As John Everett Millais’ Ophelia returns to Tate Britain, Benjamin Secher reveals the roles played by a tin bath and a deformed vole in the birth of Britain’s favourite painting.
by Benjamin Secher
Ophelia, John Everett Millais’s bewitching depiction of Hamlet’s sweetheart sinking to a watery death, is one of the most familiar images in art. It has adorned the walls of the Tate for most of the 117 years since the gallery opened, attracting millions of viewers to admire its forensic detail — and buy the postcard, which remains a runaway bestseller in the gallery shop. As it goes back on display at Tate Britain following an international tour, here’s an alternative guide to some of the lesser known facts about Britain’s favourite painting.
1. Millais suffered for his art
After identifying a suitably bucolic setting for his picture, Millais perched at his easel on the banks of the Hogsmill River in Surrey for up to 11 hours a day, six days a week throughout a five-month period in 1851. He was determined to capture with unprecedented accuracy the natural scene before his eyes — but such devotion to his art came at a cost. “The flies of Surrey are more muscular, and have a still greater propensity for probing human flesh,” he grumbled in a letter to a friend. “I am threatened with a notice to appear before a magistrate for trespassing in a field and destroying the hay… and am also in danger of being blown by the wind into the water. Certainly the painting of a picture under such circumstances would be greater punishment to a murderer than hanging.”
2. Desperate times called for desperate measures
When November 1851 brought bitter winds and snow to the Surrey countryside, Millais decided he needed some kind of shelter and oversaw the building of a peculiar hut “made of four hurdles, like a sentry-box, covered outside with straw”. Sitting in it, with his paints (probably stored in pig bladder cases — collapsible tubes had only recently been invented and were still scarce) and with stray pieces of straw whistling around his ears, he felt, he said, like Robinson Crusoe. His friend and fellow Pre-Raphaelite artist, William Holman Hunt, who was simultaneously painting his own great work The Hireling Shepherd a little along the river, was so taken with Millais’s hut that he had an identical structure built for himself.
3. An animal vanished during the making of this picture
At an early stage, Millais included a water vole (which an assistant had fished out of the Hogsmill) in his composition, gently paddling alongside the stricken Ophelia. In December 1851, Millais showed the uncompleted painting to relatives of Hunt. “Hunt’s uncle and aunt came, both of whom understood most gratifyingly every object except my water rat,” he notes in a diary entry of the time. “The male relation, when invited to guess at it, eagerly pronounced it to be a hare. Perceiving by our smiles that he had made a mistake, a rabbit was next hazarded. After which I have a faint recollection of a dog or a cat being mentioned”. By the time the painting was unveiled at the Royal Academy exhibition of 1852, the rogue rodent had vanished, although a rough sketch of it can still be found, tucked away in an upper corner of the canvas now concealed by the frame.
4. Ophelia caught a cold
Determined to depict Shakespeare’s waterlogged maiden with utmost accuracy, but recognising that the chances of persuading someone to pose in the freezing Hogsmill were distinctly slim, Millais came up with the wheeze of getting his model — the 19-yearold Elizabeth Siddall, future wife of Dante Gabriel Rossetti — to lie, fully clothed, in a full bathtub. Oil lamps were placed underneath the tub to keep the water warm, but when they went out the artist was too engrossed in his work to notice. Lying deathly still in chilly water for hours on end left Siddall with a stinking cold, and Millais with a£50 doctor’s bill.
5. Not everybody fell for Ophelia’s charms
When the painting made its public debut at the Royal Academy in London in 1852, the critics were far from unanimous in their praise. The Times declared that “there must be something strangely perverse in the imagination which sources Ophelia in a weedy ditch, and robs the drowning struggle of that love-lorn maiden of all pathos and beauty”. Another newspaper objected that “Mr Millais’s Ophelia in her pool… makes us think of a dairymaid in a frolic.” And even John Ruskin, a great supporter of Millais, was not altogether kind. Although he found the technique of the painting to be “exquisite”, he expressed grave doubts about Millais’s decision to set it in a Surrey landscape: “Why the mischief should you not paint pure nature,” he asked, “and not that rascally wirefenced garden-rolled-nurserymaid’s paradise?”
6. In the 20th century, Salvador Dali emerged as a surprise champion of the picture
“How could Salvador Dali fail to be dazzled by the flagrant surrealism of English Pre-Raphaelitism,” wrote the great surrealist in an article published in a 1936 journal, alongside a reproduction of Ophelia. “The Pre-Raphaelite painters bring us radiant women who are, at the same time, the most desirable and most frightening that exist.”
7. Ophelia is big in Japan
The painting has enjoyed something of a cult following in the Far East since it was
immortalised as “a thing of considerable beauty” in a novel by the renowned Japanese novelist Natsume Soseki in 1906. When it travelled to Tokyo in 2008 as part of a Millais exhibition, the Japanese decided not to use the image of Ophelia on promotional posters for fear that its romantic power would inspire young women to take their own lives.
8. Millais sold the painting for 300 guineas
Ophelia was bought from the artist on December 10, 1851 by art dealer Mr Henry Farrer for 300 guineas. He sold it on to a keen Pre-Raphaelite collector called Mr BG Windus, who then sold it in 1862 for 74.8 guineas. Millais’s work has continued to increase in value at a phenomenal pace ever since. Last year, his 1868 painting Sisters sold at auction for a record £2.3 million. Experts estimate that the current value of Ophelia is at least £30 million.
9. The artist didn’t always seem destined for greatness
Millais’s educational career got off to an inauspicious start when, at the age of four, he was expelled from nursery, after just three days, for biting his teacher’s hand. Seven years later he redeemed himself — and put his career back on track — by becoming the youngest pupil ever admitted to the Royal Academy school, where he earned the nickname “the child”. In 1885, he became the first artist to become a baronet and by the following year he was exploiting the commercial aspect of his work to earn the modern equivalent of nearly £2 million a year.
10. The building where Ophelia was painted still stands
Millais’s studio was on the second floor at 7 Gower Street in London, just around the corner from the British Museum. A blue plaque today identifies the building as the place where “The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was founded in 1848”. But other than that, little evidence remains of its key role in the creation of the nation’s favourite picture. The building is now occupied by an oil and gas exploration company. The famous bathtub has been replaced by a photocopier.
The Telegraph, 07 August 2014