The Princes in the Tower
Sir John Everett Millais Bt PRA (1829-96)
Oil on canvas
147.2 x 91.4 cm
Acquisition no. TH0044; purchased by Thomas Holloway in 1881
Millais' son, John Guille Millais, tells us that his father thought of the subject as soon as he saw the two boys — suiting prospective model to subject was one of his father's gifts. These boys did indeed seem perfect for their roles. [Click on the pictures to enlarge them; commentary continues below.]
The pair were modelling for the Crown Prince Edward, aged only twelve, and his younger brother Richard, Duke of York, aged nine, sons of Edward IV, who had died unexpectedly in 1483. The princes were accommodated in the royal apartments of the Tower of London prior to the elder one's coronation, and never emerged from them. Their disappearance is one of the most famous mysteries in British history, though they are usually thought to have been murdered on the orders of their uncle, to secure his own place on the throne as Richard III. This was how Shakespeare saw it. He made the boys intelligent and promising, with Gloucester describing the younger one as "Bold, quick, ingenious, forward, capable" (Act 3, 1, 155). Looking angelic in the painting, they hold hands, not in any royal apartment, but in the depths of the dark tower, with threatening shadows on the steps behind them. Slight and pale-faced in the gloom, they are evidently apprehensive, and invite our sympathy.
Left: The painting in its frame. Right: Closer view of the boys.
Apparently Millais had found not only the perfect models, but the perfect gloomy tower as well, in the Perthshire village of Birnam. But, his son recalls,
Not being quite satisfied that the background was sufficiently like the spot in “The Bloody Tower,” where the boys are supposed to have been murdered, he sent me on three successive days to make pencil sketches of the interior; and finding from them that he had got the steps too small, and the staircase going the wrong way, he went and made drawings himself. Then, throwing aside the work he had already done, he started the picture again on a new and larger canvas, showing the exact surroundings of the place where the bodies of the murdered princes were found. 
Actually, the bodies were never found, but for centuries some bones found under the stairs were presumed to be theirs (hence the importance of the stairs in the painting). As a homely footnote, Millais's son adds that his father was much irritated by the boys' dropping acid drops during the sittings!
Thanks to its distribution in engravings, as well as to the Victorians' keen appreciation of the vulnerability of children, the painting was very popular. One proof of this is that, later on, Linley Sambourne could caricature it for political comment. This was in the pages of Punch (5 February 1908, Vol. 134), in which his cartoon, "The Victims," featured two Liberal ministers with daggers at the ready as the shadow of Balfour descends the stairs behind them. Since the issue at stake was defence policy, Sambourne's reversal of the original idea of beleaguered innocence is all the more effective (see Larson 9-13). Obviously, the cartoon is not so much "a significant commentary" on the painting itself (Fleming 255), as on a particular political situation, and political machinations generally.
Photographs, scan and text by Jacqueline Banerjee, with thanks to the Picture Gallery for allowing photography. You may use the images without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the photographer and the Picture Gallery and (2) link your document to this URL in a web document or cite the Victorian Web in a print one. Click on the images to enlarge them.
Art Journal (1884). Internet Archive. Contributed by the Getty Research Institute. Web. 31 March 2021.
Fleming, Gordon. John Everett Millais: A Biography. London: Constable, 1998.
Larson, Alison. The Last Laugh: Selected Edwardian Punch Cartoons od Edward Linley Sambourne. MA thesis for the University of North Texas, 2001. Academia. Web. 9 March 2019.
Millais, John Guille. The Life and Letters of John Everett Millais, President of the Royal Academy. 2 vols. Vol. II. London: Methuen, 1899. Internet Archive. Contributed by the Getty Research Institute. Web. 9 March 2019.
Created 9 March 2017; related material added 31 March 2021