Sir John Everett Millais and the Macabre
by Jane C. Custer
Sir John Everett Millais (1829-1896) has been one of Great Britain’s best loved artists since the middle of the nineteenth century. His wide catalog of work proves that he was an artist of exceptional talent and was capable of painting any subject well. Due to the commercial success of his later work, Millais has been accused of turning away from artistic innovation while pandering to Victorian audiences for financial gain. Such accusations diminish the memory of Millais as an innovative artist who continually evolved throughout his career. By taking a fresh look at his artwork, this paper shows that Millais was always challenging himself with difficult subject matter throughout his career, sometimes developing new artistic techniques to express the uncomfortable or the intangible.
Pre-Raphaelites
Sir John Everett Millais
19th Century
British Empire
British Art
Sir John Everett Millais (1829-1896) has been one of Great Britain’s best loved artists since the middle of the nineteenth century. His wide catalog of work proves that he was an artist of exceptional talent and was capable of painting any subject well. Due to the commercial success of his later work, Millais has been accused of turning away from artistic innovation while pandering to Victorian audiences for financial gain. Such accusations diminish the memory of Millais as an innovative artist who continually evolved throughout his career. By taking a fresh look at his artwork, I will show that he was always challenging himself with difficult subject matter, sometimes developing new artistic techniques to express the uncomfortable or the intangible.
Looking at his whole catalog of work, I realized that Millais truly had a penchant for the macabre. He addressed themes of death and the afterlife throughout his long career. Millais seems to have had two missions with this work: First, he wanted to challenge viewers and himself to address their mortality with themes of death and dying. Second, he wanted to challenge himself with the difficult task of depicting the intangible with his ghost paintings.
One of Millais’s earliest known works addressing death is Age (fig. 1)
John Everett Millais, Age from The Life and Letters of Sir John Everett Millais (1845). Photo: Archive.org.
which he produced in 1845. This work depicts Death as a shrouded skeleton creeping up on an aged man from behind. Death has laid aside his scythe in order to grab the man with two bony hands. Three children look on; one seems awestruck, one cries, the other pays no attention as he plays a flute. The skeleton is rendered with great anatomical precision. According to art historian Roger Bowdler, this sort of imagery––death depicted as a skeleton––was unusual in nineteenth-century England.1
Millais delves more deeply into the macabre with The Disentombment of Queen Matilda (fig. 2).
John Everett Millais, The Disentombment of Queen Matilda (1849), Tate Britain, London, ink on paper, 22.9 x 42.9 cm, Tate Museum. Photo: The Athenaeum.
His drawing depicts a gruesome event in French history when, in 1562, Calvinists desecrated the tombs of William the Conqueror and Matilda, his queen. The pen and ink drawing shows a chaotic scene in which horrified nuns look on as a throng of grave robbers pull corpses from their tombs. One man offers the abbess a ring which he has just removed from the decomposing hand of Queen Matilda.
The young artist shows a personal confrontation with death in The Artist Attending the Mourning of a Young Girl (fig. 3).
John Everett Millais, The Artist Attending the Mourning of a Young Girl (c.1847), Tate Gallery, oil on board, 18.7 x 25.7 cm. Photo: The Athenaeum.
Here, we see Millais from behind, standing by a coffin. He is looking down at the serene face of the deceased, as his hands are “nervously smoothing the band of his top hat.”2 Perhaps this experience is his inspiration for painting the maiden Ophelia as he did just a few years later.
Ophelia (fig. 4),
John Everett Millais, Ophelia (1851-52), Tate Britain, London, oil on canvas, 76.2 x 111.8 cm. Photo: The Athenaeum.
painted in 1851, has become Millais’s most popular work in contemporary times. This depiction of Ophelia after death was an unusual way to present the tragic Shakespearean character. Ophelia was a popular character among nineteenth-century artists, but she was typically shown in her madness, clinging to a tree, moments before her death by suicide. This representation of Ophelia captures her just before the murky waters swallow her. Ophelia’s delicate face is frozen in death, eyes glazed, lips parted, her hair and gown floating on the water’s surface. At her midsection, her hands float limply having just released the flowers which she held in her last minutes. Her deeply submerged waist is enhanced by her floating hands and skirts. The disappearance of the young woman’s waist beneath the dark water strikes a chord of dread in viewers who realize that the rest of her body will soon follow. Millais’s disturbing image of Ophelia effectively evoked strong emotions in his Victorian audience, who were sometimes brought to tears by the painting. According to art historian Alison Smith, “[t]he picture’s appearance at the Exposition Universelle at Paris in 1855 led to the recognition of Millais as a painter of international stature.”3
Millais’s first known depiction of the supernatural, A Ghost Appearing at a Wedding Ceremony (fig. 5),
John Everett Millais, A Ghost Appearing at a Wedding Ceremony (1853-54), Victoria and Albert Museum, London, pen, pencil, and ink on paper, 50 x 45 cm. Photo © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
was drawn around 1853-54. This drawing is a reflection of his life circumstances during this time. He was separated from his love, Euphemia “Effie” Gray Ruskin, as she was seeking an annulment of her marriage to John Ruskin. The drawing depicts a ghost appearing to a bride just as her groom offers her the wedding ring. The bride shrinks back into the arms of her attendants as the ghost, with feet bound in ball and chains, descends into the scene. The drawing is inscribed, “I don’t! I don’t!”4 Millais successfully conveys the ghost’s translucent body by rendering its form with vague, lightly defined lines, and allowing the stronger lines forming the drawing’s other elements to penetrate the ghost’s form. This drawing is a precursor to Millais’s future work depicting the supernatural, such as Spring (1859).
At first glance, Spring (fig. 6)
John Everett Millais, Spring (Apple Blossoms) (1859), National Museums Liverpool, Lady Lever Art Gallery, oil on canvas, 113 x 176.3 cm. Photo: The Athenaeum.
seems to be a celebration of life. It depicts blossoming apple trees and a group of young girls on the verge of womanhood. Apple blossoms fill the background. In the foreground are eight girls lounging on the grass as they eat “curds, milk, and cream.”5 This pleasant image of English country life is disturbed by the presence of a scythe resting above the only girl who is fully reclined while gazing at the viewer. Her languishing legs and upper body give her an erotic appearance, but her pale face and staring eyes are rather corpse-like. With the scythe, a symbol of death, resting above the beauty, viewers are reminded that the girl’s approaching womanhood brings her nearer to her impending death. This painting was difficult to sell, perhaps due to its disturbing message. It was eventually purchased by a collector who had owned another painting by Millais, The Vale of Rest (fig. 7).
Of
John Everett Millais, The Vale of Rest (1858-9), Tate Museum, oil on canvas, 102.9 x 172.7 cm. Photo: The Athenaeum.
all Millais’s work, The Vale of Rest  (1858-9) was his favorite.6 This dark scene depicts two nuns at the task of preparing a grave. As one nun focuses on digging the grave, the other gazes at the viewer as she sits at the edge of the grave with a rosary in her hands. A pick is partially visible in the foreground as it leans out of the grave, in the direction of the viewer. The grave is also only partially visible because it runs toward the viewer at eye level. In this way, the viewer is placed in the grave. The background’s vivid sunset is a striking contrast to the shadowy trees and the chapel bell tower at midground. The painting’s mood is quiet and contemplative, prompting viewers to consider their own mortality.
Another of Millais's paintings, The Somnambulist (c. 1871) (fig. 8)
John Everett Millais, The Somnambulist (c. 1871), Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington, oil on canvas, 154 x 91 cm. Photo: The Athenaeum.
is not about death or the afterlife, but it is worth considering due to the part it plays in the evolution of Millais’s painting technique and due to its unusual theme––the state of animated sleep. The Somnambulist depicts a woman dressed in a white gown, holding a brass candle lantern. It appears that the flame has just been extinguished by the breeze. She walks along a rocky path at the edge of a cliff which falls down to the sea. The woman’s blank expression and fixed gaze indicate her unconscious state. Her white gown and pale face are illuminated by the moonlight. According to Millais’s son, J. G. Millais, the painting was inspired by an incident that occurred one night when John Everett Millais was walking home with two friends. They heard a woman’s scream, then a beautiful young woman dressed in white emerged from behind a garden gate of a nearby villa. She rushed past the three men, her flowing white robes glowing in the moonlight. Millais exclaimed “What a lovely woman!” and his friend Wilkie Collins ran to her aid. Interestingly, the young woman was escaping after being held prisoner by a man in the villa. She had been kept “under mesmeric influence” for months.7 This unusual incident captured Millais’s imagination, inspiring him to represent the poor woman in his art as a sleepwalker and later as a ghost. The Somnambulist is a forerunner of Millais’s pinnacle ghost painting.
The Grey Lady (1883) (fig. 9),
John Everett Millais, The Grey Lady (The Ghost Chamber) (1883), private collection, oil on canvas, 140 x 94.5 cm. Photo: Public Domain.
also called The Ghost Chamber, is Millais’s “first ghostly painting.”8 The theme is based on a legendary ghost who is said to haunt a Scottish castle. Millais painted his daughter, Alice, under electric light to obtain the “other-worldly” appearance of the “spectral grey woman.”9 The setting is a turret-room staircase at Murthly Castle in Perthshire, Scotland. Millais painted the staircase on site for another project, but later abandoned using it. However, he found good use for the intriguing staircase in this ghostly composition. Using loose brush work and muted colors, he achieved a spectral effect by blending her face and portions of her body into the shadowy background. The only definitive form of her ghostly body is her pale, outstretched arm which is illuminated by the light spilling from a small window on the staircase. The painting was regarded as a highly successful ghost painting, capturing the dual nature of the supernatural as people felt it should.10
Speak! Speak! (fig. 10),
John Everett Millais, Speak! Speak! (1895), Tate Museum, oil on canvas, 167.6 x 210.8 cm. Photo: The Athenaeum.
the pinnacle of Millais’s ghostly pictures, is also his last large-scale narrative painting. Painted about a year prior to his death, it is a successful culmination of all his previous works of a supernatural theme. In the composition, a veiled woman dressed in a luminous white gown draws back the curtains of a four-poster bed. A startled man sits up from the bed and reaches toward her as her pale face gazes at him. Only the shadow of the man’s hand makes contact with the spectral figure. Although she looks toward the man, her expression appears disconnected from his emotional response to seeing her. The ghostly woman’s trance-like expression and her luminous white dress are reminiscent of The Somnambulist (fig. 8).
John Everett Millais, The Somnambulist (c. 1871), Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington, oil on canvas, 154 x 91 cm. Photo: The Athenaeum.
The dark stairway appearing in the background is like the stairway in The Grey Lady (fig. 9).
John Everett Millais, The Grey Lady (The Ghost Chamber) (1883), private collection, oil on canvas, 140 x 94.5 cm. Photo: Public Domain.
According to Alison Smith, “In this work Millais was clearly probing the boundary between reality and delusion.” The painting is “the artist’s realist interpretation of a supernatural theme”; therefore he went to great pains “to ground the apparition in material reality” 11 by basing the background in a real location––Murthly Castle­­. He also purchased an antique four-poster bed specifically for the purpose of copying it for the painting. The lamp was copied from one he saw and studied at the South Kensington Museum.12
All of Millais’s effort proved to be worthwhile. Upon viewing the painting, art critic Marion H. Spielmann commented to Millais that he “‘could not tell whether the apparition were a spirit or a woman.’ Millais responded, ‘That’s just what I want. I don’t know either, nor does he,’ [Millais] added as he pointed toward [the man in] the painting.”13 Spielmann wrote, “It is a matter of some interest that Sir John Millais––as he told the writer––has had this subject in mind for more than twenty years, ‘and at last,’ he added with a smile, ‘I’ve done it!’”14 The painting truly was a success. After its exhibition at the Royal Academy, Speak! Speak! was purchased for the nation for 2,000 pounds, which was an “enormous sum that marked the esteem in which Millais was held at the end of his career.”15
Some might ask, “Why was John Everett Millais so obsessed with death and the afterlife?” He was a product of his time. Victorian people were quite concerned about these topics, and their concern with death can be attributed to high mortality rates in the nineteenth century. Millais experienced the loss of friends and loved ones often. On more than one occasion he was called to the bedside of friends who were dying or had just died. In 1870, Charles Dickens’s daughter invited Millais, who was her father’s close friend, to sketch Charles Dickens (After Death). According to Millais’s son, who accompanied his father on this event, “He intended at first to make only a little outline drawing, but the features of the great novelist struck him as being so calm and beautiful in death that he ended by making a finished portrait.”16
Millais declared to F.G. Stephens that he was “not the sort of man who is accused of very deep Religious Sentiment, or reflection,”17 but that did not prevent him from returning to the themes of death and the afterlife throughout his long career. In fact, mortality seems to be his life’s theme. According to Bowdler, “[w]hen created a baronet in 1885, Millais chose as his motto the epigram Ars longa, vita brevis, life is short but art endures.”18 His preoccupation with dying is a constant thread in his career, linking his Pre-Raphaelite work with his later career as an Academician. In 1851, the young Millais wrote in a letter that he wanted “to affect those who may look on [his work] with the uncertainty of life and the necessity of always being prepared for death.”19
Millais represented man’s mortality in less obvious ways; for instance, some of his late landscapes approach the theme. When his son George died in 1878, Millais retreated to his artwork, producing Urquhart Castle, Loch Ness. In the bleak scene a blonde-headed young man, like George Millais, is rowing a boat over the choppy waters of Loch Ness toward the gloomy Urquhart Castle, which stands in the distance under a stormy winter sky.
Millais dealt with his impending death similarly. By the early 1890s his health had declined sharply. He was suffering from throat cancer when he painted Blow, Blow Thou Winter Wind (fig. 11)
John Everett Millais, Blow, Blow, Thou Winter Wind (1892), Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, Oil paint on canvas, 108 x 155 cm. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.
in 1892. In this bleak winter landscape, a dark-haired woman in the foreground sits sadly looking down while a dog at midground is howling. In the background, a man with his head tilted and hanging walks into the distance. His stature and clothing remind me of Millais. This landscape is a representation of the end of Millais’s life, and through his artwork, Millais had the ability to express the inexpressible.
Due to his ill health, Millais sent nothing to the Academy in 1894, the first time since 1866.20 But, by 1895 he returned to exhibiting. Critics noticed the dark mood of his paintings; two of the four paintings exhibited were Speak! Speak! and Time the Reaper (fig. 12).
John Everett Millais, Time, the Reaper (1895), location and dimensions unknown.
The latter was a departure for Millais due to its traditional symbolism. In the painting, Death approaches a door carrying a scythe. An hourglass, in which the sand has run out, stands at his feet. Millais was his own model; he used a photograph of himself in profile for the Reaper.21 No doubt the theme of these paintings indicated his awareness that his life was nearing its end. He wrote, “Are you surprised that I have come back to the solemn subjects of my early years?”22
Although Millais was not a deeply religious man, so much concern about death would have given him good reason to contemplate the afterlife. He was a product of the Victorian era and the nineteenth century has been called the “heyday of the Middle Class Ghost.”23 Many Victorian people were interested in the spirit world and the possibility of communicating with those beyond the grave. Spiritualism, a religious practice in which basic tenets of Christianity were overlaid with communing with the dead, was in its heyday. The Society for Psychical Research was founded by Frederick Myers in 1882. Its purpose was to “subject ghosts to the principles of modern scientific enquiry.”24 Millais was neither a Spiritualist nor a member of the Society for Psychical Research, but he was aware of its existence; he painted a portrait of Myers's wife in 1874.25
Like his contemporaries, Millais enjoyed the idea of a spirit world. His brother, William Millais, tells of an adventure John Everett Millais and his friend John Leech had while on a fishing trip in the Highlands. The pair had a ghostly encounter while staying at an ancient Scottish manor house called Cowdray Hall. A ghost awakened both men as they felt themselves being violently shaken by an invisible force. They spent the rest of the night in the hallway rather than the haunted room. In the story’s end, the ghost turned out to be an earthquake.26 No doubt the excitement of the experience captured Millais’s imagination.
The Victorian ghost craze was a result of peoples’ growing doubts about survival of the body for actual resurrection. This prompted them to hope for at least a survival of personality beyond the grave. To Victorians, ghosts were evidence of the survival of personality. In turn, the subject of ghost pictures was “the survival of personality and outward bodily form after death.”27 Millais, an accomplished portrait painter with a keen ability to capture personality of the human face, would have been especially interested in conveying personality with an ethereal body. This compelled him to return to the theme of death and the afterlife throughout his career. He finally succeeded at conveying the convergence of the ethereal with the natural world by the end of his life. Accomplishing such a task and receiving positive reviews of this enigmatic artwork gave Millais a sense of professional accomplishment at the end of his life.
In the end, John Everett Millais accomplished much with his macabre artwork. He challenged viewers and himself to face mortality through his themes of death and dying. He also rose to his personal challenge which was accomplishing the difficult task of depicting that which is intangible. Throughout his career, Millais continually approached difficult subject matter, sometimes developing new techniques in order to accomplish his goals of presenting the inexpressible and the intangible, some of art’s most difficult themes.
Endnotes
1Roger Bowdler, “Ars Longa, Vita Brevis: Life Death, and John Everett Millais,” in John Everett Millais Beyond the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, edited by Debra Mancoff (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), 208.
2 Jason Rosenfeld and Alison Smith, Millais (London: Tate Publishing, 2007), 33.
3 Ibid., 68.
4Ibid., 92.
5 Ibid., 136.
6Bowdler, "Ars Longa," 214.
7 Ibid., 230.
9 Ibid.
10 Ibid.
11 Ibid., 168.
13 Ibid.
14 Bowdler, "Ars Longa," 230.
15 Rosenfeld and Smith, Millais, 168.
16 John G. Millais,  The Life and Letters of Sir John Everett Millais (London: Methuen and Company, 1899), 2:30.
17 Bowdler, "Ars Longa," 207.
18 Ibid.
19 Ibid., 211.
20 Ibid., 227.
21 Ibid., 228.
22 Millais, The Life and Letters, 2:312.
23 Bowdler, "Ars Longa," 230.
24 Ibid.
25 Rosenfeld and Smith, Millais, 168.
26 Millais, The Life and Letters, 1:272-74.
27 Bowdler, "Ars Longa," 231.
Bibliography
Bowdler, Roger. “Ars Longa, Vita Brevis: Life Death, and John Everett Millais.” In John Everett Millais: Beyond the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, edited by Debra Mancoff, 207-33. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001.
Millais, John G. The Life and Letters of Sir John Everett Millais, 2 volumes. London: Methuen and Company, 1899.
Rosenfeld, Jason, and Alison Smith. Millais. London: Tate Publishing, 2007.
Jane C. Custer
B.A. - Art History, Kennesaw State University

Jane Custer received her Bachelor of Arts in Art History as well as a Certificate in Public History from Kennesaw State University in May 2015. Her current research interest involves the social history of diverse populations in the western hemisphere. She is especially interested in cross-cultural interactions in America and its effect on artistic expression. Her article “Stripped of Her Power: Sebastiano Ricci’s Susanna and the Elders” was published in Valley Humanities Review, Spring 2015. She is considering pursuing a graduate degree in Museum Studies or Archives and Records Management.

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