Essie Fox aka the Virtual Victorian at Bonhams with A Somnambulist by Millais

Today, along with her agent and publisher, the VV went to Bonhams auction house in London's  New Bond Street to view the Millais painting that inspired her novel's title. While there she was able to learn more about this wonderful work of art which was completed in 1871 when the artist was 41 years old.

Apart from the usual allusions to Wilkie Collins' novel The Woman in White, and the opera by Bellini which is called La Sonnambula, it seems that the painting was also inspired by Millais' admiration for Symphony in White No 1:  The White Girl by J. A. M. Whistler.

The model who posed as 'the white girl' once wrote of the work in a letter - 'Some stupid artists don't understand it at all while Millais for instance thinks it splendid more like Titian and those old swells than anything he has seen.'

In 1868 Millais responded with his first interpretation of a female in white when he painted the portrait shown above, which is of Nina Lehmann. But the magnificent, brooding A Somnambulist is something a great deal more powerful, and despite there being some prurient indignation regarding the fact that the woman was in her nightgown and may well be encouraging sexual advances, there were many favourable reviews when the painting was shown at the Royal Academy.

The Times said - 'The realism of the nightdress and the candlestick affords an easy theme for carping...it is impossible to contest the grace of the figure or the power with which the painter has given the effect of eyes still wide open, though not seeing, and the affect of moonlight and scattered coast lights.'

When viewed in 'the flesh' the eyes of this painting really are amazing. The VV is so glad that she went to look, and is also somewhat surprised that the painting only reached just above its lower guide price - auctioned for £74,400, inclusive of the buyer's premium.

However, the Bolton Museum which was selling the painting today must have been pleased with the profit made - having purchased A Somnambulist in the late sixties, for the price of £400.

The VV wonders who owns it now...


  1. Are you a little bit disappointed you didn't sell all your possessions to bid on it now? ;-)

  2. Betty - I am gutted. Quite teary when I saw how low it was because, yes, I should have tried to get a mortgage! It's such a stunning image - it really does have a power about it. But perhaps the current market is more for 'pretty pretty'.

  3. I'm surprised by how big it is - very impressive. I suppose I've never seen it in context, next to a person before.

  4. I was surprised at the size too, Clare. I had imagined it smaller. But it's very impressive.

  5. I hope the new owner appreciates it as much as you would have, Essie.

  6. I saw the Whistler painting at the Cult of Beauty exhibition at the V&A and it completely changed my opinion of his work.
    I would have loved to see the Millais, I must say it looks a little dated in comparison, but as a Lancastrian, Bolton Museum people should be shot for parting with it! Maybe it was a cry for help on their part.

  7. Thank you, womagwriter.

    James - the Whistler is stunning isn't it...so many subtle undertones there and beautifully rendered.

    Apparently, the Bolton Museum wanted to raise money for a new storage facility. But it does seem a shame to have let the painting go, never mind for such a low price. Oddly enough, some other items they put in which had not expected to raise more than a few thousand went on to sell for ten times that amount.