The picture is a reduced version of one that Millais exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1865 (private collection). It was begun on 29 July that year and finished the following month before the large version was despatched to its owner, the Tyneside industrialist Sir Lowthian Bell. The small version follows the original remarkably closely; indeed, it deputised for it in the exhibition celebrating Bell and his fellow Victorian collectors in the North-East of England which was held at the Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle, in 1989.
The composition represents an imaginary scene at the time when the Roman occupying forces were withdrawing from Britain in the late fourth and early fifth centuries AD. A Roman legionary is bidding a passionate farewell to his British mistress ('a tall, lithe, dark, savage Celt,' according to F.G. Stephens in his account of Sir Lowthian Bell's collection in the Athenaeum), both of them knowing full well that he will never return. The composition was originally worked out in a highly-finished pen and sepia wash drawing dated 1853 (fig. 1), which is comparable in style and feeling to the well-known series of drawings on the theme of modern-life, love and marriage that Millais made that year (see The Pre-Raphaelites, exh. Tate Gallery, London, 1984, nos. 185-194, all illustrated in catalogue). Millais was currently deeply in love with Effie Ruskin, a crisis that was only to be resolved by the annulment of her marriage to the critic amid much scandalous gossip; and the modern-life drawings, which have such titles as Accepted, Rejected, The Ghost at the Wedding and Retribution, are generally regarded as reflecting his overwrought emotions at the time. The same could obviously be said of the drawing of a Roman legionary leaving his mistress. Indeed J.G. Millais more or less admitted that the design had deep personal significance for his father when he wrote that the subject was 'one which had always had a great attraction' for him.
As for the question of why Millais returned to the design in the mid-1860s, it is perhaps best to see it as a response to the prevailing classicism. Many artists were currently moving in this direction, though the phenomenon took different forms. For G.F. Watts it was a revival of his early admiration for the Elgin Marbles. For many of the Pre-Raphaelites - Madox Brown, Rossetti, Burne-Jones, Frederick Sandys and others - it was a significant but passing phase, while for those artists whose roots lay in the European academic tradition - Leighton, Poynter, Alma-Tadema and, to some extent, Albert Moore - it was a process of self-discovery, the point at which they finally assumed their roles as presiding deities on the Victorian Olympus. Millais was the most un-classical of artists but even he had a brief flirtation with the ascendant mode, and The Romans leaving Britain, with its classical subject and the clear, form-revealing light in which the scene is bathed, is perhaps the outstanding example.
Sir Lowthian Bell is believed to have paid £1,500 for the original version. Ours was commissioned for £400 by Ernest Gambart, the great Victorian picture-dealer whom Millais had known since the 1850s, and sold to Frederick Thomas Turner of 'The Cedars', Clapham Common. Turner collected cabinet-size pictures, and his taste was fairly academic. The forty-nine works in his posthumous sale at Christie's in May 1878 included examples of Frith, Hook, Phillip, Faed, Linnell and many others. Gambart's guiding hand is very evident in the selection, several of the artists with whom he was most closely associated, such as Rosa Bonheur and Alma-Tadema, also being present. Millais must have been one of Turner's favourite painters; he contributed a total of four works to the collection, the others being Charlie is my Darling, The Escape of a Heretic and Joan of Arc. The second Victorian collection in which our picture figured, that of James Warren of Capel House, Enfield, was somewhat similar in size and scope. Forty-eight pictures were in his sale at Christie's, with Elmore, Frith, Haylar, Huggins, Leslie, Linnell and others being represented. The Romans Leaving Britain, which, strangely enough, made considerably less on this occasion than it had done in 1878, was the only Millais.
We are grateful to Malcolm Warner for his help in preparing this entry.