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Take another look at Millais

Andrew Lambirth urges those who think they don’t like this artist to go and see this show

2 January 2008

12:00 AM

2 January 2008

12:00 AM

Andrew Lambirth urges those who think they don’t like this artist to go and see this show

Last chance to see this large and lavish retrospective of the most famous of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Millais (Tate Britain, until 13 January). The Tate confidently asserts that John Everett Millais (1829–96) was the ‘greatest’ of the association which initially consisted of Holman Hunt, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and himself, with a handful of fellow-travellers. Later Burne-Jones and William Morris formed a second-generation PRB, and there were other useful associates like Ford Madox Brown, William Dyce, Arthur Hughes and John Brett. To call Millais the ‘greatest’ is to oversimplify matters. Although Rossetti wasn’t a great painter technically, his poetic vision was remarkable and arguably more powerful than anything Millais did, while Holman Hunt was a great painter of startling and sometimes awkward originality. He tends to be marginalised somewhat, not appealing quite so much as Millais to the inherent sentimentality of the British, though the magnificent two-volume catalogue raisonné of Hunt’s work recently published by Yale goes some way to set the record straight.

My discourse here is not aimed at those who already like Millais and the Pre-Raphaelites. There is no point in preaching to the converted. The Millais show scarcely needs more publicity, and indeed it was humming with dedicated (or at least interested) visitors the day I went. No, I want to persuade those who think they don’t like Millais to go along to the Tate and make up their minds all over again. That’s why easy pronouncements such as ‘Millais was the greatest painter of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood’ are just not searching or provocative enough. That’s not going to unsettle an established opinion or prejudice. In fact, it’s even more of a plea than usual for critical somnolence and inattention. On your behalf, gentle reader, I try to go round exhibitions with an open mind and a questing intelligence. It’s not always easy, let me tell you. The temptation to give way to bias and rooted preconceptions is strong. But I do try to empty my mind of such impedimenta before entering a gallery. There’s nothing quite like that first unencumbered sight of good art to thrill the heart…

Enter the first room of the Millais show and you’re at once in the thick of it. Literally — there were so many people there, the only things I could get close to initially were the flat cabinets. These were filled with the most remarkable and crystalline drawings, in pen and ink or pencil, very often studies for the paintings around the walls. And this room is hung with the most striking collection of well-known paintings that it’s almost impossible to view it with anything approaching objectivity. Such Pre-Raphaelite icons as ‘Ophelia’, ‘Christ in the House of His Parents’ (the painting Dickens famously dismissed as both blasphemous and ugly) and ‘Isabella’ are all here.

To return for a moment to the drawings, which are a relatively direct point of entry for the show, there is a lucidity to Millais’s line whatever the scholars may say about them being ‘self-consciously naive’ in their ‘spatial ambiguity and schematic treatment of form’. The drawings take you to the heart of the subject with an intensity we don’t usually associate with such polished preliminary studies. For instance, look at the study for ‘Christ in the House of his Parents’. Various aspects of this drawing may have been redesigned in the final painting, but the essence of the image is here and in a purer form. It’s not just a compositional study, it’s a fully functioning picture. Note the similar clarity, which mounts to an hallucinatory focus, in the studies for ‘The Woodman’s Daughter’ and ‘Mariana’.


In this first room there are less intense delights, such as the small portrait of Wilkie Collins, but the eye is soon to be jolted again as it turns to the ravishing electric blue of Mariana’s dress. It is utterly unworldly. ‘The Bridesmaid’ nearby offers a different but equally mesmeric blue in this small experimental painting, showing that Millais could handle colour in just as interesting and searingly evocative ways as he dealt out line.

Going into the second room, the visitor is faced by another famous Millais image, ‘The Blind Girl’. Is it just a taste for the drama of sentiment (here superbly enhanced by atmospheric conditions: the heightened colours of nature against a stormy sky with a double rainbow piercing glowering clouds) which ensures the popularity of this painting? It was the first of Millais’s subjects to be termed ‘pathetic’, not in any derogatory sense but in recognition of its attempt to capture the true pathos of the girl’s situation. Even Walter Sickert, not easily beguiled, was a fervent admirer and called it ‘a miracle by which he will survive’, due to Millais’s ‘keen sense of the touching mystery of childish facial expression’. For Sickert, that was Millais’s ‘proper scale’. He thought his greatest talent was for faces, and that there was ‘a certain woodenness in the figures’. There is certainly a kind of stately and majestic woodenness to the figure of Ruskin in the celebrated portrait of him standing above a Scottish waterfall, but this seems to suit the subject. More interesting is the small informal cabinet painting entitled ‘Waiting’ (1854), oddly relaxed in treatment for a tense subject — a girl sitting huddled in a shawl on a stile — and almost impressionistic in handling. Gone is the meticulous each-blade-of-grass inclusivity of earlier work. This is something altogether broader, and suggestive rather than overtly descriptive.

The drawings are consistently good in this show, and repay closer study in Room 2 than many of the paintings which are romantic and historical in subject, and oppressively stagey in their narratives, in spite of Millais’s technical virtuosity. (Look, for instance, at another well-known image, the fireman glowing redly, caught in the act of ‘The Rescue’.) The drawings here tend to be in sepia ink, and have a different, more flickering quality to them. ‘Accepted’ and ‘Goodbye, I Shall See You Tomorrow’ are particularly fine examples. From here, we progress into the thickets of Aestheticism (Room 3) and The Grand Tradition (Room 4), twin virtues that can turn so easily to vices if not guarded against. ‘Autumn Leaves’, which reminds me of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s marvellous poem ‘Spring and Fall’, features with ‘Leisure Hours’ in the Aesthetic emphasis on pattern, while the Grand Tradition has less obsession about it, and too much sentiment.

The Fancy Pictures in Room 5 include such yucky classics as ‘Bubbles’ and ‘Cherry Ripe’, while a penultimate section devoted to portraits ought to be more powerful (if we accept Sickert’s judgment) than it actually is. However, there are such marvels here as ‘A Jersey Lily’, Millais’s famous portrait of Lillie Langtry, deliciously understated despite the liquid look, and ‘Louise Jopling’, respendent in a lusciously patterned Parisian gown. The last room contains a dozen late landscapes and ends the show on a very high note indeed. All deserve long and lingering attention, but particularly the unusual ‘Dew-Drenched Furze’ (1889–90), a marvel of texture with its scratched look so very appropriate to a depiction of gorse. For the sake of these landscapes, for his unusual colour and for his compelling draughtsmanship, Millais deserves another look, even from those most obstinately inimical to him.

Five years as a critic and I’ve never seen anyt
hing by Alan Ayckbourn. With a flicker of apprehension in my heart I took my seat at the Garrick. Absurd Person Singular (nice title, nothing to do with the play) begins at a bourgeois drinks party. Calamity unfolds. Wife forgets to buy tonic, dons mackintosh, exits into rain via back door, returns from off-licence, finds back door locked so must re-enter house via front door without being spotted by guests because rained-on mac looks silly. See her problem? Nor did I, but the comedy of the first act rests entirely on one’s ability to sympathise with this trifling dilemma. Act two climaxes with the same woman emptying a bowl of water over her husband. The third act culminates with a game of musical forfeits.

I was flabbergasted. The feebly structured script is completely hobbled by its lack of wit, surprise or comic invention. The sets are designed to be both realistic and semi-magical and are amputated halfway up to reveal a cloudless starry sky. Odd that. It’s pouring with rain. At least the acting’s enjoyable. Jenny Seagrove is wonderful as a stroppy drunken aristo. Jane Horrocks fizzes and sparkles as the fretful wife. Playing her ghastly husband, David Bamber is strangely stiff. He’s been made up to look far too old and he can’t find the character’s warmth. John Gordon Sinclair, on autopilot, plays a smarmy architect beautifully. But nothing can save the script. Ayckbourn specialises in the comedy of embarrassment. I was embarrassed to be in the same room as this inane frivolity.

I was equally disappointed by Katie Mitchell’s Women of Troy, a mixture of strange errors and rudderless conceptualism. The setting is a concrete bunker with a low ceiling that ruins the Lyttelton’s acoustics and makes half the cast inaudible. The male leads play the conquering Greeks as nervy little wimps. The captured Trojan women, after a ten-year siege, wear ball-gowns, sexy kitten heels and posh-hairdos. Why’s that? Well, when you’re about to be raped and murdered you dress up. Basic etiquette. The acting is a predictable selection of drama-school panic attacks, and the tragic speeches are interrupted by big-band jazz numbers which the captive women dance and frolic to. Doubtless this is supposed to represent the indomitable spirit of woman or something, but that kind of prize-essay symbolism sets the audience at a distance. It makes us think. Drama should make us feel. This is a dreadfully uninvolving version of one of Euripides’ trickiest plays. And though I was delighted to see Sinead Matthews on stage — a comic actress with superstar qualities — I realised that to cast her as Cassandra is like asking Emu to play Hamlet. One to avoid.

Miles better is Stephen Fry’s panto at the Old Vic. The script is clever but not annoyingly so. Fry has actually sat down and thought about the characters. Cinderella’s life centres on housework so he gives her a speech analysing the competing claims of pine and lemon disinfectant. Buttons is a bar-room philosopher. ‘According to Plato,’ he says airily, ‘happiness is contingent upon virtue.’ ‘That’s all very well,’ says Cinders, ‘but I’ve got sausages to prick.’ Pauline Collins’s fairy godmother is amusing, highly intelligent and sullenly resentful of her obligation to Cinders. She insults her like a dismayed mum. ‘You’re too submissive. It’s a case of pathological inanition.’ Paul Keating, as Buttons, gives an effortlessly charming performance and Sandi Toksvig is delightful as the cross-dressing pipe-smoking Narrator. During a cooking-show parody she produces a Tesco bag. ‘Oh, we like Tescos, don’t we?’ Pause. ‘Keeps the riff-raff out of Waitrose.’

This is a wonderfully adult panto with lots of swearing (nothing too embarrassing, though) and lots of jokes too — good, bad, and very, very elderly. ‘The other day I picked a buttercup. And I thought, why do people leave buttocks lying around?’ Didn’t get much of a laugh but even the lousy gags are saved by the brimming bonhomie of the ensemble. Mark Lockyer does a magnificent ugly sister and at one point he breaks off to give an impersonation of Ian McKellen which craftily hints that by playing the Dame in panto Sir Ian was merely patronising the genre. (And I thought I was alone in that heresy.) Did the kids love the show? Well, who cares? The filthy little tikes will shriek their heads off at anything and they don’t pay for the tickets so sod them. Even if you’re child-free, this is as much fun as a crate of champagne.


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