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John Everett Millais’ Ophelia
John Everett Millais’ Ophelia, oil on canvas, was painted in 1851 when he was just 22. 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’ work 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. Wishing to support their son’s obvious artistic talents, his parents moved to London to be closer to the Royal Academy. With its art schools and dominant influence upon English art in the Victorian period, this was the place to be for a young talent. The move paid off as he became a probationary student at the Royal Academy at the tender age of 11 – the youngest student ever.
He 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, exquisite attention to detail, classic pose and the extraordinary use of vibrant, vivid 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.
Ophelia by Millais has become the iconic image of the Pre-Raphaelite movement. It was painted for the Royal Academy Exhibition and created in two parts. Painting en plein air to capture the essence and detail of nature and flora, a method popular withVictorian 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 160 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 the image shouts 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 and 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.
The painting is worth over £30 million and resides in The Tate. A booklet by Barbara Webb ‘Millais and the Hogsmill River’ is available at Kingston Museum.
The Hogsmill River rises in Ewell, heads northwards and eventually flows under the Clattern Bridge to join the Thames at Kingston.
Images of the area on the Hogsmill discovered by Barbara Webb