This recently rediscovered pencil work by Millais is very similar in manner to a portrait of the artist William Holman Hunt (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford) drawn in January 1854. The vigourous cross hatching to the left of the face and the quick, yet confident, approach to the hair and necktie, together with the delicate drawing of the eye and lips suggest that this must have been completed around the same time. Almost certainly cropped to fit a frame, any indication of whom the sitter is was lost a long time ago, but given the intimate nature of the drawing it suggests someone quite well known to the artist.
Of the three principal members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood formed in 1848 John Everett Millais certainly had the greatest natural facility as a painter. He studied at the Royal Academy Schools where he met William Holman Hunt, whose ideas about painting Millais found very exciting. Together with Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Hunt and Millais set out to paint with a simplicity and ingenuousness which they took to be the spirit in which mediaeval art was practiced. They believed implicitly inaccurate realism and bright colour. Millais particularly used a technique whereby he painted in colour on a wet white ground to achieve greater effects of luminosity. His Pre-Raphaelite picture `Christ in the House of His Parents’ brought upon him a storm of criticism
His greatest paintings were perhaps his subjectless figurative pictures, `The Blind Girl’ and `Autumn Leaves’, of the mid 1850s. Later he reverted to a more anecdotal style of subject picture and gave way to a tendency to paint winsome children in a style which, while it derives from Velazquez, is still over-sweet and sometimes coy. Millais was a remarkable draughtsman and illustrator; the series of drawings of modern life subjects which he did in 1853-4 reflect the moral crisis in which he found himself when he and Ruskin’s wife Effie fell in love.
In his later career Millais gained a great popular reputation and became very rich largely as a result of the lucrative sale of copyrights of his pictures to print publishers. He was made President of the Royal Academy after Leighton’s death in 1896, but died the same year.
We are grateful to the late Henry Weymss for his opinion on the attribution and to the staff at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford