Thursday, September 9, 2010

John Everett Millais - The 'Brown Boy'

'the brown boy' - master liddell, son of charles liddell esq.
signed with monogram and dated l.l.: 1871
oil on canvas
161.3 by 105.4 cm., 63 1/2 by 41 1/2 in.

Charles Lyon Liddell was born in 1861 and was therefore about ten years old when Millais painted the present portrait of him. The boy's father, Charles Liddell (1813-94), was the younger brother of the Revd Henry George Liddell, Dean of Christ Church. Charles Lyon Liddell and Alice Pleasance Liddell (the inspiration of 'Alice in Wonderland') were therefore first cousins. Relations between the two branches of the Liddell family appear to have been close - it is recorded for example that Charles Liddell senior gave Alice a pair of diamond earrings on the occasion of her marriage in 1880 - so it may be assumed that although there was a difference of age of about nine years between the subject of the present portrait and his first cousin Alice, they may have known each other quite well. Charles Liddell senior was a distinguished engineer, trained under George Stephenson, who did much to improve the quality of drinking water in London. In 1849 he was the co-author of a published scheme for a water grid - Exposition of a Plan for the Metropolitan Water Supply. During the Crimean War Liddell helped lay a marine telegraphic cable across the Black Sea from Varna to the Crimean peninsula. Later in his career he built railways, for example the extension of the Metropolitan Line to Aylesbury. Charles Liddell married Marion Hesketh in 1861. In 1872 they inherited a house called Hetton Lawn at Charlton Kings in Gloucestershire from Charles Liddell's grandfather the Revd Henry Liddell. A year previously Charles Liddell commissioned the present portrait of his son, paying a thousand guineas to the artist for it on 19 August 1871. The painting was finished in the late summer, so that Millais could write to his wife on 5 August 1871: 'I have finished the Boy Liddell, and send it home next week.' (Quoted from the Millais Papers in the Pierpont Morgan Library, New York, in Millais: Portraits, exhibition catalogue, National Portrait Gallery, London, p.134)
According to Liddell family tradition, Charles Liddell was originally intended to wear a more elaborate lace collar and cuffs when sitting for the portrait, which would presumably have given the painting a more historical flavour and would have explicitly invited comparison with Van Dyck among other old master painters. It is said that Charles himself objected to this element of fancy dress, and so a plain Eton collar was introduced. The brown velvet suit, belted at the waist and with knickerbockers and silk stockings, gives an aristocratic style to the painting quite appropriate to a descendant of the old north country families of Liddell and Ravensworth. Malcolm Warner has suggested that the inspiration for this particular style of dress may have come from Thomas Lawrence's famous portrait Charles William Lambton (private collection) of 1825. Again according to family tradition the open book upon which Charles Liddell's hand rests is Cervantes' Don Quixote.
This portrait of Charles Liddell is one of the masterpieces of Millais's career as a painter of children. The boy's personality is indicated in the treatment of physiognomy and stance. The painting is undertaken to represent an individual and is done with affection and delight rather than merely as a pretext for display or as an exercise in winsome charm. Millais's departure from the intensity and scrupulousness of Pre-Raphaelitism, which style of painting he had been in the 1850s one of the three principal pioneers, towards a style which was more dependent on bravura handling, was in one sense a move to keep pace with fashionable demand for his works. Millais had, however, a particular disposition towards the fluid and sensuous quality of oil paint, and in the process of his shift towards greater freedom and a more empirical style he discovered personal means of exploring a subject's personality.

The sophistication of Millais's art in this period owed much to his study of paintings by the old masters. As Malcolm Warner has pointed out, the portrait of Charles Liddell has within it explicit references to the royal portrait tradition of Titian, notably in the element of the helmet and the carpeted table upon which it rests, on the left side of the composition - which is a quotation from Titian's portrait of the Spanish king Philip II in Armour (Museo del Prado, Madrid). A couple of years before receiving the commission to paint the present portrait, Millais had made another historically inspired work - Souvenir of Velasquez (which the artist had presented to the Royal Academy as his diploma piece, having been elected as a member in 1863). Millais's invocation of the name of the great Spanish artist, who is regarded as the originator of a tradition which valued painterly skills over painstaking technique and whose works were being looked to again by artists who believed in breadth and tonal values, was a calculated rejection of the edicts of Pre-Raphaelitism. The portrait of Charles Liddell, which takes its place in the great tradition of European portraiture which derives from these two artists as well as from Van Dyck and Joshua Reynolds, represents the consummation of this move towards a grand and timeless style on the part of Millais.

The portrait of Charles Liddell was first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1872, the year after it was painted. It was accompanied at the Academy exhibition by Millais's triple portrait Hearts are Trumps (Tate Gallery, London), which showed three daughters of Walter Armstrong playing dummy whist. In its discussion of this work, the Art Journal defended the painter's increasingly historical style, observing that 'the production has not been worked out for to-day or to-morrow [and yet] it will, like all similar great productions, be esteemed on its own merits.' (Art Journal, 1872, p.152) The Athenaeum followed its discussion of Millais's portrait of the Marquis of Westminster (also exhibited in 1872) by saying: 'There is [another] portrait, Master Liddell, a youth standing at a table, and clad in a rich brown velvet dress. It is a fine and sober piece of powerful colour, and in all respects worthy of the painter.'

The 1870s was a great decade for British portraiture, with extraordinary new works appearing before the public each year at the Royal Academy and, from 1877, at the Grosvenor Gallery. The self-confidence and sophistication of the British, at the zenith of imperial greatness and previously unwitnessed economic strength, transmits itself through these images. Among Millais's contemporaries, James McNeill Whistler, George Frederic Watts, and Frederic Leighton, were painting full-length portraits of men, women, and children, and in so doing evoked the age. Millais's portraits were compared to those of his distinguished contemporaries by Emilia Pattison in an article on the 1872 Academy exhibition. Admiring the bravura and painterliness of his work, she concluded: 'As a painter of pure sense impressions he stands unrivalled ... [his models] are more real, more alive, than the living men and women who gaze on them'. Thus Millais's later portraits - so far removed from the Pre-Raphaelite works of his youth - are regarded as among the most characterful and original contributions to the art of the Victorian era.

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