I returned on a grey January morning, having made a desultory search some eighteen months earlier. Then, I'd had no idea where to look and, predictably, failed. This time though, I had a scrap of paper with some rough co-ordinates and, surprisingly quickly, I found it ...
SOPHIE M CAIRD BORN OCTOBER 28TH 1843
DIED MARCH 15TH 1882 AND HER ONLY CHILD
BEATRIX ADA BORN MAY 15TH 1874
DIED MAY 7TH 1888.
The headstone of polished granite, bare but for the above inscription. In fact, not a true inscription but stick on letters, like those used to personalise birthday cards. The numbers and letters on the bottom line lost, leaving a ghostly trace.
Brompton Cemetery is one of those Victorian Valhallas which grace most of our cities. Here one can trace the tastes and pretentions of that epoch. The Gothic, the dabble with Egyptian, the Celtic, Arts and Crafts, and everywhere angels - beautiful and graceful as if they had stepped from a Morris and Co. window. In places the graves are so close that one imagines the thinnest membrane of earth between each cell.
In all this pomp and panegyric Sophie Caird's headstone seems austere, not to say terse. No mention of the grieving husband, though there should have been one. And Beatrix, her 'only child', the taint of failure as well as tragedy, especially as the only child was 'only' a girl.
Sophie Caird, born Sophie Gray, was the sister in law of Sir John Everett Millais and, however briefly, his muse. Here she lies beneath the grinding jets, beside the Central Line and Chelsea F.C. - odd bedfellows for eternity.
In January 1854 Sophie visited Millais at his Gower Street studio. She was accompanied by her sister Effie's first husband, John Ruskin. Millais made a watercolour of the 10 year old. He wrote to Effie, declaring Sophie to be 'a delightful shrewd little damsel'. He was impressed by her determination to remain still whilst posing for him. He added, 'I think her extremely beautiful'. The resulting portrait shows an alert, intelligent child, her hair carefully coifed in heavy ringlets. Ruskin was 'delighted' with the likeness.
This was in the midst of that much documented bust up - the Ruskin divorce. Sophie had just spent a less than happy Christmas with Ruskin and her sister in Durham. Just three months later Effie was to flee her husband falling, ultimately, into the arms of Millais. Most commentators agree that Sophie was involved in the shenanigans far more than was appropriate for her years. The description 'Go Between' is often applied. One also thinks of 'What Maisie Knew' - the child as dumb witness. What effect all of this had on Sophie is impossible to say, but surely some seeds, at least, of Sophie's later problems were sown at this time.
Following their marriage in July 1855 Millais and Effie moved into Annat Lodge near Perth, 'a typical old house with a cedared garden', close to the Gray family home at Bowerswell. When the dust had settled and guests had left Millais turned his mind to work. We are lucky to have Effie's account of the subsequent painting's evolution. On the 20th October, after a couple of false starts, he began painting Sophie's head on the canvas that was to become 'Autumn Leaves'. Millais had said he wanted to paint a picture 'full of beauty and without subject'.
Sophie and her sister would have been handy (and cheap) as models, and after scouring the neighbourhood Effie was also able to rope in two local children to pose. Effie tells us that her sisters wore dresses of 'green Linsey Wolsey' - a thick woollen fabric and 'stout walking boots'. It was common for middle class sisters to wear matching clothing, showing that their parents were wealthy enough to avoid resorting to hand-me -downs. There is a photograph of the Gray clan and Millais taken earlier that summer showing Sophie and Alice in flouncy, matching dresses.
In 'Autumn Leaves' the four girls are posed in a beautifully depicted twilit garden, Sophie taking leaves from a basket held by her sister, and languidly depositing them onto a smouldering pile. Sophie and Alice are the only children to look out of the canvas, but not quite at the viewer. Their gaze, almost trance-like, is directed just to the viewers right.The effect is solemn and mystical. In recent years digital colour reproduction has made huge advances. It is tempting to avoid the expense and hassle of 'blockbuster' exhibitions and just buy the catalogue instead. But, 'Autumn Leaves' is so subtle and elusive that it almost defies reproduction. In some books it is a murky mess, more midnight than twilight. Details, such as the stripes on the sisters` dresses and the shadowy figure on the left (generally interpreted as reaping or mowing, but surely in early November more likely to be raking?) are often completely lost. In others the colours are too bright and lurid. This painting needs to be seen in the original to be properly appreciated.
The work is numinous and lyrical, a meditation on the passing of beauty and the inevitability of death. Most Victorian figurative painting can be read like a book, but 'Autumn Leaves' is not prose, it is poetry. At the age of 26, the newly married Millais had created a masterpiece. The artist had 'introduced the impassively beautiful female face that became the chief icon of aestheticism'.
Sophie was 12 when the painting was started and 13 when it was finished. One wonders if she had a day off for her birthday. Millais must have been a bright star in her life. Dazzlingly talented, handsome and personable - a veritable knight in shining armour who had saved her sister from a miserable marriage.
'Autumn Leaves' was displayed at the Royal Academy exhibition in the spring of 1856. The reviews were mixed but Ruskin, for one, was eulogistic. On the 3rd May Millais wrote to Effie informing her that he was off to the Royal Academy 'to make a sketch of the heads of Autumn Leaves for the Illustrated London News'. Another artist was to make a copy of the rest of the painting, the whole then being wood engraved for final reproduction.
There must have been great excitement at Bowerswell on Saturday 30th August when the resulting full page image appeared in the magazine. It is difficult to over estimate the cultural importance of the Illustrated London News in mid-Victorian Britain. Begun in 1842 it became 'the most phenomenally successful newspaper of its time' and Millais was a regular reader. Even now, the quality and quantity of illustrations is impressive. At the time, in a relatively image-starved world, it would have seemed miraculous.
The crepuscular light and subtle detail of 'Autumn Leaves' would not have been easy to replicate in an engraving . The reaper now becomes lost behind a plume of smoke, presumably to save time, and the leaves have lost detail.
But, it is Millais' treatment of the heads which is most interesting. Now, Sophie and Alice stare emphatically at the viewer, and all four girls look as if they have had 'lip jobs'. Millais has prettified them, possibly in an attempt to make the painting more palatable to the I.L.N. readership. This would have been heady stuff for a provincial 13 year old girl. Although the painting was exhibited four more times in Sophie's lifetime, she probably never saw the original again.
Sophie is recognisable in one of Millais' works of the following winter, 'The Heretic'. This was an attempt to repeat the success of 'The Heugenot'. Millais found it hard to render Sophie's contorted features, and the resulting painting is melodramatic and had not aged well. Posing for this must have been hard work for Sophie.
Sometime over the following summer and autumn she modelled for Millais once more in response to a commission from the artists Joanna Boyce and George Pryce Boyce. He was to produce two small portraits, one of Sophie, and one of her sister Alice. The one of Alice is charming enough but the portrait of Sophie is astonishing. After the labours of 'The Heretic', here the relationship between artist and sitter is relaxed, not to say intimate. Sophie, her head tilted slightly upwards, gazes out past the viewer as if steadfastly contemplating eternity. Again, the original deserves inspection, the quality of painting in the hair and the shadowing on the throat is remarkable. No wonder Millais reported to Joanna Boyce that the portraits were 'as good as I can turn out'.
Millais was to go on and paint Marchionesses, Duchesses and Countesses but none are a patch on this little portrait of Sophie. According to Mary Lutyens a story ran in the Gray family that he and Sophie became 'too fond of each other'. At the least, this painting shows a deep rapport between artist and sitter. Sophie 'seemed to inspire [Millais] to create fleeting works of loveliness and subtlety'. The summer of 1857 was the year of the Indian Mutiny, the trial of Madeleine Smith and the presentation of the first V.C`S. Yet, this painting`s freshness and immediacy, suggest it could have been painted yesterday.
Sophie was also to model once more - she is the figure on the left in the bevvy of maidens strewn across the grass in 'Spring'. This is in effect a companion picture to 'Autumn Leaves' but the imagery less subtle.
Millais was now based in London. His star was in the ascendant. Sophie's was to burn out much too soon. The harrowing details of her mental illness (first documented in 1868), along with her unhappy marriage and eventual death from anorexia are outlined in Susan Fagance Cooper`s excellent book, Effie. She was evidently a good companion and a talented musician. The birth of her daughter, Beatrix, suggests that for a while, at least, her illness was under control.
Millais was to complete one last portrait of Sophie in 1880, two years before she died. Here the head is slightly lowered, the face pinched the hair greying, her fingers nervously entwined. Her clothing has an 'aesthetic' look, perhaps because the looser cut hid her thinness. She would not have needed corsets. Millais hung and kept this painting in his studio. There is a photograph of him sitting beneath it, reading.
I place some flowers on the grave - what sadness was shovelled here? Her story seems like some tragic inversion of Dorian Gray - the paintings eternally beautiful. Sophie all too mortal. I hope she found the peace she sought.
My thoughts are disturbed by some drunks on a nearby bench. I turn and pick my way between the serried graves pass the beggar at the gates and walk onto the Fulham Road.
Millais and the Ruskins. Mary Lutyens. Murray 1967. Page 131.
The Life and Letters of Sir John Everett Millais. Volume 1. John Guille Millais . Methuen 1899 . Page 288.
The Pre Raphaelites. Tate Gallery/Penguin. 1984. Page 139.
Ibid. Page 141.
The Pre-Raphaelite Papers. Tate Gallery 1984 . Page 142.
Life and Letters. OP. Cit. Page 298.
The Age of Paradox, A Biography of England 1841 – 1851. John W. Dodds, London. Victor Gollancz 1953. Page 107
John George and Henry, Sue Bradbury The Boydell Press 2012. Page 208.
Lutyens. OP. Cit. Page153.
Effie. Suzanne Fagence Cooper . Duckworth Overlook 2010. Page 210.