A Dream of the Past – Sir Isumbras at the Ford by John Everett Millais

A Dream of the Past – Sir Isumbras at the Ford by Millais (1857)

My Daily Art Display painting of the day is one by John Everett Millais, entitled A Dream of the Past – Sir Isumbras at the Ford, which he completed in 1857.  It depicts an ancient knight on horseback carrying two children of a poor woodcutter across a river.  The character of Sir Isumbras comes from the 14th century medieval romance written in Middle English.   The actual scene we see before our eyes was not part of the original tale but more than likely came from a romance written in fake medieval verse based on the original and penned by Millais friend, the art critic Tom Taylor. 

The original poem tells the story of the humbling of the once arrogant knight.  The scene is set by the art critic and member of the Pre- Raphaelite Brotherhood, Frederic Stephens.  Stephens was not an artist but in today’s terminology, he would be described as the Pre-Rapaelite’s public relations man.  It was his job to communicate the aims of the Brotherhood to the public.  Of this painting, he wrote:

“….Sir Isumbras at the Ford was the subject of the picture Millais made his leading work in the year 1857.   It represented an ancient knight, all clad in golden armour, who had gone through the glories of this life — war honour, victory and reward, wealth and pride. Though he is aged and worn with war, his eye is still bright with the glory of human life, and yet he has stooped his magnificent pride so far as to help, true knight as he was, two little children, and carries them over a river ford upon the saddle of his grand war-horse, woodcutter’s children as they were. The face of this warrior was one of those pictorial victories which can derive their success from nothing less than inspiration. The sun was setting beyond the forest that gathered about the river’s margin, and, in its glorious decadence, symbolised the nearly spent life of the warrior…”.

This painting is a classic example of the Pre-Raphaelites’ interest in topics about medieval chivalry.  The old knight in his gleaming golden armour has helped the two children cross the stream.  The girls stares into the face of the knight with a worried expression whilst the young lad, with the wood strapped to his back, looks out at us, as he desperately clings on to the knight.   The bright and vivid colours of the children’s clothes is typical of the colours used in Pre-Raphaelite paintings

When Millais exhibited the painting it received hostile reviews and was condemned by many art critics of the time.  The leading art critic of the day, and former patron of Millais, John Ruskin, savagedly criticised the artist and the painting declaring it to be a “catastrophe”.  Millais was criticised for painting the “ugly” horse out of proportion to the figures on its back and by doing so had given the illusion that the three figures are almost floating above the animal’s back.   He also criticised Millais for how he had painted the foreground lighter than the exposed hills in the background, saying that the artist had “made errors in pictorial grammar”.   I suppose it has to be remembered that Millais, two years earlier, had married Ruskin’s wife Effie, after she had been granted an annulment of her marriage to Ruskin on the grounds that it had never been consummated.  This whole affair was splashed across the London press and had caused a scandal.   Ruskin never forgave his former protogé Millais.  Millais must have listened to the torrent of criticism as he repainted parts of it before exhibiting it in an exhibition in Liverpool. For all its criticism and the large number of detractors, this painting inspired many other artists to depict gallant knights rescuing beautiful maidens.

A Nightmare by Frederick Sandys (c.1857)

Finally let me finish with another Pre-Raphaelite painter, Frederic Sandys who satirised Millais’ painting with his print entitled A Nightmare,  in which he caricatured  Millais as the knight and his fellow artists Gabriel Dante Rossetti and Holman Hunt as the children and Sandys adds more scorn on the trio by turning the horse into a donkey which has been branded on its flank with the letters “J  R” – the initials of Ruskin !