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Follow the Hogsmill River 4 miles upstream from busy Kingston upon Thames and you’ll arrive at an unassuming, quiet stretch of water. This is where John Everett Millais chose to stage his iconic, Pre-Rapheaelite depiction of the tragic Ophelia.
Millais’ painting of Ophelia embodies the essence of the Pre-Raphaelite movement. A rebellion against the dark masterpieces popular with Victorians, the artwork was a controversial breath of freshair. Such vivid colour and exquisite, accurate detail of British flora and hedgerows had not been seen before. Millais’ commitment to an accurate representation of nature led him to the Hogsmill River in Old Malden, Surrey. The Hogsmill is a narrow tributary that winds its way from Epsom in Surrey through Tolworth and Berrylands: Eventually flowing under Kingston’s Clattern Bridge to join the Thames. (See end for today’s view of the site.)
Sir John Everett Millais’ Ophelia
Ophelia, oil on canvas, was painted in 1851 when John was just 22 years old. The painting depicts the drowning of Shakespeare’s Ophelia who is the daughter of Polonius, sister of Laertes and a potential wife of Hamlet. As a young, tragic beauty, Ophelia has long been a popular subject of artists but it is Millais’ romantic masterpiece that has become the iconic image of Ophelia we know so well.
John Everett Millais 1829 – 1896 was born in Southampton and spent his childhood in Jersey. His talent for painting was obvious at an early age and his supportive parents moved to London to be closer to the Royal Academy. With its art schools and dominant influence on English art this was the place to be for a promising young talent. The move paid off as John became a probationary student at the Royal Academy at the tender age of 11 – their youngest student ever!
The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood
John met Holman Hunt and Dante Gabriel Rossetti at the Royal Academy and together they became founder members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. The name, Pre- Raphaelite, is synonymous with romance, nature, attention to detail, classic pose and the extraordinary use of vibrant colour. This was painting from the heart without adhering to convention. The Brotherhood looked to classic sources for their inspiration – myths, legend, poetry, strong, statuesque female beauty and of course, in the case of Ophelia, – Shakespeare.
Elizabeth Siddal – The model for Ophelia
Ophelia was painted for the Royal Academy Exhibition and created in two parts. Painting en plein air to capture the essence and detail of the nature and flora, a method popular with Victorian artists. Millais then took the painting into his studio to add the image of Ophelia. The model for the ‘drowning Ophelia’ was Elizabeth Siddal, a lover of poetry who at the age of 19 agreed to immerse herself in a bath of cold water for long periods in the name of authenticity. She apparently didn’t complain when the lamps placed beneath the bath to keep it warm went out and she ended up with a severe cold. Her father forced Millais to pay £50 in doctor’s bills.
Identifying the Hogsmill as the setting for Ophelia
The painting was completed 170 years ago and thanks to 18 months of fine detective work from local resident, Barbara Webb we now know that the watery grave in the painting is a stretch of the Hogsmill River in Old Malden, Surrey. To be precise, Six Acre Meadow on the west bank, close to the Manor House garden.
Though Millais’ painting depicts Summer, the background was actually painted over 5 months from July to December 1851 with Millais spending 11 hours a day, 6 days a week at his easel. He painted through wind, rain and persistent attacks from the ‘biting Surrey flies’. He even built a small den to make things more comfortable for himself. Barbara found the location after piecing together information within the painting. Accounts which Millais and Holman Hunt had written of their time in the Old Malden area and letters from Henry Stapylton, the vicar of Malden in 1851 gave further clues.
The painting is worth over £30 million and resides in Tate Britain, Millbank, London SW1P 4RG. Check before you travel: Ophelia may be out on loan. A booklet by Barbara Webb ‘Millais and the Hogsmill River’ is available at Kingston Museum.