Life's Journey

The Nightmare by Frederick Sandys. Wood engraving. c.1857. Source: The Life and Letters of Millais, facing, I, 320. Scanned image and text by George P. Landow. [You may use this image without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the person who scanned the image and (2) link your document to this URL in a web document or cite the Victorian Web in a print one.]

Sandys' famous parody of Sir John Everett Millais's A Dream of the Past -- Sir Isumbras at the Ford (1857) features Ruskin as an ass on which Millais (the knight) rises while holding his two children, Rossetti and Hunt. Note The paint bucket and peacock feathers. Ironically, after creating this famous skit of the PRB, Sandys himself became a friend and associate of the Pre-Raphaelites.

Millais's son quotes Frederick Stephens, one of the original PRB who became a well-known art critic, on the context and meaning of the parody:

In his Notes on the Grosvenor Gallery, 1885, he gives a vivid account of what followed on the exhibition of the picture in 1857. "The appearance of 'Sir Isumbras,' "he says, "produced a tremendous sensation. Satires, skits, jokes, deliberate analyses and criticisms -- most of them applied to purposes and technical aims not within the artist's intention when the picture was in hand -- crowded the columns of the comic as of the more serious journals. Utter ruin and destruction were prophesied of the artist who, somewhat rashly, had followed a technical purpose, but whose success in that respect cannot now be questioned. Among the most edifying of the comments published on 'Sir Isumbras' was a large print entitled 'A Nightmare,' and believed to be the work of Mr. F. Sandys, a distinguished brother artist, who probably was not without grievances of his own against critics. It generally reproduced the work in a ludicrous manner, and showed the painter while in the act of crossing the ford on the back of a loud-braying ass. Seated on the front of the saddle, in the place of one of the wood-cutter's children, Mr. Dante G. Rossetti is supported by the mighty hands of the steel-clad knight. Clinging round the waist of the champion is a quaint mannikin, with a sheaf of painter's brushes slung at his back, instead of the original figure, meant for Mr. W. Holman Hunt. The intention of the designer of this satire was to suggest the position of the Old Masters and the modern critics at this period. On the bank of the river are three different figures of M. Angelo, Titian, and Raphael. The first stands with his face averted and his arms folded, while Titian and Raphael kneel in front of him, looking towards the animal and his freight. A small scroll proceeds from the animal's mouth, with the legend, 'Orate pro nobis.' This print was not without its good technical qualities, and, except so far as the ass and the smallest riders were concerned, did no very grave injustice to any of the figures. Instead of his sheathed sword an artist's mahl-stick was suspended to the girdle of Sir John Millais, and by the side of this hung a bunch of peacock's feathers and a large paste-pot, inscribed 'P.-R.B.' for 'Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.'"

The lines relating to Sir Isumbras, which appeared in the Academy Catalogue in Old English type, were written for the occasion by Tom Taylor, who also wrote the extremely humorous verses attached to Mr. Sandys' skit. The former I give here: —

"The goode hors that the knyghte bestrode,
I trow his backe it was full brode,
And wighte and warie still he wode,
Noght reckinge of rivere:
He was so muckle and so stronge,
And thereto so wonderlich longe
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." [The Life and Letters of Millais, I, 312-13].


Millais, John Guile. The Life and Letters of John Everett Millais, President of the Royal Academy. 2 vols. New York: Frederick A. Stokes, 1899.

Created 27 September 2004

Last modified 6 January 2020