John Everett Millais

John Guille Millais published The Life and Letters of Sir John Everett Millais in 1899, shortly after his father's death. John Everett Millais (1829-1896) was an eminent artist and founder of the Pre-Raphaelite movement with Holman Hunt and Dante Gabriel Rosetti. In the year he died Millais was elected President of the Royal Academy. The book contains letters and eye-witness accounts by Millais and other contemporaries and casts a lot of light on Wilkie's early life through the anecdotes about his brother Charles and life at their home in Hanover Terrace. The famous account of the origins of The Woman in White is probably a fictionalised and embellished story about Wilkie's meeting with Caroline Graves as the origins of the book seem well documented to have been a French history of trials. The meeting described was probably the summer of 1853 when Wilkie was 29. All the Collins material is included here, beginning with Wilkie, moving through Hanover Terrace, and on to the stories about Charles.

Millais is seen above in a self-portrait. Page references are to the one volume edition of the book published in 1905.

[WILKIE COLLINS – THE MEETING probably Summer 1853]
Of Wilkie Collins there is little to be said in connection with the subject of the present work, though both he and his brother Charles were for many years amongst Millais’ most intimate friends, and no one more admired his brilliant talent as a novelist. Since his famous novel, The Woman in White, appeared, many have been the tales set on foot to account for its origin, but for the most part quite inaccurate. The real facts, so far as I am at liberty to disclose them, were these:

One night in the fifties Millais was returning home to Gower Street from one of the many parties held under Mrs. Collins’ hospitable roof in Hanover Terrace, and, in accordance with the usual practice of the two brothers, Wilkie and Charles, they accompanied him on his homeward walk through the dimly-lit, and in those days semi-rural, roads and lanes of North London.

It was a beautiful moonlight night in the summer time, and as the three friends walked along chatting gaily together, they were suddenly arrested by a piercing scream coming from the garden of a villa close at hand. It was evidently the cry of a woman in distress; and while pausing to consider what they should do, the iron gate leading to the garden was dashed open, and from it came the figure of a young and very beautiful woman dressed in flowing white robes that shone in the moonlight. She seemed to float rather than to run in their direction, and, on coming up to the three young men, she paused for a moment in an attitude of supplication and terror. Then, seeming to recollect herself, she suddenly moved on and vanished in the shadows cast upon the road.

"What a lovely woman!" was all Millais could say. "I must see who she is and what’s the matter," said Wilkie Collins as, with out another word, he dashed off after her. His two companions waited in vain for his return, and next day, when they met again, he seemed indisposed to talk of his adventure. They gathered from him, however, that he had come up with the lovely fugitive and had heard from her own lips the history of her life and the cause of her sudden flight. She was a young lady of good birth and position, who had accidentally fallen into the hands of a man living in a villa in Regent’s Park. There for many months he kept her prisoner under threats and mesmeric influence of so alarming a character that she dared not attempt to escape, until, in sheer desperation, she fled from the brute, who with a poker in his hand, threatened to dash her brains out. Her subsequent history, interesting as it is, is not for these pages.

Wilkie Collins, of whom there is an excellent likeness by Millais in the National Portrait Gallery, died in 1889. [pp142-143]

And now the eventful day approached. But let William Millais tell the tale in his own words:—"On the day when the result of the election of Associates at the Royal Academy of Arts was to be made known, my brother, self, Wilkie and Charlie Collins all started off to spend a whole day in the country to alleviate our excitement. Hendon was the chosen locality. My brother wore a large gold goose scarf-pin. He had designed a goose for himself and a wild duck for me, which were made by Messrs. Hunt and Roskell—exquisite works of Art. We had spent a very jolly day, the principal topic of conversation being the coming election, Wilkie Collins being confident that Jack’s usual luck would attend him and that he would certainly be returned an Associate of the Royal Academy.

We had been walking along a narrow, sandy lane, and, meeting a large three-horse waggon, had stepped aside to let it pass, when we resumed our way, and shortly afterwards Jack’s pin was gone! ‘Now, Wilkie,’ said my brother, ‘how about my luck? This is an ominous sign that I shall not get in.’ ‘Wait a bit, let’s go back,’ said Wilkie. We were all quite sure that he had it on on leaving Hendon. Now, the fact of a huge waggon having gone over the ground we had travelled by gave us very little hope of seeing the golden goose again. A stipulated distance was agreed upon, and back we all trudged, scanning the ground minutely. I undertook the pacing. The waggon had ploughed deep furrows in the sand, and just as we had reached the end of our tether, Jack screamed out, ‘There it is, by Jove!’ And, in truth, the great gold goose was standing perched on a ridge of sand, glistening like the Koh-i-noor itself. We went straight to the Royal Academy, and Charles Landseer, coming out, greeted my brother with, ‘Well, Millais, you are in this time in earnest,’ punning on his name, which they had entered as ‘John Ernest Millais’ instead of John Everett Millais." [pp115-116]

Of course you have heard from Hunt since his return. Now that he has come home we have our old friendly meetings again, such as we used to have in former years. Charlie has so far altered as to join our evenings, which he used to look upon as almost profane. The evenings are so continually wet that I seldom take my usual walk to Hanover Terrace. Mrs. Collins is getting quite gloomy at the infrequency of my visits.

Wilkie’s new novel, Basil, has come out. I have just finished reading it, and think it very clever. The papers, I understand, abuse it very much, but I think them inconsistent in crying it down and praising Antonina, which is not nearly so good. Have you read Esmond, Thackeray’s last book? I hear from Hunt that it is splendid, but it is in so much request at the library that I cannot get it. [p105]

To the same.
Sunday, April 18th, 1852.

MY DEAR MR. COMBE,—Forgive my not having answered your letter sooner. Ever since the sending in of the pictures I have been running about London, calling, and taking walks into the country. You ask me to describe the dance of Mrs. Collins. I truly wish that you had been there. It was a delightful evening. Charlie [Collins] never got beyond a very solemn quadrille, though he is an excellent waltzer and polka dancer. Poor Mrs. C. was totally dumb from a violent influenza she unfortunately caught that very afternoon. She received all her guests in a whisper and a round face of welcome. There were many lions-amongst others the famous Dickens, who came for about half an hour and officiated as principal carver at supper. Altogether there were about seventy people. [p90]
I hear from Mrs. Collins that they may, perhaps, spend some part of the autumn at Hanover Terrace. I hope it will be so, as I would arrange for a tour together in the spring if all goes right to Switzerland or Spain. Next year I hope to paint the ‘Deluge,’ which will not require any out-of-door painting, so I should be at liberty to take a holiday abroad. Write and let me know what you think of this; it is a project I really intend. Remember me most affectionately to Mrs. Pat, to whom I shall write in a day or two. [pp97]

The first meeting, at which terms of co-operation were seriously discussed, was held on a certain night in 1848, at Millais’ home in Gower Street, where the young artist exhibited, as examples of sound work, some volumes of engravings from the frescoes of Benozzo Gozzoli, Orcagna, and others now in the Campo Santo at Pisa.

"Now, look here," said Millais, speaking for himself and Hunt, who were both jealous of others joining them without a distinct understanding of their object, "this is what the Pre-Raphaelite clique should follow." The idea was eagerly taken up, and then, or shortly afterwards, William Rossetti, Woolner, F. G. Stephens (now an Art critic), and James Collinson joined the Brotherhood -the P.-R. B., as it was now called.

Arthur Hughes, Frederic Sandys, Noel Paton, Charles Collins, and Walter Deverell also sympathised with their aims, and were more or less working on the same lines. Coventry Patmore, the poet, although in close association with many of the Brotherhood, was not himself a member, as the association was strictly limited to working artists.

Writing on this subject in the Contemporary Review of May, 1880, Mr. Holman Hunt says: "Outside of the enrolled body [the P.-R, B.] were several artists of real calibre and enthusiasm, who were working diligently with our views guiding them.

W. H. Deverell, Charles Collins, and Arthur Hughes may be named. It was a question whether any of them should be elected. It was already evident that to have authority to put the mystic monogram upon their paintings could confer no benefit on men striving to earn a position. We ourselves even determined for a time to discontinue the floating of this red rag before the eyes of infuriated John Bull, and we decided it was better to let our converts be known only by their works, and so nominally Pre-Raphaelitism ceased to be. We agreed to resume the open profession of it later, but the time had not yet come." [pp25-26]

To Mrs. Combe.
November 13th,1850.

MY DEAR MRS. PAT,—Our departure was so velocitous that I had no time or spirits to express my thanks to you before leaving for your immense kindness and endurance of all whimsicalities attached to my nature. I scribble this at Collins’ house, being totally incapable of remaining at my own residence after the night’s rest and morning’s ‘heavy blow’* of breakfast. The Clarendonian visit, the Bottleyonian privations, and Oxonian martyrdoms have wrought in us (Collins and myself) such a similar feeling that it is quite impracticable to separate. I had to go through the exceedingly difficult task of performing the dramatic traveller’s return to his home-embracing ferociously and otherwise exulting in the restoration to the bosom of my family. I say I had to ‘perform’ this part, because the detesta tion I hold London in surpasses all expression, and prevents the possibility of my being pleased to return to anybody at such a place. Mind, I am not abusing the society, but the filth of the metropolis.

Now for a catalogue of words to express my thanks to you and Mr. Combe. I have not got Johnson’s dictionary near me, so I am at a loss. Your kindness has defeated the possibility of ever adequately thanking you, so I will conclude with rendering my mother’s grateful acknowledgments.

Remember me to all my friends, and believe me, "
Yours most sincerely,

*"Heavy blow" was a jocular phrase used by my father and the Combes.

Note.—The "Bottleyonian privations" refer to the hard fare on which Millais and Charles Collins subsisted at the cottage of Mrs. King, at Botley, whilst the former was painting "The Wood man’s Daughter." Mrs. Combe’s motherly kindness to the two young artists is thus referred to by Dr. Birkbeck Hill in his book on the Rossetti letters:-" I have heard Mrs. Combe relate a story how Millais and Collins, when very young men, once lodged in a cottage nearly opposite the entrance of Lord Abingdon’s park close to Oxford. She learnt from them that they got but poor fare, so soon afterwards she drove over in her carriage, and left for them a large meat-pie. Millais, she added, one day said to Mr. Combe, ‘People had better buy my pictures now, when I am working for fame, than a few years later, when I shall be married and working for a wife and children.’ It was in these later years that old Linnell exclaimed to him, ‘Ah, Mr. Millais, you have left your first love, you have left your first love!’

To the same.
December 2nd, 1850.

MY DEAR MRS. PAT,—Every Sunday since I left Oxford Collins and I have spent together, attending Wells Street Church I think you will admit (when in town) that the service there is better performed than any other you have ever attended. We met there yesterday morning a University man of our acquaintance who admitted its superiority over Oxford or Cambridge. I am ashamed to say that late hours at night and ditto in the morning are creeping again on us. Now and then I make a desperate resolution to plunge out of bed when called, which ends in passively lying down again. A late breakfast (I won’t mention the hour) and my lay-figure [artist’s dummy] stares at me in reproving astonishment as I enter my study. During all this time I am so powerlessly cold that 1 am like a moving automaton. The first impulse is to sit by my stove, which emits a delicious, genial, unwholesome, feverish heat, and the natural course of things brings on total incapacity to work and absolute laziness. In spite of this I manage to paint three hairs on the woodman’s little girl’s head or two freckles on her face; and so lags the day till dark, by which time the room is so hot, and the glue in the furniture therein so softened by the warmth, that the chairs and tables are in peril of falling to pieces before my face. . . . But I, like the rest of the furniture, am in too delicate a state to be moved when the call for dinner awakens the last effort but one in removing my body to the table, where the last effort of all is required to eat.

This revives just strength enough to walk to Hanover Terrace in a night so cold that horses should wear great-coats. Upon arriving there I embrace Collins, and vice versa; Mrs. Collins makes the tea, and we drink it; we then adjourn upstairs to his room and converse till about twelve, when we say good-night, and again poor wretched ‘Malay’ [he was always called ‘Mr. Malay’ wherever he went] risks his life in the London Polar voyage, meeting no human beings but metropolitan policemen, to whom he has an obscure intention of giving a feast of tea and thicker bread and butter than that given by Mr. Hales, of Oxford, in acknowledgment of his high esteem of their services. At one o’clock in the morning it is too severely cold for anything to be out but a lamp-post, and I am one of that body….[pp43-45]

To-morrow (Sunday) Collins and myself are going to dine with a University man whose brother has just seceded, and afterwards to hear the Cardinal’s second discourse. My brother went last Sunday, but could not hear a word, as it was so crowded he could not get near enough. The Cardinal preaches in his mitre and full vestments, so there will be a great display of pomp as well as knowledge. . . . [p47]

It was very unfortunate that Charley [Collins] could not complete the second picture for the Exhibition. I tried all the encouraging persuasions in my power; but he was beaten by a silk dress, which he had not yet finished. [p50]

To the same.
May 10th, 1851

MY DEAR MR. COMBE,—I think if your friend admires Charley’s sketch he would be particularly charmed with the picture, and would never regret its purchase, as a work so elaborately studied would always (after the present panic) command its price, £150.

Most men look back upon their early paintings-for which they have received but poor remuneration-as the principal instruments of their after wealth. For one great instance, see Wilkie’s ‘Blind Fiddler,’ sold for £20, now worth more than £1000! Early works are also generally the standard specimens of artists, as great success blunts enthusiasm, and little by little men get into carelessness, which is construed by idiotic critics into a nobler handling. Putting aside the good work of purchasing from those who require encouragement, such patrons will be respected after wards as wise and useful men amongst knavish fools, who should be destroyed in their revolting attempts to crush us-attempts so obviously malicious as to prove our rapid ascendancy. It is no credit to a man to purchase from those who are opulent and acknowledged by the world, so your friend has an opportunity for becoming one of the first-named wise patrons who shall, if we live, be extolled as having assisted in our (I hope) final success.

Hunt will, I think, sell his; there is a man about it, and it is a very fine picture. My somewhat showmanlike recommendation of Collins’ ‘Nun’ is a pure matter of conscience, and I hope it will prove not altogether faulty.

Very sincerely yours,

Hunt wants £300 for his picture.

28th, 1851.

MY DEAR MRS. COMBE,—I feel it a duty to render you my most heartfelt thanks for the noble appreciation of my dear friend Collins’ work and character. I include character, for I cannot help believing, from the evident good feeling evinced in your letter, that you have thought more of the beneficial results the purchase may occasion him than of your personal gratification at possessing the picture.

You are not mistaken in thus believing him worthy of your kindest interests, for there are few so devotedly directed to the one thought of some day (through the medium of his art) turning the minds of men to good reflections and so heightening the profession as one of unworldly usefulness to mankind.

This is our great object in painting, for the thought of simply pleasing the senses would drive us to other pursuits requiring less of that unceasing attention so necessary to the completion of a perfect work. [pp51-52]

To be near his work on this picture Millais stayed in the cottage of a Mrs. King, at Botley, Lord Abingdon’s park, where he was joined by his friend Charles Collins.

The strawberries which appear in the picture,, as presented by the young aristocrat, were bought in Covent Garden in March. "I had to pay five-and-sixpence for the four—a vast sum for me in those days, but necessary"—I have heard him say—"and Charlie Collins and I ate them afterwards with a thankful heart." [p57]

It was a jolly bachelor party that now assembled in the farm house—Holman Hunt, Charlie Collins, William and John Millais—all determined to work in earnest; Holman Hunt on his famous "Light of the World" and "The Hireling Shepherd," Charlie Collins at a background, William Millais on water-colour land scapes, and my father on the backgrounds for the two pictures he had then in hand.

From ten in the morning till dark the artists saw little of each other, but when the evenings "brought all things home" they assembled to talk deeply on Art, drink strong tea, and discuss and criticise each other’s pictures. [p60]

November 16th (Sunday.—To church with Collins;*

* At this time Charles Collins was engaged on the background for a picture, the subject of which he had not yet settled upon. He got as far as placing upon the canvas an old shed with broken roof and sides, through which the sunlight streamed; with a peep outside the leaves glittering in the summer breeze; and at this he worked week after week with ever-varying ideas as to the subject he should ultimately select. At last he found a beautiful one in the legend of a French peasant, who, with his family, outcast and starving, had taken refuge in the ruined hut, and were ministered to by a saint.

The picture, however, was never finished. Poor Collins gave up painting in despair and drifted into literature; and when the end came, Holman Hunt, who was called in to make a sketch of his friend, was much touched to find this very canvas (then taken off the strainers) lying on the bed beside the dead man. The tragedy of vanished hopes!

Charles Collins was a regular contributor to Household Words, but is chiefly known by his Cruise on Wheels, a work which met with success.

Hunt, having sat up all night painting out of doors, in bed. After church found him still in his room; awoke him and had breakfast with him, having gone without mine almost entirely, feeling obliged to leave it for church. [pp71-72]

To Mr. Charles Collins.

MY DEAR CHARLEY,-Many thanks for your long sermon. In the case of Tennyson’s poem, I think you quite misunderstand his meaning. He does not imply that we have no light in the world, for he says in another place

But what am I?
An infant crying in the night,
An infant crying for the light,
And with no language but a cry.

Which clearly implies that it is his weakness of ‘Faith’ to believe that the light which exists is at fault. A man would never ask for that which is not revealed. Regarding that passage you quoted

I falter where I firmly trod,
And falling with my weight of cares
Upon the great world’s altar stairs
That slope thro’ darkness up to God—

these lines, I think, only express the unsteadiness of his belief, which many good men have likewise felt. Even the Apostle Thomas was incredulous of that which was immediately before him. The whole poem is the expression of passing thought praises of God and doubts in succession. It is very rare that very great men are the steadiest Christians, for they are con versant with all existing arguments against Scripture, which are very strong, as everything belonging to the devil surely is. The last line

That slope thro’ darkness up to God

is the only part which could be objectionable to a Christian. There is that great mistake in all believers that they do not seem to understand how it is people doubt. The fact is that they do, and Tennyson amongst others must have had continual variations of faith. If you read In Memoriam carefully I think you will find it one of the most religious works ever written. It is all intense love. There are many passages of weakness, but the poem is conclusive in its entire trust in Christ, which is what is principally required of us.

Good night, my dear Charlie.
J. E. MILLAIS. [pp119-120]

In the autumn of 1854 Millais betook himself again to Scotland, in search of health and amusement, accompanied on this occasion by his friends Charlie Collins, Mike Halliday, and John Luard, of whom I must now say a few words….Later on, when Halliday and Luard left, Charlie Collins suggested a walking tour with Millais, and they started out together, eventually finding themselves at Banavie, near Fort William, where they seem to have come across "Long John," of whisky fame, who entertained them with samples of his wares. Most of the second series of sketches were made here, and in these the peculiarities of Collins' garments are not forgotten. In the kindness of his heart Collins looked rather to the necessities of his tailor than to his skill, with results quite appalling to worshippers of fashion. For similar reasons; too, he abjured fishing, a pastime he delighted in above all others. [pp124-125]

By degrees the work was finished, but not till near midnight of the last day for sending into the Royal Academy. In those days Millais was generally behindhand with his principal picture, and so much so with this one, that he greatly curtailed his sleep during the last week ; and on the last day but one began to work as soon as it was daylight, and worked on all through the night and following day till the van arrived for the picture. (Mr. Ruskin defended the appearance of haste, which to him seemed to betray itself in the execution of this picture, contending that it was well suited to the excitement and action of the subject.) His friend Charles Collins sat up with him and painted the fire-hose, whilst Millais worked at other parts; and in the end a large piece of sheet-iron was placed on the floor, upon which a flaming brand was put and worked from, amidst suffocating smoke. For the head of the mother, Mrs. Nassau Senior, sister of judge Hughes of Tom Brown fame, was good enough to sit.

The methods here described were gradually abandoned as Millais progressed in his career. [p129]

And now, being greatly pressed for time, he called in the aid of John O’Connor, who painted for him the big stone archway-the first time since "The Rescue " (when Charles Collins painted the fire-hose) that he ever allowed the hand of another to touch any canvas of his. [p294]

The newly-married couple set out for their honeymoon to the west of Scotland; and after a lovely fortnight in Argyllshire, Bute, and Arran, where deep-sea fishing formed their principal amusement, they returned to Perth and took possession of Annat Lodge, a typical old house with a cedared garden near Bowerswell.

Among their first visitors was Charles Collins. He, however, was not bent on amusing himself; he wanted to paint, and at his request my mother sat for him every day for a fortnight. Then, seeing that the picture made very slow progress, and that she was presented as looking out of the window of a railway carriage a setting that would have vulgarised Venus herself-she refused to sit any longer, and the picture was never finished. [p147]

I am sure you will be dreadfully shocked, as I was, at the loss of poor Thackeray. I imagine, and hope truly, you will have heard of it before this reaches you. He was found dead by his servant in the morning, and of course the whole house is in a state of the utmost confusion and pain. They first sent to Charlie Collins and his wife, who went immediately, and have been almost constantly there ever since. I sent this morning to know how the mother and girls were, and called myself this afternoon; and they are suffering terribly, as you might expect. He was found lying back, with his arms over his head, as though in great pain. I shall hear more, of course. Everyone I meet is affected by his death. Nothing else is spoken of. [p196]

A fine pencil drawing of him was done in 1850 by Charles Collins, for Mr. Combe, of Oxford, who bequeathed it to Oxford University; [p318]


From John Everett Millais by John Guille Millais, 3rd edition London 1905.

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