This symposium was held at Tate Britain on 29 - 30 November 2007. The review originally appeared on H-Net (Humanities and Social Sciences Online), and appears here by kind permission of the author. It has been reformatted for our website, linked and illustrated by Jacqueline Banerjee. [Click on the images to enlarge them, and for more information about them.]

Decorated initial Most major exhibitions nowadays seem to be accompanied by a conference or symposium. The symposium on "Millais, Hunt and Modern Life" was a first for Tate Britain, as a fitting companion to its splendid Millais Exhibition. It followed a private view of the Exhibition on the previous evening, conducted by the two curators, Alison Smith (Curator and Head of Acquisitions, British Art to 1900, Tate Britain) and Jason Rosenfeld (Assistant Professor of Art History at Marymount Manhattan College, New York). Besides discussing the actual works, and the difficulties associated with the interpretation of some, they explained their policy regarding for instance the choice of wall colours or the variable hanging heights – a fascinating glimpse behind the scenes for those like the present reviewer who belong to the academic rather than the museum community.

"Millais and Real Beauty," by Malcolm Warner

Left: Millais's Isabella (1848-49). Right: Detail of Mary and Jesus in Millais's Christ in the House of His Parents (1849-50).

The actual symposium started the next morning with a paper on "Millais and Real Beauty" by Malcolm Warner (Deputy Director and Acting Director of the Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas). Dr Warner discussed a number of works in the light of the canons of beauty of the time, as revealed by the perception of Millais's paintings emerging from reviews in the prominent magazines of the Victorian era. Millais was felt to have "prettified" his sister-in-law as Isabella, but then not as the Virgin Mary the following year in Christ in the House of His Parents (The Carpenter’s Shop, 1849-1850) – a picture which received much hostile criticism. For Warner, Millais was after a new kind of beauty: the real, as opposed to the ideal beauty of the individual. There was also the importance of fashion in the perception and reception of this painting. Today, red hair is extremely fashionable – such a desirable gift of nature that many people dye their hair red. But in Millais's time, it was seen as an ugly freak of nature – and when he painted the young Jesus with red hair the hostile reception was predictable. To show the contrast between Millais’s conception of beauty and that of his classical predecessors, Warner showed a slide of Raphael's Belle jardinière (La Vierge à l'enfant avec le petit saint Jean-Baptiste, c.1507-1508): everything here is roundness, curvaceous shapes, with a perfect skin and absolute symmetry in the face, a superhuman fusion of the best natural features. This is the conception which presented Victoria as a Madonna – but for Millais, it needed a corrective to produce "real" beauty. A close-up of The Return of the Dove to the Ark (1851) suggests "greasy hair," and at least one critic found the models ugly – but this is beside the point, as what Millais was aiming at was "expression," in the dual meaning derived from Ruskin: the suggestion of both personality and emotional response. But then A Huguenot on St Bartholomew's Day (1851-1852), based on professional models, was a 'hit', as testified by the many engravings subsequently produced. The Order of Release, 1746 (1852-1853) introduces the question from a different angle, after Théophile Gautier in 1855: art is not literary or theatrical. The reviewer in Fraser's Magazine strove to get the meaning of the expression in the eye of the wife, asking the right questions. Autumn Leaves (1855-1856) is famously "a picture full of beauty and without subject," (3) in which real beauty comes from avoidance of expression – and here children have a special role to play. Spring (1856-1859) was so much of a 'mood painting' that this time Fraser’s Magazine found it "impossibly ugly." Likewise, The Times found the daughter "too bland" in Jephthah (1867), and a reviewer saw the two boys in The Princes in the Tower (1878) as garbed for a fancy dress ball. The last work shown and discussed, Twins (1875-1876), allowed Warner to make the point that in portraiture you cannot choose the sitters. Here, we have two similar, but different faces. They do not express the same reaction in front of the painter: there is in fact no "Millais type," contrary to Dante Gabriel Rossetti or Edward Burne-Jones. Millais’s is not the beauty of the aesthetes – hence the bad criticism which he received from his Victorian commentators.

"Public and Private," by Carol Jacobi

Left: Hunt's The Finding of th Saviour in the Temple (1854-60). Right: Millais's Bubbles (1886).

Carol Jacobi (Department of History of Art, Film and Visual Media, Birkbeck College, University of London) followed with "Public and Private," in which she undertook to compare and contrast some aspects of William Holman Hunt’s and Millais’s personalities and works. There was little to differentiate the two 'brothers' from the point of view of money and fame. Admittedly, Hunt was never admitted into the Royal Academy, but both had their self-portraits at the Uffizi, and some of Hunt’s paintings, like The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple (1854-1860), were commissions ultimately made possible by the increased productivity of capital in the railway industry at the time. Arguably, Millais also rode the wave of industrial and demographic expansion – Bubbles (1886) being the best example, with its implicit reliance on a market based on the ubiquitous presence of children in the great industrial cities of the country. It is incidentally possible to detect a London urchin in the boy lying in the bottom right-hand corner of Hunt's A Converted British Family sheltering a Christian Priest from the Persecution of the Druids (1849-1850). Like Millais, Hunt was criticised for his conception of beauty: Bianca was seen as an "American" beauty, and therefore a vulgar one.

From a more technical point of view, Dr Jacobi took the example of Honest Labour has a Comely Face (Hunt, 1861) and Wandering Thoughts (Millais, 1855) to argue that in both there is a psychological narrative in the faces shown. Also, both painters have suggestions of willing abductees, a metaphor for the triumph of the individual over society. In both the moral codes of bourgeois marriage are denounced, with the idea that individual freedom is incompatible with family life. A good example of this subtle subversion of the conventions of the age is to be found in Isabella (1848-1849), with its figures which are all diverging and its eyes which never meet. Dr Jacobi concluded her talk on both painters' interest in relationships, especially in the context of the material age in which they lived: their painting is dialogic rather than didactic in that it opens a debate on what constitutes consent.

"Pictorial Precedents, Tradition and Meaning," by Paul Barlow

Max Beerbohm's A Momentary Vision once Befell Young Millais (1922).

The morning session ended with "Pictorial Precedents, Tradition and Meaning," by Paul Barlow (Senior Lecturer at Northumbria University). Pointing out that Millais painted for the present (and therefore suggesting that he was always ready to adapt – a fact not lost on some of those who gently mocked him later, like Max Beerbohm in his 1922 caricature, A Momentary Vision once befell Young Millais), he contrasted this with Hunt's rigidity. For Hunt, there was only one true path. He was dogmatic against the Impressionists and in some way he can be seen as the "Colonel Blimp" of art history.

The Miracle of the Holy Fire (1892-1899), with its wealth of detail, is a reflection by Hunt on the fake and the genuine, but also a thinly-disguised attack of the Christian Churches and the corruption of their original faith. By contrast Islam is seen as the archetype of purity, with a historic cleansing role to play in the Middle East. The picture is in the same category as The Awakening Conscience (1853), with its extraordinarily complex play of mirrors which creates a web of artifice. There is little doubt that Hunt’s The Lady of Shalott (begun in 1886 and finally exhibited in 1905) is in the lineage of Blake’s work, though one can be less sure that The Beloved (1865-1866) by Rossetti, with its novel exploration of racial features, provided the inspiration for Millais's Jephthah (1867). Dr Barlow also mentioned T.H. Huxley’s contemporary work on racial typology as a possible influence.

Whatever this may be, there is in Millais a unity of emotion, a subtle body language, with facial and bodily identity, which contrasts with Hunt’s theatricality. Bubbles embodies the fragility of life and the transience of childhood, with the broken pot as a foreboding of death. But Dr Barlow also pointed to the parallels which can be found in e.g. Hunt's A Converted British Family sheltering a Christian Priest from the Persecution of the Druids and Millais’s Christ in the House of His Parents: the awkward poses in both pictures reflect the crudity of primitive conditions.

"The Elephant in the Room: Millais, Hunt and Empire," by Tim Barringer

Two paintings by Millais. Left: The North-West Passage (1874). Right: The Yeoman of the Guard (1877).

After the lunch break, the first speaker was Tim Barringer (Paul Mellon Professor of the History of Art and Director of Graduate Studies at Yale University), on "The Elephant in the Room: Millais, Hunt and Empire," who insisted in his introduction on the historiographic significance of the current Millais Exhibition at Tate Britain. Victorian art is often seen as an embarrassing moment in British art, and Millais is the only Victorian painter to have benefited from a major Exhibition at the Tate so far. Barringer then explained his choice of topic: whether one likes the idea of Empire or not (and he does not), it was at the centre of British art from the early 19th century – and Imperial art is not necessarily bad. Millais and Hunt were public artists, adepts of modernity who took account of the preoccupations of their time, including Empire, and there is no doubt that their work raises questions on British Imperial identity.

Concentrating on Millais, Barringer logically started with Pizarro seizing the Inca of Peru (1846) – an obvious critique of Spanish Imperial domination, to be seen in the light of the revival in 1848 of Sheridan’s 1799 play, Pizarro. Sir Joshua Reynolds' Portrait of Omai (c.1775) had already illustrated the myth of the "Noble Savage" derived from Rousseau. For his part, Mulready with his envelopes in the 1840s was content with a simple description of the European presence overseas. With the prominent crucifix in Pizarro seizing the Inca of Peru, Millais on the other hand expressed his hostility towards Spain and Rome and his horror of the Jesuits.

The message in Peace Concluded (1856), exhibited ten years later, is far more ambiguous. Is it a critique of war? Of peace? Of the incompetence of British forces in the Crimea? Of the protagonist’s absence on the front? The children’s animals represent the belligerent countries and the Noah’s ark box on the ground can be seen as symbolizing the Empire. But then the picture leaves us uncertain whether the Empire is an ark or a danger. The Boyhood of Raleigh (1869-70) is equally ambiguous. Who is that strange sailor? What is the nature of his tale? Is it not a lure? Are the rusty anchor and the dilapidated ship not portends of disaster? Was the building of the Empire – including Raleigh’s participation in it – a curse or a blessing? The answer to all these difficult questions is not to be found in The North-West Passage (1874), a picture conventionally described as one of Imperial celebration which is also in fact a reminder of failure. Finally, A Yeoman of the Guard (1877), with its pikes which can be seen as Death’s scythe, conclusively shows that Millais was not sentimental about British power.

"The Picture of Prophecy: Holman Hunt's Holy Land," by Nicholas Tromans

Two works by Hunt, Left: The Shadow of Death (1869-73). Right: The Triumph of the Innocents (1876-1887)

This paper, predominantly on Millais, was followed by one exclusively on Hunt: "The Picture of Prophecy: Holman Hunt's Holy Land" by Nicholas Tromans (Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Art, Design and Architecture, Kingston University, London). It must have come as a surprise to most of the (large) audience that Hunt in fact preceded Theodor Herzl (1860-1904) by a few years in his advocacy of Zionism. The explanations can only be complex. Zionism as the fulfilment of an old prophecy and the archetype of an age-old dream naturally had Romantic connotations. The British Restorationist movement, whose original objective was to persuade the Jews to be converted, finally obtained the creation of a British consulate and Anglican bishopric in Jerusalem in 1841. There was also the lure of Orientalism. Whatever it was that attracted Hunt, he was in Jerusalem in 1854-55, at a period of tension with the labouring population. The Shadow of Death (1869-73) shows the sweat on Jesus’ body: this is a direct reference to the hard-working agriculturalists and manual workers whom Hunt had encountered in Jerusalem. For Tromans, Hunt’s 1858 pamphlet against Gobat, the Bishop of Jerusalem, shows his obsessive interest in the Anglicans' behaviour in the Holy Land. While Gobat continued to hope for more conversions (even if it meant obtaining them by dubious means), Hunt held that this had little to do with the true nature of religion.

Tromans then proposed a bold interpretation of The Scapegoat (painted in Palestine, exhibited in London in 1856), usually proposed as a metaphor of Christ: at a time when the Arabs were often described as sodomites, the Jewish goat would have been seen as a victim of the Arab camel whose remains are shown in the distance behind it. Hunt’s general anxiety over the insecurity which prevailed in the Holy Land is also reflected in The Triumph of the Innocents (1876-1887): one might perceive in it a fear of the massacre of Christians in Jerusalem. Hunt had a settler mentality, but not that of the ordinary European settler: in his pursuit of truth in everything, he empathised with the Jewish settlers in the land of their ancestors, and Tromans argues that by the 1860s Hunt had become the most outspoken Zionist Gentile in Britain – Herzl, whom he had met, being of course a Jew.

"Millais’s Jewish Patrons," by Jason Rosenfeld

Millais's Esher (1865).

The next paper, "Millais’s Jewish Patrons," by Jason Rosenfeld, naturally continued to explore the question of Anglo-Jewish relations. The context was one of assimilation and expansion of the Jewish community in Britain, with the emergence of powerful and wealthy Anglo-Jewish families, some of them becoming major patrons of the arts in the country. With time, Millais became largely dependent on this patronage – which did not prevent him from having the anti-Semitic John Leech as his best friend. Rosenfeld concentrated on two paintings, Jephthah and Esther (1863-1865). Both, naturally, are based on passages in the Old Testament – and both were commissioned by wealthy Jewish patrons (Rosenfeld adding that both were also the subject of oratorios by Handel). Jephthah was bought in 1867 for the considerable sum of £200 by Sam Mendel, a Manchester cotton magnate known as the "Merchant Prince," for his magnificent residence, Manley Hall, whose walls looked like those of a picture gallery, judging from slides shown by Rosenfeld. Esther was acquired by the fashionable London art dealer, Asher Wertheimer, who was acquainted with many Jewish collectors like the Rothschilds.

Rosenfeld concluded on another aspect of the general context: Millais’s time was a period of deliberate money-making and art acquisition on the part of the Jewish community in Britain, with a mood of complacency born of security. The question remains open whether he participated in the enlightenment of his wealthy Jewish patrons, but there is no doubt that thanks to them he enjoyed the luxury to paint what struck him – and this certainly did not produce the pedestrian painting generally associated with oeuvres de commande.

"Potboilers, Purity, and Pathos: Child Imagery in the Art of Millais and Hunt," by Barbara Gallati

Two works of Millais, from 1863. Left: Millais's My First Sermon. Right: Millais' My Second Sermon.

In "Potboilers, Purity, and Pathos: Child Imagery in the Art of Millais and Hunt," Barbara Gallati (Curator Emerita of American Art, the Brooklyn Museum, New York) first made the point that Millais's child imagery is both popular and recognisable, showing a recent Guardian cartoon (12 February 2007) by Martin Rowson of the Conservative Leader as "Bubbles" which would ring an instant bell in most readers of the newspaper. At the time, of course, Millais was repeatedly attacked for suffering from "baby disease" and one at least of his child paintings was summarily dismissed as a "puffy picture." Yet childhood was a serious business: the Romantic heritage associated the image of purity and innocence with children, and they were everywhere, forming a sizeable proportion of Victorian society. There were of course the visible poor, but in middle- and upper-class families, a consumer culture was emerging around children (as exemplified in the elaborate toys shown on Peace Concluded), and the importance of children's clothing design is made clearly visible in Millais’s pictures. Finally, of course, children were increasingly seen as the future of the race. For Gallati, the accusation that pictures like The Schoolgirl's Hymn (Hunt, 1859) or My First Sermon / My Second Sermon (Millais, 1863 – which incidentally an opportunist Archbishop of Canterbury used as a warning against "the evil of lengthy sermons and drowsy discourses") are mere "potboilers" is unfounded. Their careful study and affectionate depiction of childhood innocence and beauty make them rise above "potboiler" status. Many of his paintings show that Millais was interested in the exploration of relationships within families and pictures like The Blind Girl (1854-1856) or The Infant of the Regiment (1854-1855) denote an empathic state with childhood. All these works, whether from Hunt or from Millais, had "real" roots – their subjects (often their own children – cf. Millais's daughter in My First Sermon / My Second Sermon and Hunt’s son as Master Hilary – The Tracer, 1886) were not stereotypes, as some have suggested. To a question from the audience whether Hunt and Millais did not offer an idealistic vision of childhood at a time when many worked in factories, Gallati answered that there was admittedly a clear-cut separation between non-visual works of literature and the contemporary productions of the fine arts.

"Costume and Jewellery," by Charlotte Gere

Millais's Mrs Bischoffheim (1872-73).

The last talk of the day, on "Costume and Jewellery" was given by Charlotte Gere, the nineteenth-century decorative arts specialist. Starting with The Bridesmaid (Millais, 1851) and the complex symbolism associated with the orange blossom, an oxymoronic erotic suggestion of virginity, the slide show continued with a discussion of Lillie Langtry’s black dress with no jewels in A Jersey Lily (Millais, 1877-1878): the explanation, as given by the actress herself, is extremely banal – at the time (early in her career) she simply had no money. As is well known she ended as a demi-mondaine: when she was able to afford to wear jewelry, she had lost her original purity as radiating from A Jersey Lily. The association of jewelry with evil is also suggested in Helen of Troy (Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1863), which can be seen as a metaphor for betrayal and adultery – an image of destruction. But then elaborate dresses and expensive jewelry can be simple signifiers, conventional exterior signs of wealth, as in Mrs. Bischoffsheim (Millais, 1872-1873). The eye is caught by the magnificent eighteenth-century dress and by the enormous precious stone hanging from her necklace, but one should also pay attention to the intriguing detail of the bulging ring under the glove, which has given rise to a great number of interpretations. The symbolism of gloves is not yet fully understood, though they evidently participate in the creation of the atmosphere of internal/external turmoil in Hunt’s The Awakening Conscience.

On the other hand, Millais's interest in dress, made evident by pictures like Spring is well documented: it is known that he bought dresses as props when occasion arose. And Hunt's interest in jewelry is made apparent on at least two occasions. First with the profusion of jewels in the portrait of his first wife (The Birthday – A Portrait of the Artist’s Wife, Edith) and secondly when one considers it together with that of her sister (his second wife), Portrait of Fanny Holman Hunt, the presence of the cameo providing the link between the two. After concluding on the enigmatic dimension of the lilies in Hunt’s The Lady of Shalott, Charlotte Gere answered questions on the meaning of flowers, indicating that this was a major subject, which needed a lot of further research.

Round Table Discussion

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he symposium ended with a Round Table discussion chaired by Alison Smith, with Tim Barringer, Carol Jacobi, Elizabeth Prettejohn (Professor of the History of Art at the University of Bristol) and Jason Rosenfeld. Alison Smith first asked Carol Jacobi to present the Exhibition which she will be co-curating at the Manchester Art Gallery in 2008-2009, "William Holman Hunt and the Pre-Raphaelite Vision." It will be smaller than the current Millais Exhibition and will notably concentrate on the afterlife of Hunt's works. Then the discussion started on the question of modernity. For Elizabeth Prettejohn, the Victorians are modern in the sense that they re-invent the history of art, with Tim Barringer arguing that the Victorian conception of history is a function of industrial and economic modernity and Jason Rosenfeld adding that, as a product of his time, Millais did not shy away from Capitalist society: in fact there is a great analogy between Millais selling his work all over Europe and the art fairs of today. A question from the audience raised the topic of Millais's attitude towards younger members of the Royal Academy. Rosenfeld answered that Millais did not feel that it was his role as President of the Royal Academy to help younger members. Alison Smith recalled that Millais was primarily an individual, with no idea of founding a school. Indeed, Rosenfeld concurred, he had no students, no pupils; on the other hand he was generous with criticism, and the self-conscious Hunt often availed himself of Millais’s readiness to offer help. Carol Jacobi concluded this discussion by pointing out that Millais was in fact the last of his kind: after him, great careers were built outside the Royal Academy.

Another question bore on architecture. Jason Rosenfeld reminded us that Millais was not interested in modern Victorian architecture or the Gothic Revival, while Carol Jacobi indicated that Hunt designed furniture. For Nicholas Tromans, this lack of interest in architecture is linked to the fact that London was not transformed, as Paris was by Baron Haussmann. Rosenfeld took the example of St Pancras, one of the great buildings of the country, in pure Victorian Gothic: it was an individual project, like Millais's works. Tim Barringer intervened to say that he found all this talk on the French lead profoundly boring: Les Flâneuses as the paradigm of modern art? Haussmann has to do with sociology, and this does not produce St Pancras.

The Round Table discussion was concluded by a question on Millais and the emotion of parental and marital love, all the participants agreeing with Jason Rosenfeld that, beyond all the limits associated with that society man, you can connect with his characters.

Created 5 December 2021