John Millais as an Illustrator

Love, from Willmott's Poets of the 19th Century

John Everett Millais was one of the most important Victorian illustrators. Of the Pre-Raphaelites and their followers and fellow travellers, books containing illustrations by Millais are by far the easiest to acquire, by just happening upon them in second-hand bookshops. One of the appeals of Pre-Raphaelite illustration is that while most of us can never hope to own an original by one of these artists, anyone (in Britain at least) can collect illustrated volumes by them for a few pounds a time. This note stands alone, but follows on naturally from previous ones on this page regarding illustrations by Simeon Solomon and by Leighton.

Millais’ illustrative work can be divided into two styles - Pre-Raphaelite pictures filled with atmosphere and significance, and a very different, more sketchy or outline type closer to that of many of the later Victorian illustrators.

The loosely-defined Pre-Raphaelite illustrations of Millais were produced slowly, with much labouring over design, in much the same way that Ford-Madox Brown, Rossetti and the other Pre-Raphaelites did. At their best, Millais’ pictures in this style can convey a sense of emotion, depth and atmosphere, and in a way they show more feeling than many of Millais’ rather cool oil paintings.

A Dream of Fair Women, from Moxon's Tennyson

Millais' first illustrations were for Allingham’s Music Master of 1855, and in 1857 along with the other Pre-Raphaelites, he contributed designs to the Moxon Tennyson and to Willmott’s Poets of the Nineteenth Century. Love in the Willmott book is particularly good. Millais’ other most important contributions to Pre-Raphaelite illustration are his pictures in The Parables of Our Lord (1863).

Parable of the Unjust Judge

The bulk of Millais’ illustrations are not Pre-Raphaelite. He contributed very widely to a whole series of books and magazines, including 87 drawings for Tennyson, 69 for the magazine Once a Week, 32 to Good Words, 30 drawings plus initial letters for The Cornhill and so on. By comparison Rossetti made only half a dozen pictures on wood, and Sandys, as well known for his woodcuts as for his paintings, made only 25. Millais experimented with different types of technique, being particularly effective with light on dark pictures, but did not gradually move in one direction or another. That is to say, it is not obvious whether an illustration by Millais is early or late, and right from the beginning he had the draughtsmanship and clean lines of an adept. The most characteristic people of the Millais pictures are cool young men and women, middle-class, in drawing rooms or lounging on grassy hillsides.

> Illustration from The Small House at Allington

In Millais’ paintings there is no ‘ideal woman’ of the sort instantly recognisable in a Rossetti or Sandys or Burne-Jones painting. However, in these simple book illustrations there is a particular type that crops up a lot. Another noteworthy feature is the animals - Millais could always draw a brilliantly characterised dog. I find that while at first I found the non-Pre-Raphaelite illustrations of Millais of only casual interest, the more I look at them, the more they become pleasing with familiarity.


Bubbles as used for Pear's Soap

In his painting, Millais moved away from the Pre-Raphaelite ideal towards a more conventional style, and eventually declined into producing popular genre subjects of too much sentimentality. Most especially, there were his soppy little children exemplified by Powder Blue and Bubbles. This latter picture was sold on by the first purchaser to the proprietor of Pear's Soap and used by him as an excellent advertisement. Millais allowed this with some misgivings.

For a picture to be considered as ideal for an advert to sell soap must have been somewhat embarrassing, especially as deep down, Millais must have known that painting pretty children was a debasement of his talent. In fact, the use of 'Bubbles' in this way excited adverse comment in the press for a long time. Nevertheless, Bubbles was used in adverts for many years, becoming so well-known that Pear's were able first to use the child as an emblem in his own right, and then just the head. This represents a very different, but perhaps the most widely seen, illustrative example of Millais’ work.

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Millais as a painter // Pre-Raphaelite illustration // Illustration pages