Much has been written about the love triangle of the pre-Raphaelite artist, John Everett Millais, the art critic, John Ruskin and his wife, Euphemia Gray. This year we will be offered two feature films, Effie and Untouched exploring their relationship but for today I want to look at the life of Millais’ other sister-in-law, Sophie Gray. Sophie was Effie’s younger sister, and today I am featuring the amazing portrait of her by her brother-in-law, Millais.
Sophie Gray was born in Kinnoull, a suburb of Perth, Scotland in 1843. She was brought up in a comfortable family environment, her father, George Gray, having his own solicitor’s practice, along with money from property investments in Perth. Her family, although not considered to be rich, could neither be described as poor and she would have had everything money could buy to ensure that she was kept safe, warm and in good health. George Gray and her mother, Sophia Margaret Gray, née Jameson, had fifteen children although by the time Sophie, their tenth child, arrived, five had died and sadly, before Sophie had reached her seventh birthday in 1850 another two of her siblings had passed away and a third died a year later. Sophie was fifteen years younger than her elder sister Effie.
Effie Gray, first met John Ruskin, who was a family friend, in 1840, when she was twelve, whilst she was on a visit to Herne Hill and they met again a a year later. Six years passed before their next encounter in October 1847 and it was at this meeting that John Ruskin started to fall in love with the nineteen-year old Effie, so much so that when Ruskin returned to his home in London, he wrote to Effie’s father and asked for her hand in marriage. George Gray consented and marriage plans for the following year were drawn up. These plans were disrupted by Effie’s father becoming almost bankrupt due to a railway speculation going awry. However, the wedding did eventually take place at Effie’s home in Bowerswell House on April 10th 1848.
At the time of the wedding Sophie was just five years old and she would often go to London and stay with her sister and Ruskin. Effie, in many ways, became a second mother to her. The marriage between Effie and Ruskin as it has been well documented was not a success and could have been down to many reasons such as their totally different personalities and their differing temperaments for Effie was naturally sociable and flirtatious, and soon began to feel oppressed by her husband’s dogmatic and unbending personality. In April 1854, Sophie had been staying with her sister and husband and on the pretext of having to take her little sister back home to Scotland Effie left the marital home at Herne Hill and never returned. The marriage was annulled on the grounds of non-consummation in July of that year.
Sophie Gray had first met John Everett Millais in 1853 and she, like her sister, Effie, had modeled for him. He painted several pictures of her and this led, in some quarters, to speculation as to Millais relationship with his young sister-in-law. The first painting of Sophie produced by Millais was a sensitive watercolour drawing of her, in oval form, in January 1854 when she was just ten years old. Millais appears to have been totally entranced by the prettiness of the young girl who would soon become his future sister-in-law. When he had completed the work he wrote to Sophie’s mother extolling the virtues of her daughter. He wrote:
“…What a delightful little shrewd damsel Sophia is…I do not praise her to please you, but I think her extremely beautiful, and that she will even improve, as yet she does not seem to have the slightest idea of it herself which makes her prettier—I am afraid that ignorance cannot last long…”
Sophie continued to sit for Millais; in fact, she was being used as his model more than he used Effie. Her sister Effie, now divorced from Ruskin had moved back to Scotland and from August 1855 lived with Millais at Annat Lodge which was close to her parent’s home at Bowerswell and so Sophie was always on hand to sit for Millais. Sophie’s beauty had become even more noticeable as she changed from a young girl to a young teenager. One of next paintings Millais completed of Sophie was in 1856 when she had yet to reach her thirteenth birthday. It was entitled Autumn Leaves which he exhibited at the Royal Academy that year. In this painting Sophie is one of four girls standing around a smouldering bonfire of fallen leaves which they had been collecting. The twilight setting is the garden at Annat Lodge and in the background we see the Arochar Alps. The girl on the left is Sophie’s younger sister Alice, who was two years her junior. Next to her is Sophie who is, like Alice, dressed in a green velvet dress. On the right there are two young working-class girls from the village, Matilda Proudfoot and Isabella Nicol. Millais used these same two local girls as sitters for his beautiful painting, The Blind Girl, (See My Daily Art Display May 16th 2011). As we look closely at these four young girls Sophie stands apart as the one who is not to be looked upon as a young girl but one who should be considered as becoming a young woman.
The painting received mixed reviews. John Ruskin described the work as:
“…the first instance of a perfectly painted twilight…”
“…[It] will rank in future among the world’s best masterpieces…”
For others, like some of the members of the Royal Academy, the subject of the painting baffled them. One wrote:
“…We are curious to learn the mystic interpretation that will be put upon this composition…”
John Millais’s wife, Effie, wrote that her husband had intended to create a picture that was “full of beauty and without a subject”. Millais wrote to his friend and art critic, Frederic Stephens, who was also one of the two “non-artistic” members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and who had written a glowing report about the work. Millais explained the thought behind the painting stating that he:
“… intended the picture to awaken by its solemnity the deepest religious reflection. I chose the subject of burning leaves as most calculated to produce this feeling…”
However my featured painting today is the truly haunting head and shoulder intimate portrait entitled Sophie Gray which he completed in 1857 when his sitter was just fourteen years of age. The young girl occupies an uncharacteristically large portion of the picture. A delicate light illuminates the left side of her face and this emphasizes the golden brown colour of her hair with its auburn highlights. Sophie’s clothes are unremarkable. They are dark in colour and simply decorated with an embroidered heart with three flowers within it. What an enigmatic portrait. Her long hair frames her face and becomes one with the equally dark background, leaving only her pale skin and the touch of lace at her throat as an absolute contrast. Sophie looks out at us. Her ice-blue eyes stare blankly and expressionless. Her lush red lips and rosy cheeks are a contrast to her white skin and dark background. Her lips are defiantly pursed and her chin is tilted up slightly in a determined manner. This is a young woman of great self-confidence for one so young. The way Millais has depicted the beauty of his young sister-in-law leaves us in no doubt for the fondness he had for the young girl. It is an alluring and haunting portrait. This is a very personal work of art. There is a definite connection between the artist and the sitter and one feels that had he not loved his wife, his relationship with Sophie may have been much different.
This beautiful Pre-Raphaelite painting, dating from the height of the movement, is a pendant to a similar head of Sophie’s younger sister Alice, who was another of Millais’ favourite models. Both works were bought from Millais by his friend, the Pre-Raphaelite landscape and figurative artist, George Price Boyce, for himself and on behalf of his sister Joanna, also an artist. There is a well-defined difference between the two portraits. The painting of Alice, the younger of the two sisters is simply an uncomplicated portrait of a young and somewhat immature girl, whereas the portrait of Sophie is a painting which demonstrates the electric energy that was present between the sitter and the artist.
So what became of Sophie Gray? She had major mental health problems and in 1868, in her mid-twenties, she spent time away from home, staying at Manor Farm House in Chiswick receiving medical care from a Doctor Thomas Tuke, who was a noted practitioner in mental health. She remained under his care, away from the family home, and did not return to Scotland until the following year. Sophie did not marry until 1873, at what was in Victorian times looked upon as a very advanced age of thirty. She married Sir James Key Caird, who was a wealthy jute manufacturer, and the couple had one child, a daughter Beatrix Ada a year later. A portrait of their daughter, when she was five years old, was painted by Dante Rossetti. The marriage was an unhappy one and Sophie’s husband paid little attention to his wife’s needs and was often absent from the marital home. Sophie spent much of her time alone with Beatrix, mostly living between Dundee and Paris. She had suffered from anorexia nervosa for a good deal of her life and in her later years lost a lot of weight. In 1882, with her health rapidly deteriorating, she had to return to the care of Doctor Tuke but her health never improved and on March 15th 1882, aged 38 she died. The cause of death was put down to “exhaustion and atrophy of nervous system, 17 years”.
As I wrote this blog I couldn’t help but wonder how the beautiful thirteen year old we see in the main picture could lead such a sad life and die so young. Such a waste of life.