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Important British Pictures
Lot 21: f - SIR JOHN EVERETT MILLAIS, BART., P.R.A., H.R.I., H.R.C.A. 1829-1896(3 views)
Signed with monogram and dated 1879 l.l.
oil on canvas
In mezzotint by Samuel Cousins RA, published by T. McLean, 1881
Cherry Ripe represents the consummation of Millais's move in the 1870s towards a fluid and sensuous handling of paint. In it the artist deployed a bravura technique to explore with the utmost subtlety and spontaneity the personality of the child who was his model. Although Millais's initial shift away from the rigours of Pre-Raphaelitism had occurred in the mid-1850s, this was only the beginning of a long evolution towards a style of art which had as its goal poignancy of mood, coupled with the paramount quality of charm and sweetness in figurative subjects and portraits. Although the theme of Cherry Ripe is one of childish innocence, mixed with a quality of demure self-possession that would have appealed to a generation that was intrigued by and on occasions sought to simulate or re-live the very experience of the state of childhood.
The sophistication of Millais's art in this period owed much to his study of European old masters and British historical schools. Works of his from the earlier 1870s, such as the portrait of Charles Liddell, known as The Brown Boy (ex Sotheby's, London, 15 June 2000, lot 43), had referred to the portrait tradition established by Titian, while the diploma piece that Millais presented to the Royal Academy - Souvenir of Velasquez - celebrated painterly skills, with the implicit avoidance of anything laborious or painstaking, along with a dependence on tonality, rather than strength of colour - traits inherited from the Spanish school. On other occasions, Millais drew on prototypes among the works of Van Dyck, or - as on the present occasion - from the oeuvre of Sir Joshua Reynolds.
Paintings by Millais that derive from his meditation on past schools of painting demonstrate his great sophistication as an artist. His purpose in the middle years of his career was to make works of art that would complement and hang well with portraits and figure subjects from earlier centuries, rather than to challenge the conventions and achievements of historical schools. That a painting by Sir Joshua Reynolds (the painter who the Pre-Raphaelites had pilloried as 'Sir Sloshua', in reference to his freedom of handling of paint, and who was regarded by them as the final corrupter of English artistic probity) should have provided the model for Millais's Cherry Ripe is in itself an extraordinary turnabout. In some way emblematic of the trajectory of Millais's career - which course had led from the intense medievalism and hard-edge realism of his works of the early 1850s through to a lush fluency and the command of a grand and timeless style of painting - it is not by chance that Max Beerbohm, in his inspired satires on the progress of Pre-Raphaelitism, published as Rossetti and his Circle in 1922, should have invoked Cherry Ripe. In Beerbohm's cartoon the youthful Millais, at work on his Ferdinand lured by Ariel (of 1849-50), turns from the easel to find his middle-aged self present in the studio, and with the figure of the girl who appears in Cherry Ripe sitting on his lap. Beerbohm's cartoon, now in the Tate Gallery, was titled 'A Momentary Vision that once befell Young Millais' (Fig. 1).
The original model for Millais's Cherry Ripe was a Miss Edie Ramage, niece of William Thomas, the editor of The Graphic, which periodical had commissioned the portrait. According to M.H. Spielmann, the child attended a fancy dress ball given by the Graphic in 1879, wearing a costume inspired by Sir Joshua Reynolds's portrait of Penelope Boothby (Fig 2.). So much admired was she on that occasion that the following morning 'she was again dressed in the character... and carried off to the artist's studio. [Millais] was so delighted with his little model that it was agreed upon the spot that he should paint a portrait of the child'. A fee of a thousand guineas was to be paid for the painting by the proprietors of the Graphic, a figure that presumably included the purchase of copyright. In later life Edie Ramage married a Spaniard, Francisco de Paula Ossorio.
Millais loosely adapted the pose and format of Reynolds's original. Her white dress, with a pink band around her waste, and her bonnet, tied with a pink ribbon, are very like the clothes worn by Penelope Boothby - although in Reynolds's original the creamy colours of the dress are set off with black accessories rather than pink as in Millais's. In both paintings the child model has a fringe and curling tresses of mid-brown hair, and in each she wears black gloves to the elbow but which leave her fingers exposed. Millais's painting departs from its prototype, in that he shows the whole figure of the girl, whereas Reynolds had cut the composition off below the knee. Both Reynolds and Millais manipulated the lighting of their subjects, to show their child models clearly and without distraction. The background to Cherry Ripe is dark, with just one or two points of colour showing honeysuckle blossom among the foliage and a foxglove at the left side of the composition. The child sits on a felled log, but is caught by a flood of light that makes clear that she is intended as the object of our attention. By stepping back from the subject somewhat, and by allowing the girl to look directly and with fixed gaze towards the spectator, a distinct and authentic sense of the girl's personality and self-awareness is given. According to the painter's first biographer, M.H. Spielmann, Millais worked on the painting for a week. The psychological immediacy of the portraiture and the overall freshness and spontaneity of the composition - sometimes lost in portraits of children that have occupied artists for longer periods - are here brilliantly intact.
Clearly Millais was closely familiar with Reynolds's portrait of Penelope Boothby. From 1851 to 1859 the work was in the collection of Benjamin Godfrey Windus, of Tottenham. The same patron owned four of Millais's most remarkable early paintings - Isabella, Mariana, Ophelia and A Huguenot - and although Millais and B.G. Windus fell out in the mid-1850s, before then Millais would surely have had the opportunity to look at historical works in Windus's possession. Penelope Boothby later belonged to Lord Ward, 1st Earl of Dudley. He lent the Reynolds painting to two public exhibitions, at the South Kensington Museum in 1862 and at the Royal Academy in 1871. Millais may also have had access to the engraving that was made in 1789 after Reynolds's painting.
In 1880 the Graphic issued a coloured reproduction of Cherry Ripe, to be offered to subscribers. As a commercial publishing exercise this proved to be phenomenally successful. Such was the public enthusiasm for the image as reproduced that more than 600,000 copies of the print were sold, and even then many further subscribers were disappointed. Eventually, the proprietors of the Graphic found themselves threatened with legal action by people who had not received their copies of the print, and resorted to paying sums of money by way of compensation. In 1881 a mezzotint engraving of the painting by Samuel Cousins was published (Fig. 3), which itself became a celebrated and prized piece of decoration. It seems that Millais himself was particularly pleased by the mezzotint, writing to his wife in November 1881: 'You will be glad to hear that yesterday I saw at Mr Cousins' his engraving of "Cherry Ripe," and that it is simply by far the most enchanting work which has ever been done from any of my pictures.' (John Guille Millais, The Life and Letters of Sir John Everett Millais, two volumes, London, 1899, II, p.121)
The wide popularity and sheer scale of distribution of the Graphic chromolithograph, combined with the admiration that many felt for Cousins's mezzotint, meant that the painting itself became extraordinarily famous. As J.G. Millais wrote of his father's work, '"Cherry Ripe" found its way into the remotest parts of the English-speaking world, and everywhere that sweet presentment of English childhood won the hearts of the people. From Australian miners, Canadian backwoodsmen, South African trekkers, and all sorts and conditions of colonial residents, came to the artist letters of warmest congratulation, some of which stirred his heart by the deep emotion they expressed. (John Guille Millais, The Life and Letters of Sir John Everett Millais, two volumes, London, 1899, II, pp.121-2) J.G. Millais reprinted one particular letter received from a Canadian admirer of the painting, by way of example of the kind of fan-mail that was received, and in which the correspondent sought to express 'some little portion of the gratitude of Canadians towards one who has done so much to brighten the homes of the Anglo-Saxon race all over the world with his wonderful creations.' With the letter came a poem inspired by Cherry Ripe:
An humble Cannok on the shores
Of great Ontario's lake,
Who matchless 'Cherry Ripe' adores,
The liberty would take
To throw across the wintry sea
A warm and grateful cheer
To glorious Millais, and may he
Enjoy a good New Year!
(Both the letter and poem are given in John Guille Millais, The Life and Letters of Sir John Everett Millais, two volumes, London, 1899, II, p.122.)
The painting itself was sold by the proprietors of the Graphic to Charles J. Wertheimer. It was lent by Wertheimer both to the Paris Exposition Internationale of 1889 and to the Royal Academy Millais Memorial exhibition in 1898. Probably at about the turn of the twentieth century the work passed into the remarkable collection of Sir Joseph Robinson, a distinguished South African who lived in London at Dudley House in Park Lane, and who had in his collection works by old masters, including Piero di Cosimo, Giambattista Tiepolo, Murillo, Rubens and Van Dyck, as well as a stupendous assemblage of British eighteenth-century portraits, including works by Gainsborough, Reynolds, Lawrence, Beechey and Romney. Furthermore, Robinson owned as many as seven paintings by Millais, all works from the 1870s and 80s and including delightful subjects such as Getting Better, Cinderella and The Mistletoe Gatherer. In 1896 Robinson had bought from the sale of Lord Leighton's collection the charming Shelling Peas, which painting Millais had given in exchange to his old friend. In addition Robinson had two landscape paintings by Millais, each views taken at Murthly Castle in Scotland. Robinson must have very determined to get these paintings by Millais - competing with collectors and fellow admirers of Millais's work such as William Lever - and was presumably encouraged by his two artistic advisers Charles Davis and Sir George Donaldson. Clearly Robinson saw Millais as a painter who was the heir and successor to this grand tradition. He placed works by the recently deceased artist in conjunction with those by European painters of the seventeenth century and Britons of the eighteenth. The effect must have been splendid.
The Robinson collection remained in storage for the greater part of the first half of the twentieth century. Sir Joseph himself died in South Africa in 1929. In the summer of 1958 great excitement was caused when the collection formed an exhibition at the Royal Academy, being displayed in the Diploma gallery. On that occasion Cherry Ripe was much admired and talked about - as an older generation kindled memories of its great fame in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, and a younger came to appreciate for themselves the intrinsic beauty and individuality of Millais's vision of childhood. There was speculation in the press as to true identity of the painting's model, and efforts were made to find out what had become of Edie Ramage. Apparently large numbers of people approached the Royal Academy in the belief that relations of theirs had served as the model. However, and according to a report in the Daily Telegraph of 9 August 1958, the son of the real sitter visited the Academy while the exhibition was on and recognised the portrait of his mother. A further report, on 13 August, announced that 'Signora de Paula Ossorio, who as a girl of four and a half was the model in 1879 for Millais's "Cherry Ripe," visited the Royal Academy yesterday as the guest of Sir Charles Wheeler, the president. She recalled the sittings and the chocolates which the painter used to give her.' Such was the public interest in the matter, sparked by the ongoing fame of the painting itself, that the Academy secretary, Humphrey Brooke, issued a statement confirming that Mrs Francisco de Paula Ossorio had definitely been the sitter, and while 'from the correspondence received by the Royal Academy it is apparent that there have been, and still are, numerous other claimants... it is probable that in most of these cases the person concerned sat for one of Millais' numerous other paintings of children'.
PROPERTY FROM A COLLECTION FORMED BY SIR JOSEPH ROBINSON, BT.
Commissioned by the proprietors of The Graphic;
Charles J. Wertheimer;
Sir Joseph B. Robinson, Bt., London (1840-1929);
His sale, London, Christie's, 6 July 1923, lot 90, where bought by a descendant of the present owner
Dimensions: 134 1/2 by 89 cm. ; 53 by 35 in.
Paris, Exposition Internationale, 1889, 'British Section', no.102;
London, Royal Academy, Millais Memorial Exhibition, 1898, no.169;
London, Royal Academy, The Robinson Collection, 1958, no.78
M.H. Spielmann, Millais and his Works, Edinburgh, 1898, catalogue no.202; pp.139-40, 174, 179;
John Guille Millais, The Life and Letters of Sir John Everett Millais, two volumes, London, 1899, II, reproduced p.119; pp.117-21; 479, 495;
Nicholas Penny, Reynolds, exhibition catalogue, Royal Academy of Arts, 1986, p.319 (as part of the discussion of Reynold's portrait of Penelope Boothby);
Peter Funnell and Malcolm Warner, Millais: portraits, exhibition catalogue, National Portrait Gallery, London, p.23, reproduced p.23;
Ellis Waterhouse, The Robinson Collection, n.d., reproduced p.61
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