Monday, September 20, 2010

John Everett Millais - The Romans Leaving Britain

Hammer Price with Buyer's Premium: 301,250 GBP

122 by 190.5 cm., 48 by 75 in.

'The Romans bade the Britaynes farewell, as not minding to returne thither agayne.'

signed with monogram and dated 1865 l.r.

oil on canvas

Royal Academy, 1865, no. 294;

The subject of Millais's painting – the departure of the Roman legions at the end of the period of occupation of Britain, in the late fourth or early fifth centuries – appears to have been inspired by a reading of Raphael Holinshead's Historie of England, which was part of the Chronicles that he published in 1577. Certainly the quotation that was attached to the subject when it first appeared at the Royal Academy was taken from Holinshead's text. Millais had first been interested in the subject in the early 1850s, and in 1853 he made a pen and sepia wash drawing of such a scene of leave-taking (unlocated). The genesis of the subject may therefore be associated with that distressing period of Millais's life when he first fell in love with Effie Ruskin (as she then was), and the agonising departure that he was forced to make from her during the two years when she continued to be married to John Ruskin and before that marriage could be annulled.

The main elements of the subject were described by the Art Journal in its review of the 1865 Royal Academy exhibition: 'A British maid – a very Amazon for size and force, her brow ominously shadowed, her black eye fixed and fierce, her brown hair as a cataract poured copiously upon her shoulders, her foot firmly planted on the ground, her stalwart frame clothed in fur and robe of scarlet – is seated on a headland of England's white cliffs, which stretch far away on the distant sea. The Roman galleys are already on the wing and the last boat is struggling with the surf upon the shore. One brave warrior for a moment lingers behind; he has laid aside his helmet, and clasps his British mistress in a close and rapturous embrace.'

Millais's Romans Leaving Britain was much admired when first exhibited at the Academy in 1865. F.G. Stephens commented that Millais 'now draws learnedly, and with power; doing so to the great benefit of the expressions, forms and atmospheric effect of a picture which will go far to replace him on the old level. Such a work as this the artist has not produced of late, whether as regards its intensity of expression, dramatic treatment, colour, or epical manner of telling a moving story.' The key to the success of the work lay in its mood of sad leave-taking, Stephens felt: 'The whole expression is tender, even in the depths of love that is wronged, but impotent; wrathful, but full of womanliness. If we read Mr Millais's meaning truly, he has expressed that mixture of feelings by the manner in which her bare feet clutch the earth, although the head is upon her lover's shoulders lies there tenderly, and is moved by the shocks of his grief. Unhelmeted, the Roman weeps; his brawny arms inclose [sic] her body. The figure is a complete rendering of despair instead of obedience to discipline [a reference to Poynter's Faithful unto Death]: as admirably drawn as it is truly designed. That of the woman shows a noble conception, poetic, vigorous and original.' The reviewer of the Art Journal regarded it as 'perhaps the largest and possibly the best work [Millais] has yet painted. The composition is original, even startling.'

In the late summer of 1865, while Millais was still in possession of the present prime version of the subject after its return from the Royal Academy exhibition in Trafalgar Square, he made a replica of the composition In 1873 F.G. Stephens saw the painting again and considered it 'instinct with power in design, and showing pathos and tragic passion of a high order, together with extraordinary skill of execution.' He further observed that the work had been shown 'at the Royal Academy Exhibition in 1865, the year of Mr Millais's Academicianship, and its production was, probably, among the greatest proofs of the facility of the artist's powers.' Stephens particularly admired the painting's landscape setting and its sense of atmosphere: 'The effect of the, so to say, "sobbing" weather, and of the long, bare ranges of the landscape, highly poetical elements, is worthy of Mr Millais, and in thorough keeping with his subject. In so designing his background the artist has displayed his intense sympathy with the subject: this is one of the unmistakeable signs of genius, and, so far as this matter goes, Mr Millais is here at his best, at least, he never did better.'

Isaac Lowthian Bell (1816 – 1904) was a metallurgical chemist and iron master whose family originated near Carlisle, but who himself had moved to the North East to establish an industrial base on the Tyne and at Washington, County Durham. He married Margaret, daughter of Hugh Lee Pattison FRS, who was his business partner in the chemical works at Washington. Bell shared with both Pattison and his brother-in-law Robert Stirling Newall FRS a passionate enthusiasm for contemporary art. He was elected Liberal MP for Hartlepool in 1875, and raised to the baronetcy in 1885.

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