Some time before commencing this work, Millais had been involved in one of Victorian England's most celebrated scandals. The young member of the Pre-Raphealite Brotherhood had been a protege of John Ruskin, the academic, artist and critic - until Millais started to fall in love with Effie, Ruskin's wife.
Suzanne Fagence-Cooper's book provides a fascinating insight into this complex story, with much reference to Effie's family and to her husband's artistic works - which brings the VV back to Autumn Leaves, for in addition to the sensation regarding Effie's divorce this book held something of particular interest, specifically in the later chapters which deal with the character of Effie's younger sister, Sophy - for here was another love triangle concerning Effie and her husband.
Effie in middle age
Like Effie before, Sophy was growing into a beautiful young woman. Unlike Effie, she had not begun to be worn down by the routine of domesticity and the trauma of regular childbirths. Millais was known to have an eye for attractive models, and with his wife otherwise occupied he was increasingly drawn to paint his younger, prettier sister-in-law. Through the many canvasses produced the viewer is able to see Sophy's transition from the child on the cusp of adulthood represented in Autumn Leaves, to the alluring vision of sensuality found in later studies - such as the portrait below where the flushed face is all too knowing, where the red lips signify seduction, where the heart embroidered on the breast of the gown is a blatant statement of the growing affection between artist and muse.
Whatever happened, or did not, while Sophy posed for Millais there was talk of Effie being upset and arguments breaking out in the house resulting in Sophy being asked to leave. At the age of twenty-four, Sophy suffered a nervous breakdown, going on to exhibit all the classical signs of annorexia.
Was it the result of a broken heart, of wishing to retain the shape and form that had most beguiled her brother in law? We shall never really know. Suzanne Fagence-Cooper exposes a great deal and the rest we can only go on to deduce.
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