Millais at Tate Britain

    There is a type of career only British artists seem to have, which begins to go soft when they achieve some success, then rots to a mush when they get a knighthood. Or, worse, a peerage. These depressing careers, ruined by pats on the back from the Establishment, are a recurring event in British art. Remember Reynolds; remember Lord Leighton; remember, perish the thought, Sir Alfred Munnings? I suppose it happens in all walks of life, not just in art. Once someone is persuaded of their importance by the placating mechanisms of the state, they have no further need to prove it to the rest of us. It is no coincidence that the real achievers of British art – Hogarth, Gainsborough, Blake, Turner, Constable, Henry Moore, Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud – were not offered knighthoods, or, better still, turned them down. On the other side of the scales, I give you Sir Hubert von Herkomer, Sir James Thornhill, Sir Edward Poynter, Sir Charles Wheeler, Sir Thomas Monnington. Case closed, I believe.

    All this is worth remembering as we turn our attention to Sir John Everett Millais, Bart, the first artist to receive a hereditary title, and the subject now of a stimulating tribute at the increasingly impressive Tate Britain. Not to be confused, of course, with the increasingly popular Tate Modern. Tate Britain has been ploughing manfully through the big British art careers in a determined effort to fulfil its remit and define our national characteristics. Most of the time, this has involved focusing on the rebels – Blake, Gainsborough, Constable – because they have been the real achievers. Occasionally, however, it pays to examine the lickspittles. Reynolds was a good show. Sargent, too. And Millais is a very good show.

    Millais might almost be considered a paradigm of the “ruined by worldly success” story line. As a founder member of the preRaphaelite brotherhood in 1848, aged only 19, he played a key part in one of the noisiest rebellions in British art. Everything the preRaphaelites did annoyed the art establishment. You can see why as soon as you confront Christ in the House of his Parents, from 1850. We’re actually in Joseph’s workshop, where the child Jesus has punctured his hand on a carpenter’s nail and is being clucked over by his parents as the blood drips fatefully from his palm to his foot. Joseph goes: “There, there.” Mary offers him her cheek, in the manner of an underage Essex mum in a supermarket. And John the Baptist looks as if he is about to be sick. It’s a lurid, wild-eyed and ludicrous religious hallucination made up of heightened states.

    Fast-forward three decades, however, to 1886, and this same wild-eyed, full-colour Catholic renegade is meekly advertising Pears soap with a horrible portrayal of a pink-cheeked little blond boy in a fake Gainsborough outfit, gazing sadly into the dark as the bubble he has just blown prepares to burst. By the time he painted Bubbles, Millais was already a baronet. And the sickly sentimentality that was his abiding weakness had made his art unwatchable.

    An oeuvre, therefore, that began brilliantly and ended grimly – or so we have usually assumed. But a feature of this strong run of career assessments at Tate Britain has been the desire to challenge existing perceptions. The Millais show continues this tradition by feistily proposing that, in fact, he was always an innovator: that even in his most successful years, his work continued to stretch the boundaries; and that, in two little-considered areas of his output, his portraits and his landscapes, he produced formidable art right up to the end.

    And it’s true: this beautifully stage-managed event does, indeed, present us with a new Millais. It’s just not the one the organisers are proposing. Looking again at his preRaphaelite art, it is clear his strengths and faults were in tandem from the off. The strengths are obvious. By the time he was 16, he was successfully orchestrating a complicated mass of warring bodies in a scene showing the conquistador Pizarro defeating the last Inca, Atahualpa. This ability to capture textures and likenesses, to focus hypnotically on interesting details, is shown off repeatedly in the preRaphaelite art that follows. The flowers in the water around his dead Ophelia, and the scruffy riverbank past which she so famously floats, are just two example of his talent for verisimilitude. Witness also the fabulously touchable straw on the floor of the stable in which Noah’s daughters-in-law receive the dove to the ark. Or the flashing purple velvet sported by the Huguenot kissing his Catholic lover. From the beginning of his career to the end, Millais was a dashing technician.

    His problem – his weakness – was his imagination, which was incapable of differentiating between profundity and sentimentality, and was particularly prone to feverishness when it tackled the nation’s young ‘uns. The habitual throwing of a protective switch whenever he painted little girls moves quickly beyond fatherly instincts into something repetitive and cloying. Much of the show is given over to a tremulous identification with the fates of the young, whom Millais seeks constantly to remind of the shortness of their lives by comparing them to soap bubbles or giving them large heaps of withered leaves to sweep up. Explaining exactly what is going on here is a task I will leave to Cracker and the psychologists, but in artistic terms it keeps leading to silliness. On a gothic tomb in a parish church, a little girl wounded in a war has fallen asleep wrapped in a grenadier’s jacket, her bare foot dangling vulnerably. Perhaps she is dead already. In a cemetery in the twilight, two young nuns dig a portentous grave. Millais is at his worst when he thinks he is at his deepest.

    Yet there are plenty of occasions in this redemptive show where the weird mix of crude sentiment and brilliant hands results in compelling art. The story line of The Blind Girl, for instance, does not bode well. A blind girl sits by a river with her sighted sister at exactly the time when English nature decides to put on a display of its most colourful and exotic effects. Two rainbows arc across the sky; a fierce yellow light bathes the meadow; a harebell blooms; a beautiful tortoiseshell butterfly settles on the blind girl’s shawl. She cannot see any of them, and that’s the point of the picture. But we see them vividly, in a spectacular burst of hypnotic English sunshine.

    The key revision this show seeks to make, however, is not that Millais was an interesting preRaphaelite – we know that already – but that the decline he has been accused of after his marriage to his beloved Effie (a child bride, who, in typical preRaphaelite fashion, had previously been John Ruskin’s child bride, and with whom Millais went on to have eight children) did not happen. There was no decline, says the show, as it seeks to enlarge the reputation of his portraits and to insist on the splendour of his late landscapes.

    Both these ambitions are met, to a degree. Freed of the need to imagine big or moving story lines, Millais does indeed come into his own as a portrait painter. Achieving a good likeness and noting some depth in an old face are easy tasks for a man of his mnemonic talents, so the portraits here of Tennyson, Disraeli and Gladstone show him dealing ably with the heroes of his times. He doesn’t flatter, he doesn’t inflate. And he produces portraits that are surprisingly touching and effective, that deserve to be counted among the best British portraits of historical greats. His women, too, finally gain substance when they are allowed to grow up. Under the influence of Velazquez and Hals, Millais arrives at a swordsman’s realism that is not too far down the scale from Manet’s. His portrait of Louise Jopling is a spectacularly good amalgam of the English rose and the eternal femme fatale.

    I was less convinced by the late landscapes, for which so much is being claimed. Painted during Millais’s annual autumn sojourn in Scotland, they have not been shown in these sorts of numbers since his memorial exhibition in 1898. The best of them are a pleasant record of Scotland’s lovely colours and moody spans. But most are spoilt by coy and unnecessary human props, brought in to heighten the drama. A little girl lugs water across a bog. An old woman trudges down a forest path. An angelic angler fishes in a divided river. Millais’s old problem is back. He can’t turn off the sentiment.