Exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1873, when Millais was forty-four, Early Days is an interesting re-discovery. The work has not been seen in public for many years, possibly not since it was sold at Christie's in 1947; and since it was never reproduced, even its composition was unknown to scholars. This catalogue publishes the picture in full for the first time.
Early Days occupies a significant place in Millais' artistic development. It is an early example of his eighteenth-century costume pieces, and probably the first picture in which he depicted a child in a mob cap. In this it anticipates Cherry Ripe (fig. 2), the most famous image of this kind, by six years.
From the outset, Millais was the member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood who had his finger must firmly on the pulse of public taste. In this respect, he far outstripped both the other leading PRBs, William Holman Hunt and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and it was not long before his eye for an appealing subject, allied to the phenomenal technical ability that he had displayed even as a student, assured his position as one of the most popular artists of the day. Perhaps only Landseer, who brought similar skills in the portrayal of the animal kingdom, was a serious rival when it came to touching the hearts of the general public. A Huguenot (RA 1852; private collection) and The Black Brunswicker (RA 1860; Port Sunlight), both subjects featuring star-crossed lovers, were early milestones on Millais' route to fame and fortune. In 1853 he became an associate and in 1863 a full member of the Royal Academy, an institution which, for all his youthful rebellion, was his true spiritual home.
Much of Millais' success was due to his remarkable ability to capture the innocence and pathos of childhood. As Malcolm Warner has observed (Millais: Portraits, exh. National Portrait Gallery, London, 1999, cat. pp. 105 ff), the origins of his prowess in this field lie in some of his earliest essays in Pre-Raphaelite realism. Warner goes so far as to describe the famous Christ in the Carpenter's Shop (1849-50; Tate Gallery) as 'Millais' first important child subject', and certainly the vulnerability of children, the aspect of the subject that the artist was to emphasise with an almost obsessive consistency, could hardly find more poignant - indeed, in this instance, tragic - expression. Millais continued to develop the theme in later works of his Pre-Raphaelite period - The Woodman's Daughter (1850-1; Guildhall Art Gallery, London), L'Enfant du Régiment (1854-5; Yale Center for British Art, New Haven), The Blind Girl (1854-6; Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery), and above all in the supremely evocative Autumn Leaves (1855-6; Manchester Art Galleries), one of his very greatest achievements. All these, however, are subject pictures, narrative- or mood-orientated as the case may be, in which children at most play a leading role. Even when Millais painted portraits of children at this date, as in James Wyatt and his Grand-daughter (1849; private collection) and its companion piece Mrs James Wyatt and her Daughter (1850; Tate Gallery), the infants were only appendages to grown-ups.
The idea of focussing on children to the point where they themselves are the all-sufficient subject of a portrait or the pretext for a 'fancy picture' in which an isolated child is the protagonist, dates from a little later in Millais' career, and is closely linked to the freer and more painterly style that he developed in the 1860s. The fact that this freer style went hand in hand with an iconography associated with Gainsborough and Reynolds is no accident. The new direction was first established with My First Sermon and My Second Sermon (both Guildhall Art Gallery, London), shown respectively at the RA in 1863 and 1864; and was developed in another pair of works, Sleeping (lot 9 of this sale) and Waking (see lot 9, fig. 1), which appeared together at the same venue in 1867. From then on no year passed without some new contribution to the genre, whether exhibited at the RA, the Grosvenor Gallery, which opened in 1877, or the New Gallery, which succeeded the Grosvenor in 1888.
Millais' openness to the inspiration of Gainsborough and Reynolds reveals him as a major exponent of the eighteenth-century revival that was such a notable feature of mid-to-late Victorian taste. Despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that it was so pervasive, this phenomenon has received less attention than it deserves. A veritable army of artists was involved. Many, of course, made only occasional contributions. In recent years Christie's has handled outstanding examples by such diverse names as W.P. Frith, Alice Boyd, Val Prinsep and G.D. Leslie, to name but four. But for some, like W.Q. Orchardson, the revival played a decisive role in shaping their careers. His painting The Queen of the Swords, sold recently by Christie's as part of the Forbes Collection (19 February 2003, lot 9), is typical. This illustration to Sir Walter Scott's novel The Pirate appeared at the R.A. in 1877, four years after Millais' Early Days.
In its later stages the revival came to embrace the Regency period as well as the eighteenth century; the names of Marcus Stone and Edmund Blair Leighton come readily to mind. Nor, of course, was it only a matter of painting. Walter Crane's illustrations to children's books and the 'Queen Anne' style in architecture were among the most signficiant manifestations. As this implies, the revival was closely associated with the Aesthetic Movement, although many of those who felt the appeal of eighteenth-century and Regency subjects, including Millais himself, remained academics at heart. The fact is that labels such as 'academic' and 'Aesthetic' have little meaning in this context. Blair Leighton illustrates the point to perfection. Although he identified closely with the Royal Academy, exhibiting there for forty-two years and shunning those citadels of Aestheticism, the Grosvenor and New Galleries, he lived all his adult life in Bedford Park, Norman Shaw's revolutionary garden superb in west London which epitomised the 'Queen Anne' style and was densely populated by trendy and left-wing Aesthetes.
Millais was painting eighteenth-century themes by 1867, when he exhibited The Minuet (private collection) at the RA, together with Sleeping and Waking. During the next few years other examples followed; half-length figures of Swift's heroines Stella (Manchester, fig. 3.) and Vanessa (Sudley House, Liverpool, fig. 4) appeared at the R.A. in 1868 and 1869, while the latter was joined by The Gambler's Wife (private collection), a poignant essay in eighteenth-century genre.
A rather different approach was adopted in Hearts are Trumps (Tate Gallery, fig. 5), exhibited in 1872. Another of Millais' most celebrated works, the picture is a group portrait of the Armstrong sisters in fashionable modern dress, but the conception is unashamedly based on a similar group by Reynolds, The Ladies Waldegrave (National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh). Reynolds and Gainsborough were not Millais' only mentors when it came to developing a more painterly style. Velasquez and Frans Hals were equally important, and his homage to the former was made explicit in A Souvenir of Velazquez, a picture he exhibited at the R.A. in 1868 and deposited as his R.A. diploma work - appropriately since it is essentially a 'painter's picture', addressing issues which only a fellow practitioner can perhaps fully appreciate. But the debt to Reynolds in Hearts are Trumps is only a degree less overtly stated. The Lades Waldegrave had been commissioned by Horace Walpole, and in the 1870s was still at Strawberry Hill. Millais must often have seen it when he was a guest of Frances, Lady Waldegrave, the house's current owner.
Early Days, exhibited at the R.A. only a year after Hearts are Trumps, is another vivid demonstration of how much Millais owed to Reynolds at this date. Given the fact that the child fondles a cat, the obvious comparison is with the enchanting Miss Bowles in the Wallace Collection (fig. 6). The art critic on the Illustrated London News made this very point, observing that 'the picture resembles...Miss Bowles with her dog by Sir Joshua Reynolds...which was engraved some months back from Sir Richard Wallace's collection'. But this was probably not the only Reynolds that Millais had in mind. The idea of showing a seated female sitter from the front, an animal cradled in her lap, had been pioneered in the portrait of the courtesan Nellie O'Brien, also in the Wallace Collection and available to Millais through engravings even if he had not seen the original (fig. 7). Moreover, towards the end of his life Reynolds had painted several portraits of little girls in mob caps, a fashion that came in during the 1780s. Examples are his half-length likeness of his great-niece Theophila Gwatkin of 1785 (fig. 8) or the Miss Penelope Boothby of 1788 (private collection). Gainsborough, too, painted pictures of this kind. The one that leaps to mind is Miss Brummell, a portrait of the sister of the future dandy 'Beau' Brummell, dating from about 1781-2 and showing the sitter with a cat in her lap (fig. 9).
According to the Illustrated London News, the model for Early Days was Millais' youngest child, Sophie. Born in March 1868, she was three when the picture was painted. Millais' marriage in July 1855 to the former Mrs John Ruskin, née Euphemia (Effie) Chalmers Gray, had been the last act in one of the great scandals of the mid-Victorian era. During the next thirteen years the couple were to have eight children, four sons and four daughters. It was the typically large Victorian family, and might have been larger if Mrs Millais' relish for marital relations had been equal to her husband's. All the children were pressed into service as sitters. Effie, the oldest girl, sat for the two Sermons, and later for The Minuet. Mary, the second daughter, posed for Waking, which her younger sister Alice, usually known as Carrie, was the model for Sleeping. Sophie had already appeared as a baby in A Flood, a work of 1870 (Manchester Art Galleries), and she would sit for a number of other works at later dates. Aged twelve, she posed for Princess Elizabeth in the Tower (Royal Holloway College), and in 1886, by now eighteen, she was the model for Clarissa, a picture painted, according to her brother John in his biography of their father, 'after the manner of Gainsborough', and Punchinella, 'a charming graceful portrait...in fancy dress'. In 1891 Sophie married Captain Douglas MacEwen of the 79th Highlanders, a 'good' marriage which reflected the family's vivid sense of social status.
It is no accident that J.G. Millais invoked the name of Gainsborough in connection with Clarissa. Most of Millais' likenesses of his children were 'fancy pictures' of the type that Gainsborough and Reynolds had so often painted. The two Sermons, The Minuet, Waking, and Sleeping all fall into this category; so do Early Days itself, Punchinella, the 'fancy dress' portrait of Sophie painted in 1886, and no doubt two other pictures for which her brother records her as posing, Still for a Moment (1874) and Forbidden Fruit (1875). The Reynolds prototype that Millais perhaps knew best was the famous Age of Innocence (Tate Gallery), presented to the National Gallery by Robert Vernon in 1847. Little Miss Gwatkin's portrait (fig. 8) is also interesting in this context since it bears the alternative title Simplicity, thus showing that it is both a 'fancy picture' and a portrait of an enthanting child in a mob cap. But so far as the comparison with Early Days goes, Gainsborough is perhaps the better comparison, if only because his 'fancy pictures' so often feature children with animals. Obvious examples are the Girl with Pigs at Castle Howard or the Cottage Girl with Dog and Pitcher in the Beit Collection, both dating from the 1780s. Perhaps this was what the Art Journal's critic had in mind when he wrote that Millais' picture 'reminds the observer rather of Gainsborough than of Reynolds'.
Early Days was one of five pictures that Millais showed at the R.A. in 1873. Of the others, New-Laid Eggs was a 'fancy picture', too. Showing 'a damsel taking newly-laid eggs from a coop', it was modelled by Sophie's elder sister Effie, now aged thirteen. The other three contributions were portraits: Mrs Heugh (Musée d'Orsay, Paris), Mrs Bischoffsheim (Tate Gallery, fig. 10), and Sir William Sterndale Bennett. Mrs Heugh was by far the oldest sitter that Millais had ever painted - or would paint in future. Now in her nineties, she was the widow of a Presbyterian minister in Glasgow. The portrait had been comissioned by her son, John Heugh, who already owned two other works by Millais, the famous Carpenter's Shop (Tate Gallery) and Trust Me, a painting of 1862 which was offered recently by Christie's as part of the Forbes Collection (19 February 2003, lot 17). Reviewers made much of the contrast between the portrait of Mrs Heugh and Early Days, pointing out that Millais' subjects this year 'ranged from early childhood to extreme old age', or, as another reviewer put it, 'brought together extremes of life, entrance and exit'.
As for the portrait of Mrs Bischoffsheim, generally regarded as another of Millais' masterpieces, this too bore a certain relationship to Early Days. Viennese by birth, the sitter was the wife of Henry Lewis Bischoffsheim, a leading Dutch financier. Their house in South Audley Street, Mayfair, now the Egyptian Embassy, was the centre of a wealthy cosmopolitan circle, and Mrs Bischoffsheim looks ever inch the grande dame, the imperious hostess and chatelaine whose merest whim is buttressed by her husband's ample income. Her air of cool assurance, not to say arrogance, could hardly be further from the innocence of Early Days, yet there is an underlying relationship. As Malcolm Warner wrote in the catalogue of the exhibition of Millais' portraits mounted at the National Portrait Gallery, London, in 1999, 'Mrs Bischoffsheim's magnificently embroidered dress is clearly intended to suggest the eighteenth century'. Furthermore, we know that the portrait was destined to hang with examples of Reynolds and Gainsborough that were in the Bischoffsheim collection. Many Victorian portraitists (G.F. Watts is another good example) were required to paint this type of picture, something that would join and not disgrace a row of eighteenth-century portraits, whether they had been purchased recently by nouveaux riches like the Bischoffsheims or were the product of ancestral commissions.
At the R.A. Early Days was hung between two works by J.C. Hook, the painter of marine and coastal subjects and a fellow Academician whose portrait Millais was to paint in 1882. Reviews were generally favourable. The Art Journal admired the picture's "enchanting simplicity". The Illustrated London News described it as a likeness of 'a lovely litle girl of four or five sitting in Oriental fashion on the ground nursing a kitten, her sweet eyes looking at you with infinite gravity'. Millais' old friend. F.G. Stephens, once, like Millais himself, a member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood but long since established as art critic on the Athenaeum, described it as 'an admirable example of almost pathetic simplicity of design, and...delightful from its beauty in keeping, fine and delicate yet powerful colour, and wealth of tone. In these aspects the artist never painted better, or with more judgement'.
The picture was bought before the exhibition opened by Charles P. Matthews, a patron who already owned three other works by Millais. They were The Ransom (1862); Sisters, a group portrait of the artist's three eldest daughters painted in 1868 (private collection; illustrated in the catalogue of the NPG exhibition, p. 113); and A Flood (1870), in which, as already noted, Sophie had been depicted as a baby.
We are grateful to Dr. Malcolm Warner for his help in preparing this entry.