THE 'GARISH FLOWER BY THE HORSE'S EAR' HAVE BEEN 'ABOLISHED'. MILLAIS ALSO SEEMS TO HAVE TAKEN THE OPPORTUNITY TO ADD ONE TELLING DETAIL THAT THE BENSONS HAD EITHER NOT THOUGHT OR DARED TO SUGGEST, THE TWO FIGURES WHO ENLIVEN THE DISTANT LANDSCAPE AT UPPER RIGHT.
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