At this time of year, when the last of the leaves are falling, the air fogged and tinged with bonfire smoke, the VV is reminded of Autumn Leaves, a painting by John Everett Millais in which his wife's younger sister Sophy is posed as the girl who is throwing more leaves onto the smoking pyre. The picture is full of symbolism - the fires of passion about to catch light, the death of youth and innocence, and the questioning look in Sophy's eyes as they stare straight out of the picture's frame. In contrast, the other girls hold expressions very much 'simpler', all still engrossed in the pile of leaves rather than who might be watching them.
Effie Gray (1828-1897) painted by Thomas Richmond

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.

But, there is so much more to this story than mere gossip and titillation and, having gained access to some of Effie Gray's private letters and diaries, Suzanne Fagence-Cooper has recently written an excellent book which examines the characters actions and motivations in detail.

The Model Wife: Effie, Ruskin and Millais presents Ruskin as a man of great talents but over fastidious inclinations which rendered him as being cold and detached from reality, a trait that eventually caused his passionate and attractive wife to be plagued by nervous ailments.

Effie wrote candidly to her own father: "He alleged various reasons, hatred to children, religious motives, a desire to preserve my beauty, and finally this last year he told me his true reason...that he had imagined that women were quite different to what he saw I was, and that the reason he did not make me his Wife was because he was disgusted with my person..." 

Later, much gossip was to arise regarding the true cause of Ruskin's disgust - assumed to be a horror of female pubic hair, or else that of menstruation.
But, Effie did not repel all men. Far from it, she was very popular. When Millais was invited to join the Ruskins in Scotland, there to paint the husband's portrait, he was more inclined to spend his time in sketching the wife who modelled for his painting, The Order of Release (shown above)And, at night, when separated by only a thin partition wall in the lodge where the trio were staying, Millais could hear every movement and breath of the woman with whom he became obsessed - and no doubt he also realised the lack of physical intimacy within the Ruskins' marital bed. 
Millais' portrait of John Ruskin

Soon after that holiday Effie left her husband and bravely faced the public disgrace of petitioning for divorce which was granted on grounds of non-consummation, but only after medical examinations that proved she was still a virgin. With her marriage to Ruskin nullified, she and Millais were free to wed and as time went by they found themselves accepted by London society where, due her Effie's hosting skills and her husband's undoubted talent they gained great social standing and wealth. Millais even received a knighthood.

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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  1. Nice post. I love all of the detail of his art.

  2. Thank you, Andrew - I think I prefer Millais' Ophelia to anything else he painted. I saw the actual painting once and the colours and detail were so vivid. Just stunning. His later work, more portraiture and less illustrative story telling, tended to be much looser and many critics (including Ruskin) felt that he'd 'sold out'. But then Millais said himself that when he was younger he painted for fame and when he was older he painted for wealth.

  3. Love this post Sarah. Beautiful writing and lovely story telling. Such an evocative subject!

  4. Thanks Kate, surely there must have been a novel written about all this, but wouldn't it be great to juxtapose the two 'triangles'.

  5. Rock on, Millais :)

    I don't mind how clever Ruskin was... he was cold, controlling and probably a bully. But it was Effie who paid the price. It was she who was humiliated when she left her husband; she who had the indignity of exposing an intact hymen; she who was disgraced by the divorce.

    Thank goodness Millais was a trouper about it all and thank goodness the couple survived, socially and financially. Society could have frozen them out.

    If Ruskin didn't want to ever go near female flesh, he should have told her _before_ their first night on the honeymoon :(

  6. Hello Hels - well, as far as Effie and Ruskin went, if revenge is a dish best served cold then he was - in the end - served up with his just desserts.

    But the details of that incident are waiting for another post...

  7. Merryn Williams16 March 2011 at 10:16

    I'm really not convinced that there was any kind of love triangle involving Sophie. The rumour was started by Mary Lutyens in 'Millais and the Ruskins' - 'a story in the Millais family that she and Millais became too fond of each other and that Effie sent her away'. That was written in 1967 when all the people involved and their children were long dead. We don't know much about our grandparents' lives but we do know how rumours can snowball.
    I've carefully studied the new evidence about Sophie in Suzanne Cooper's book. This establishes that Sophie was 'sent away' from her home in Perth in 1868 and placed in an asylum at Chiswick, near Effie and Millais who were among the few people who knew about her condition. She was anorexic and disturbed, so by that time it would have been difficult for anyone to have romantic feelings about her - the man she eventually married, James Caird, was not told. There was no breach with her sister. Indeed we know from Louise Jopling's book 'Twenty Years of my Life' that Effie and Sophie were in Paris together the year before her death.
    The lovely portrait painted by Millais when she was fourteen was immediately sold to George Price Boyce. When she was thirty-seven he told his wife that he was very keen to paint 'poor Sophie' (no hint of marital problems there) and produced a sad image of a prematurely aging woman (you can see it in 'Millais: Portraits', edited by Peter Funnell). He and Effie were deeply concerned about her as a beloved and troubled younger sister.
    He may well have found her attractive as a teenager; she may well have had a crush on him. But that is a long way from a full-blown love affair, and Ms Cooper concludes that 'maybe he had nothing to hide'. Millais was a strikingly attractive man and we know from his letters that some women threw themselves at him, but I am sure that he remained faithful to Effie. He was on very good terms with her family - her brother Albert called him 'a man of great nobility' - and he wrote to John La Touche that 'every blessing and success has accompanied our marriage'. It was precisely because he was so close to her family that he was distressed about Sophie.
    Merryn Williams
    author of 'Effie: A Victorian Scandal'

  8. Merryn,

    What a wonderful comment - thank you very much, and fascinating to hear more details about Effie.

  9. I honestly don't think Millais ever had a 'romantic' relationship with Sophy. I think there was mutual affection between the two, but I doubt there would have been anything between them. For me the image is showing a girl bursting into womanhood and I think Effie would have stopped talking to her sister all together if there had been anything between sophy and millais.