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Important British and Irish Art
Lot 11: Sir John Everett Millais, Bt., P.R.A. (1829-1896)(2 views)
Little Miss Muffet
signed with monogram and dated '1884' (lower right)
oil on canvas
49 x 35 1/8 in. (124.5 x 89.2 cm.)
T.L. Atkinson, assisted by Samuel Cousins, mezzotint, 1884;
declared 22 September 1884; published by T. McLean, 1 September 1885.
Illustrated London News, 'Christmas Number', colour print from relief blocks, 1886.
The present picture is an example of the accomplished art of Millais's maturity that earned him international fame in addition to critical censure. Such pictures have seemingly weathered the continued abuse of succeeding decades as, when viewed through the eyes of myopic modernism, their subjects, treatments and appeal were questioned and rejected. Now they can be seen rightly as essential to Millais's fuller project in his later art, and as part of a substrata of eloquent imagery of childhood running through Victorian visual culture, from the photography of Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) to literary works such as Francis Turner Palgrave's beloved Golden Treasure (1861), as well as paintings which challenge the idea of pre-adolescent innocence and naiveté.
Little Miss Muffet was inspired by the eponymous nursery rhyme, first published in early nineteenth century editions of Songs for the Nursery:
Little Miss Muffet
Sat on a tuffet,
Eating her curds and whey.
Along came a spider,
And sat down beside her,
And frightened Miss Muffet away.
In interpreting the story, Millais maintains all the key narrative elements, in this gripping image of an affluent girl sitting in a deeply suspicious place, by a placid stream, in a dank wood - not the most salubrious spot for a petit dejeuner of curds and whey. At the same time, the artist vividly delighted in painting foliage, flowers, the creamy swathe of the girl's dress, and the various blue touches in her hat, bow, parasol, shoes and ribbons, and eyes. By 1884, Millais's facility with the brush was unrivalled in Britain, and is very much evident in this picture.
In some ways, the work is a reprise of Millais's Waking (fig. 1, 1865; Perth Museum and Art Gallery) of some twenty years prior, with its subject's startled glance and emergence from a reverie. However, this work abjures the contemporary setting of such earlier child images,2 and instead dwells in both the realm of nursery rhymes and eighteenth century 'fancy pictures' of idealized subjects, often in natural settings, from the Golden Age of British art. Connections with the work of Sir Joshua Reynolds are more than superficial. Certainly Reynolds's predilection for portraying young girls in mob-caps was in vogue in 1784, as well as 1884, but Millais has done more than take the first president of the Royal Academy's subject matter to heart. The future tenth president of that same institution here followed Reynolds's dictum of the Grand Manner in art. In generally synthesizing the torque poses of Michelangelo's prophets, sibyls and ignudi from the Sistine Chapel Ceiling, Millais expanded the narrative of his picture beyond the simplistic nursery story. As in Reynolds's prescription for elevating pictures, the art historical borrowing is subtle, but conveys the sense of a figure rocketed by prophecy, or at least enlightened in a new manner - the very onset of experience that forms such a formidable opposing stream to the innocence of juvenescence. That the object of Miss Muffet's shock is an innocuous, if large, arachnid, and one that is still one metre distant from her back, is irrelevant. In fact, her gaze seems to flit past the creepy crawling spider and the branch that eerily caresses her back, and towards some more menacing aspect of her environs - hence the spotlight effect of the illumination, which falls directly on her frame and the bark of the tree behind.
Such pictures are intimately related to Millais's lucrative portrait practice of the period. The year before he had painted a wistful Lady Elizabeth Manners as The Young Mother (1883; Private Collection, sold Christie's, London, 14 July 1972, lot 145) in a mob-cap, eighteenth-century dress and cradling a baby doll. And, more famously, two years later he would paint his own grandson in the role of a young boy confronted by the ephemerality of existence in Bubbles (1886; Private Collection). Little Miss Muffet also reprises the international success of the earlier Cherry Ripe (1879; Private Collection), a picture commissioned by the owners of The Graphic and lucratively published as a colour lithograph in their periodical in 1880, and the subsequent Little Mrs. Gamp (1881; Private Collection), an imagined version of a similarly attired character from Charles Dickens's Martin Chuzzlewit, which was published in 1882 as a print in The Graphic Christmas number.
Beatrix Potter's journals reveal the timeliness of Millais's conception. She writes on 15 December 1883: 'Most extraordinary coincidence, some three years ago Mrs A. had a happy idea for picture, of a subject which no artist had before painted, namely "Little Miss Muffett" [sic]. She could not find a model suitable till last spring, but the child was ill. This spring she sent for her, but finding she was sitting for Mr Millais she said she would wait, but imagine her surprise on finding he was painting the same child in the same subject' (Linder ed., 1966, p. 58). 'Mrs A.' was Potter's drawing tutor (the future authoress was seventeen at the time). On 6 January 1884 'Mrs A.' was to inform her pupil that Millais had just 'about finished Little Miss Muffet, whose name is Ethel May'.
Marion H. Spielmann wrote humorously of the circumstances in which the picture was created:
In order to obtain a proper expression of startled fear, Millais told his little model [Ethel May] weird stories of delightful horror, of giants and ogres, and creepy tales of slimy things, till the little eyes were wide open with fascinating terror and shrinking wonder. Doubtless, a real spider would not have done so well. The artist 'thoroughly enjoyed' the painting of his picture in spite of its difficulties.
Spielmann then related it to Reynolds's Age of Innocence (fig.3, circa 1788; Tate Britain) in terms of the lower body pose. But as in so many comparisons with Reynolds, Millais's works always problematise the eighteenth century's unthreatening images of picturesque vulnerability, either giving his child sitters a vivid sense of inner life, or marked threat bordering terror, as here.
Little Miss Muffet was first exhibited at Thomas McLean's London gallery at 7 Haymarket in November 1884, where Millais frequently showed such fancy pictures, as opposed to his more serious portraits or subject pictures, which invariably went to the Royal Academy or the Grosvenor Gallery. A critic for the Art Journal noted it:
... the show of Mr. T. MacLean [sic]... includes no less than three new pictures by Mr Millais. These were painted last summer for the decoration of a house. The first in order of the three pictures is 'The Mistletoe Gatherer' [Private Collection], a brunette... The second is 'Little Miss Muffet,' a fair child of perhaps five years, startled out of herself by the advent of the spider. The third is a 'Message from the Sea' [Private Collection]; a girl of ten or so... In all three pictures the texture of youthful skin and the expression of youthful emotions are managed with a skill that Mr Millais has certainly never surpassed; added to which the backgrounds, slight as they are, are almost in themselves enough to make the fame of a painter.4
The idea of this triad of pictures having been intended for a single house refers to the growing collection of Charles J. Wertheimer, and a gallery in his London home for which Millais himself devised a hang. Wertheimer eventually accumulated numerous works featuring child sitters including Cherry Ripe (1879; Private Collection), Cinderella (1881; Lord Lloyd Webber Collection), and The Empty Nest (1887; Private Collection). In addition, Wertheimer would buy Millais's female subjects: Allegro (1887; Private Collection), Penseroso (1887; Private Collection) and Forlorn ('I am Never Merry When I Hear Sweet Musick') (1888; Private Collection), as well as lovely large scale Scottish landscapes such as Christmas Eve (1887; Private Collection), The Old Garden (1888; Lord Lloyd Webber Collection) and Glen Birnam (1890-1; Manchester City Art Galleries).
As is evident from the dates of the above pictures, Wertheimer essentially employed Millais in the late 1880s, throwing his weight behind the artist in conscious competition with his own brother, Asher Wertheimer, the great patron of John Singer Sargent. While one could believe that Asher got the better of his brother, the truth is that they had different aims in their collecting habits. Asher sought to commission portraits and Sargent provided him splendidly, with many of the finest works of his middle career (Tate Britain). For Asher, Sargent was able to both depict his family as ethnically Jewish and economically successful, a key to that patron's assimilation into English society. Charles Wertheimer's choice of Millais revealed his more varied aims - for Millais painted him a range of imagery that went beyond portraiture, although he did paint formal three-quarter length pendant portraits of Charles (1888; Musée d'Orsay, Paris) and his matronly wife (circa 1891; Private Collection, sold Christie's, London, 2 November 1990, lot 289).
Despite these plans, Wertheimer never took up ownership of the Little Miss Muffet. It features in a plan of his 'Millais Room', paired with a never-executed composition depicting Little Red Riding Hood. The reason why Wertheimer did not eventually buy the work is unknown. Instead, Little Miss Muffet was acquired by John Mitchell Keiller (1851-1899) of Binrock House, 456 Perth Road, Dundee. Keiller ran the family confectionary business, one best known for its marmalade. His collection included works by William Quiller Orchardson and Jean-Louis Ernest Meissonier. By the 1890s he resided in London at 13 Hyde Park Gardens, now the Sri Lankan High Commission. He died in 1899 on his 568-ton steam-yacht, the Erl King, in the West Indies, having retired from the family business in 1892.
The next notable owner was Colonel Hugh Edward, 3rd Lord Joicey, D.S.O. (1881-1966), of Ford Castle, Bewick-on-Tweed, who probably acquired Little Miss Muffet from The French Gallery. The Joicey family owned collieries in County Durham. Hugh's father, James Joicey, 1st Lord Joicey (1846-1936) had also been a patron of the artist, purchasing Millais's Flowing to the Sea (1870-1; Southampton City Art Gallery) by the turn of the century (it was sold in 1937, after his death). The second Lord Joicey, James Arthur (1880-1940), owned Millais's 'Blow, blow, thou Winter Wind' (1892; Auckland Art Gallery, New Zealand). He lent it to the Royal Academy Millais retrospective in 1898, revealing that he collected independently of his father. The third Lord Joicey was James Arthur's younger brother and it is uncertain from whom he inherited Little Miss Muffet.
We are very grateful to Jason Rosenfeld for providing this catalogue entry. Jason is Assistant Professor of Art History at Marymount Manhattan College, New York. He is currently completing a monograph on Sir John Everett Millais for Phaidon Press, as well as co-curating, with Alison Smith, an exhibition on the artist to be shown at Tate Britain, London, and the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, in 2007 and 2008.
Jason Rosenfeld worked from a transparency whilst undertaking research on Little Miss Muffet.
1 'Little Miss Muffet.' The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition, Houghton Mifflin Company, 2002.
2 For example My First Sermon, 1863, Guildhall Art Gallery, London.
3 See M.H. Spielmann, Millais and His Works, William Blackwood and Sons, London, 1898, p. 111.
4 Art Journal, 1884, p. 378.
No VAT will be charged on the hammer price, but VAT at 17.5% will be added to the buyer's premium, which is invoiced on a VAT inclusive basis.
Please note that Millais's painting The Mistletoe Gatherer is in a Private Collection, and not in the Lady Lever Art Gallery as stated in the catalogue text.
For the duration of the view Little Miss Muffet is presented in a frame which is on loan from Arnold Wiggins & Sons. Please contact the department for more information.
Purchased from the artist by Thomas McLean, London, 1884.
John Mitchell Keiller, 31 January 1885 (£5,000).
with The French Gallery, London, 17 May 1912.
Hugh Edward, 3rd Baron Joicey, D.S.O., Ford Castle, Berwick-on-Tweed, by 1946.
His sale; Christie's, London, 26 July 1946, lot 48 (190 gns to Mitchell).
Anonymous sale [M.G.Benjamin+]; Sotheby's, London, 17 March 1971, lot 77 (£1800 to O'Malley).
Artist or Maker: Sir John Everett Millais, Bt., P.R.A. (1829-1896)
London, Thomas McLean, November 1884, no. 77.
London, Grosvenor Gallery, 1886, no. 89.
Glasgow, Royal Glasgow Institute, 1887, no. 164.
Edinburgh, Royal Scottish Academy, 1891-2, no. 283.
London, Royal Academy, The collected works of Sir John Everett Millais: A Retrospective Exhibition, 1898, no. 87.
Newcastle upon Tyne, The North East Coast Exhibition of Industry, Science and Art, May-October 1929, no. 341.
Art Journal, 1884, p. 378.
Illustrated London News, 'Christmas number', 1886, p. 23.
Art Journal, December supplement, 1894, p. 376, illustrated.
Art Journal, 1898, p. 4.
A. Whitman, Sir John Everett Millais, 1904, pp. 126-7, no. 214.
M.H. Spielmann, Millais and his Works, 1898, William Blackwood & Sons, London, pp. 65, 111, 176, 180.
J.G. Millais, The Life and Letters of John Everett Millais, 2 volumes, II, Metheun and Co. Ltd., London, 1899, pp. 165, 409 (illustrated), 482, 496.
A. Graves, A Century of Loan Exhibitions, Chiswick Press, London, 1913, pp. 784, 790.
A.L. Bradley, Sir John Everett Millais: His Art and Influence, George Bell and Sons, London, 1909, p. 59.
A. Fish, John Everett Millais, Cassell and Co. Ltd., London, 1923, p. 147.
L. Linder (ed.), The Journal of Beatrix Potter: 1881-1897, Frederick Warne, London, 1966, pp. 58-60.
L. Bradley, 'From Eden to Empire: John Everett Millais's "Cherry Ripe"', Victorian Studies, 1991, vol. xxxiv, pp. 179-203, p. 196.
L. Bradley, 'Millais, Our Popular Painter', D. Mancoff (ed.), John Everett Millais: Beyond the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2001, pp. 181-207, p. 187.
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