Euphemia Gray, Effie Ruskin, Lady Millais
Euphemia Chalmers Gray, known as ‘Effie’ was a remarkable woman. Essentially she was a decent, educated lady, a faithful loving daughter, an affectionate mother and a loyal wife. These were attributes one might expect of a respectable Victorian woman, however Effie became the wife of two eminent Victorians, John Ruskin and John Everett Millais. In an era when divorce was virtually impossible, the annulment of her first marriage to Ruskin became one of the great scandals of the 1850s, which would hound the three of them until they died.
Effie demonstrated real courage in breaking away from an abusive, unloving relationship and regaining control of her life, all within the law of the time. She defied expectation by her actions, the controversy of which could have crushed her, but she refused to remain quiet, proving her maiden status she re-invented herself as Mrs Millais. Unfortunately Effie never fully regained her reputation, Queen Victoria rejected her from society, saddening Millais more than Effie, but it was a necessary sacrifice for happiness. Effie and her contemporaries were witnesses to a time of momentous change, in which Effie played her part in reshaping Victorian views on femininity.
John Ruskin, was well regarded as the brilliant writer, thinker and art critic, known for his truth to nature ideas and his patronage of the Pre-Raphaelites. He was a man of propriety and gentility, who loved his work and his own company, finding relationships with women unusually difficult. His father John James Ruskin was a friend of Mr and Mrs Gray and that acquaintance would eventually bring him into contact with the Grays’ eldest daughter, Euphemia.
A child prodigy, at the age of eleven, John Everett Millais was highly gifted artist and became the youngest student to enter the Royal Academy Schools. Millais formed ‘The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood’ in 1848 with fellow painters William Holman Hunt, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, James Collinson, Frederick George Stephens and Thomas Woolner. Ruskin was a keen advocate of the young artists, however after the marriage of Millais to Effie, he became Millais’ most fervent critic.
Euphemia Chalmers Gray was known by several names during her life. In the year of her birth Sir Walter Scott published a novel called ‘The Fair Maid of Perth’, a description that stuck as she grew up, however ‘Phemy’ was her endearing pet name that her family knew her by. When she was twelve she received the name of ‘Effie’, a variation of Euphemia invented by Ruskin and largely acknowledged. Briefly she was given the nickname ‘Countess’ by the Millais brothers and finally, in her later years she would become Lady Millais.
Euphemia Gray was born in Perth, Scotland in May 1828. She was the first child born to Sophia Margaret Gray and her husband, lawyer George Gray. Sophia gave birth to fifteen children over a period of twelve years, but only a few survived infancy and several were lost to childhood diseases. By the time Effie left home for school at the age of twelve she was the eldest of six living children.
The Gray family lived in ‘Bowerswell’, a large Regency villa overlooking Perth, that had previously been owned by John Ruskin’s grandfather, John Thomas Ruskin. Thomas Ruskin was a failed businessman with many debts, possibly suffering from systemic Tuberculosis. Tragically he committed suicide in the villa, ending his life by cutting his own throat.
Bowerswell was then sold to George Gray and his family by John Ruskin’s father, John James Ruskin, whose wife (and cousin) Margaret refused ever to step foot inside the door, after having witnessed the tragedy.
The two families became well-acquainted and the Grays encouraged a match between John Ruskin and their young lass Effie, who was only eleven years old. John Ruskin was nine years Effie’s senior, an only child of first cousins and largely taught by his parents who were fiercely ambitious for him. In his teenage years Ruskin was taught by Thomas Dale, a progressive evangelical who inspired him to study further at Kings College Oxford. Throughout his life he remained very close to his parents, who were over protective and very possessive of him.
Effie was enrolled by her parents at ‘Avonbank’ boarding school in Stratford, which in those days was a quiet market town without a theatre. The Grays were keen for Effie to get a good English education to enable her to mix in society. Avonbank was a school run by sisters, Harriett and Mary Ainsworth who were cultured, intelligent women and offered girls an acceptable education in English; literature, arithmetic, ancient and modern history, art, French language and music; also dancing and sewing, which was thought essential for every girl to accomplish.
Her school days were happy and Effie was a star pupil, winning prizes in French and history. She also played the piano to a high standard and sang with a clear and beautifully toned voice.
Effie spent a full year at school without seeing her family and was expecting to return home to Perth for summer, but news came that her little sister Sophia had died of scarlet fever and her desperate parents thought it would be unsafe for her to come home. It was arranged for Effie to be taken to the Ruskins’ home, a semi-detached villa in Herne Hill, London, then mostly countryside with impressive views.
John Ruskin became enchanted with twelve year old Effie during her stay that summer. He was tall and thin, with light auburn hair and intense blue eyes, his mouth was slightly crooked but he had a kind smile. Ruskin and Effie became good friends and before he left to take another cure at Leamington Spa, he promised to write her a fairy story.
In 1840 John Ruskin was an undergraduate at Christ Church, Oxford, but he was at home convalescing from some malady. It is believed that young Ruskin was consumptive and had regular bouts of illness, which made his mother very protective of her precious son, however the disease remained a secret, due to stigma attached to it. Margaret Ruskin was also convinced that emotional stress of any kind, brought on his affliction. In Ruskin’s teenage years he suffered badly when a crush on Adele, the sophisticated daughter of visiting friends, ended in humiliation, with her laughing at him. His mortification resulted in distress so severe that he became unwell for days and obsessed about her until the end of his life.
Effie was with the Ruskin family for a month when more distressing news came from Scotland, her five year old sister Mary had also died of scarlet fever and a few days later three year old Jane succumbed to the disease. Effie was distraught but remained stoic for her parents’ sake, she wrote comforting letters to her mother, showing a courage and fortitude unusual for a girl of her age.
The fact that she and her brother George were away at school, probably saved their lives. Effie remained at the Ruskins’ home for several more weeks, Ruskin meanwhile wrote Effie’s fairy tale, ‘The King of the Golden River’, his only work of fiction written “at the request of a very young lady and solely for her amusement”, it was not intended for publication.
The next two years were spent at home in Bowerswell, Perth while Effie helped her mother and studied music and languages with her sisters’ governess, Joanna Thomson.
Her father was delighted to have her home, but her mother thought she should be at school. Two more children were born during that time; Robert in 1842 and Sophie in 1843, named after her dead sister.
Effie returned to school in the new year of 1844 and on her way there, she was again a guest of the Ruskins. They had moved to a fine Georgian house at 163 Denmark Hill, situated in seven acres of land, with its own small farm. John Ruskin noted;
‘Phemy’, now fifteen, was “very graceful but has lost something of her good looks”. After six months at Avonbank, Effie left school, emerging as a particularly beautiful, confident and charming teenager.
As a young woman Effie was vivacious, popular and enjoyed interacting in society, she had many friends and male admirers. In 1846 when she was seventeen Effie stayed at Ewell Castle near Epsom and briefly met a gangly teenager, ‘Jack’ Millais, who was very much affected by her beauty and character. In the same year Effie made a return visit to the Ruskins.
Two years had passed and John showed an attentiveness and regard towards Effie which his parents noticed, but frowned upon, so they hurried him away to Europe before anything could develop. Friendship was acceptable, but Margaret Ruskin was averse to the idea of her son marrying a Scottish woman who might steal her son away to Perth and Mr Ruskin thought John deserved a more worthy wife.
The Ruskins had Charlotte Lockhart in mind for John, believing the granddaughter of the great Sir Walter Scott would make a suitably eminent match for their son, but It was not to be, John was not interested and Charlotte was in love with someone else.
By now John Ruskin was a fellow of the Geological Society and an acclaimed art critic, who had won prizes in poetry and prose.
In May 1843, when he was twenty-four he published ‘Modern Painters’, the book which would make him famous. His parents, although strict in his childhood, gave John all that he ever needed; travel, education, devotion and abundant income, enabling him to focus on developing his mind.
His ultimate passions were the Alps and Turner, the great painter of light. Ruskin enjoyed his work and took it extremely seriously, preferring to be alone at his writing, rather than attending social gatherings or parties, which he dismissed as frivolous. He was indifferent to society in general and found attachments to women complicated.
His parents were eager for Ruskin to find a virtuous and doting wife. Once they realised Charlotte Lockhart was not available and John seemed miserable without Effie’s visits, they spoke more kindly of Miss Gray; saying she was well behaved and good natured, they encouraged their son to visit her in Perth, hoping it would make him happy. Ruskin saw himself as an old friend, but believed if he tried, he could make Effie more than a friend.
On visiting Bowerswell he was polite and congenial, which confused Effie after his parents reprove, however he made no advance towards her. Plainly he was not in love with Effie, but seeing her courted by other men increased his determination, and he found himself despondent on leaving Scotland. Soon after returning home to Denmark Hill he wrote to Effie proposing marriage, and he was accepted.
Effie was fairly naive about men and was essentially a good Presbyterian girl, her flirtations so far had all been mild and comparatively innocent.
Her desire was to live a more stimulating life and eventually settle in her own home with a husband and children. Having agreed to marry Ruskin she didn’t see him again for five months, although he wrote her a number of letters proclaiming his love for her and one revealing that he was particularly excited by her effect on other men:
“How proud of you I shall be … Fancy us, at the Opera again, together … And I shall see everyone gazing at you,” and think “Yes – you may look as much as you please, but she is mine, now, mine, all mine”.
They finally met as an engaged couple at a friend’s wedding in March 1848 when she was nearly twenty. They announced their wedding date for the 10th April. Over the last six months George Gray’s business ventures had collapsed and he feared bankruptcy, so was unable to contribute to his daughter’s dowry.
However Mr Ruskin the elder generously settled £10,000 on Effie, (worth around £700,000 today). The funds would be drawn upon by her husband as their principal income.
Mrs Effie Ruskin
It was a fine spring day in Perth on the 10th April. Effie Gray and John Ruskin were married discreetly by a Scottish minister in the drawing room at Bowerswell. John James and Margaret Ruskin did not attend, due to her phobia of Bowerswell. After the rituals, they left for their honeymoon in Blair Atholl, arriving at the Inn very late. Effie knew nothing of the physical rituals of the bedchamber so she was unclear what to expect on her wedding night.
Ruskin was evasive and ineffective, unlovingly he claimed he did not want children yet and remained distant. To Effie’s great humiliation, she was rejected physically and sexually, with Ruskin later admitting, he “found her person disgusting”. Throughout the six years of marriage their union was never consummated.
John Ruskin was regarded as a great ‘thinker’ and critic of his time, a brilliant, intelligent man, but it seemed he had some curious and naive ideas of women. In his work he had spent much time gazing upon academic artwork that idealised the female form: smooth, hairless, flawless sculptures and glorified figure paintings.
It is possible, perhaps he actually believed that real women were supposed to look that way, so when he first saw Effie’s naked body, he recoiled in apparent disgust. However, as a scholar at Oxford he would have been aware of the adult female form from pornographic prints handed around by fellow students, so it is uncertain what he found disgusting about Effie.
The sad probability was that Ruskin only felt real passion for very young girls. His first obsession, Adele had been fifteen when he first befriended her, Effie had been twelve and Rose La Touche, his later obsession, was only nine. As each girl grew older, Ruskin generally became less interested. From a letter Ruskin wrote to John Simon, his doctor, much later in 1886:
“I like my girls from 10 to 16, allowing of 17 or 18 as long as they’re not in love with anybody but me.”
An enlightening but disturbing admission from Ruskin, by todays standards. However, it is important to acknowledge that the marriage law was different during most of Victoria’s reign, girls could be married at the age of twelve and the law of consent only raised to sixteen in 1885.
Effie and Ruskin continued their honeymoon travelling through the Highlands and the Lake District. Ruskin did not tell his new wife that her naked body left him cold, instead he talked of his dislike of children and his wish to take her to the Alps unencumbered. Effie knew it was her duty to obey her husband, she may have been in agreement about postponing pregnancy, as she was still barely twenty years old.
The start of married life was spent living at Denmark Hill with Ruskin’s parents, who were initially kind enough. Effie was taken to meet Ruskin’s friends including Turner, whose room she was surprised to see was bare and cold, although he was generous with wine and biscuits.
Effie had grown up in a middle-class family in a large comfortable home, but she steadily became aware of other peoples’ circumstances. The Ruskin family were privileged and John had a private income, which meant travel and holidays would take place regularly.
The continental tour the Ruskins had planned that spring of 1848 had had to be postponed due to political unrest and revolutions in Europe, known as ‘Spring of Nations’. Therefore they decided that all four of them would go to Salisbury instead.
Tensions began on that claustrophobic trip, when Ruskin became unwell. His mother fretted over him believing it was serious when Effie thought it was not. His father assumed he had worn himself out in the marital bed, an ironic misconception which greatly amused Ruskin. Then a trivial argument followed and Ruskin took his mother’s side against Effie, leaving her feeling isolated and apart.
In autumn 1848 Ruskin and Effie moved into their own home in fashionable Park Street, Mayfair; but Ruskin would spend most days at his parents house away from his wife.
Now that Effie was a member of the Ruskin family, her mother- in-law felt free to lecture and bully her, often leaving her in tears, without her husband’s support.
Mrs Gray travelled down to London in January 1849 to visit her daughter and she noticed a change in her immediately. Effie was pale, worn, coughing and weak from lack of sleep.
There had been a plan for all four Ruskins to travel that spring to Switzerland together for the delayed tour, but in February Effie was too unwell, so she returned to Bowerswell with her mother, intending to stay in Scotland only a short while.
During that visit her young siblings contracted whooping cough and little Robert died in March 1849. Effie and her parents were grief stricken and she felt it impossible to go on holiday. Consequently Effie stayed in Perth with her family, while the Ruskin trio headed for Switzerland. She did not see her husband again for nine months.
Her first wedding anniversary and her twenty-first birthday were spent alone in Perth, where she was beginning to be the subject of gossip. People were asking if Effie had come home to have her baby while her husband and his parents went on holiday. But time passed and no baby arrived, so elements of the truth began to surface; was Effie Gray a virgin wife?
In Ruskin’s letters to Effie during his tour he was cheerful and wrote quite fondly: “Do you know, pet, it seems almost a dream to me that we have been married. I look forward to meeting you, and to your next bridal night. I think it will be much nicer next time, we shall neither of us be frightened.” It seemed, however, in person he was more formal in his display of affection for his new wife.
The senior Ruskins observed the detached fondness Ruskin had for Effie, when he was away from her he appeared happier, loving her more from afar. Effie’s in-laws worried that something was wrong with their son’s marriage. Ruskin was agitated by their doubt, but not with them.
He was annoyed with his wife for not having, “thrown herself openly upon his parents”, and not fitting in with the family plans.
Poor Effie was still not well, she was suffering from ‘nerves’ and headaches, when Ruskin’s father wrote to her father to complain about his daughter-in-law’s coldness and how disappointed they were with her, especially her lack of duty as a wife.
She was expected, “to sacrifice every feeling, to become interested and delighted in what her Husband may be accomplishing”.
After talking to Effie and not getting the true reason for her unhappiness , George Gray wrote back to the Ruskins to say the young couple were better left alone. Mr Gray also indicated, that his daughter’s natural manners were, ‘thoroughly Scotch’, suggesting she was reserved in displaying her feelings, even to those she loved, but added, “Phemy has the greatest affection for John” and fully understood the importance of his work.
Effie tried to calm matters but the situation only inflamed as Ruskin contributed with a letter to Effie’s father which argued passionately that his parents had always been extremely kind to her and that Effie was mentally ill:
“If she had not been seriously ill, I should have had fault to find with her: but the state of her feelings I ascribe now, simply to bodily weakness: that is to say – and this is a serious and distressing admission – to a nervous disease affecting the brain … If Effie had in sound mind been annoyed by the contemptible trifles which have annoyed her; if she had cast back from her the kindness and the affection with which my parents received her, and refused to do her duty to them, under any circumstances whatever but those of an illness bordering in many of its features on incipient insanity, I should not now have written you this letter respecting her … I hope to see her outgrow with her girls frocks – that contemptible dread of interference and petulant resistance of authority which begins in pride – and is nourished in folly – and ends in pain – ‘Restiveness’ I am accustomed to regard as unpromising character even in horses and asses – I look for meekness and gentleness in woman.” ( Ruskin to George Gray, 5th July 1849 ).
At the Gray’s suggestion that he should come to Perth and be seen out with his wife, Ruskin was spurred into writing another furious letter to Effie, including the phrases:
“only do not mistake womanly pride for womanly affection” and “you foolish little puss”, “I do not intend to allow you to dictate to me what is right, nor even to take upon you the office of my mistress in knowledge of the world – If you knew a little more of it, you would be more cautious how you wrote impertinent letters to your Husband.”
After regaining her health and strength in Bowerswell with her parents, Effie felt more prepared for Ruskin’s arrival in Perth in September 1849. She had configured an idea that they should travel to Venice together, where he could work on his new book, ‘The Stones of Venice’ and she would bring her friend Charlotte Ker along for company. Ruskin was delighted at the idea, thinking of it as a type of second honeymoon.They set off for Italy by carriage on the 3rd October.
On route to Italy via France and Switzerland, Effie was able to see the Alps, Verona and Milan, but was shocked by the amount of Austrian soldiers there. On arrival in Venice there had been severe damage to the station but fortunately most of the city and monuments were intact, despite the year and a half siege the Venetians were recovering from. Effie thought it was the most exquisite place she had ever seen, with ‘sparkling green sea and canals with marble palaces’.
Ruskin made it understood that he was there to work, so set out early every morning to study the architecture.
Effie described him when writing home: John excites the liveliest astonishment to all and sundry in Venice and I do not think they have made up their minds yet whether he is very mad or very wise. Nothing interrupts him and whether the Square is crowded or empty he is either seen with a black cloth over his head taking Daguerrotypes or climbing about the capitals covered with dust and cobwebs.’
Four months passed contentedly with each of them doing what they preferred. Ruskin behaved pleasantly towards Effie because she was making no demands on him, but his earlier hints that they may start again as a new married couple were not followed up, he still had no desire for children or intimacy.
It is probable that Ruskin’s decision to delay love making until Effie was twenty five was discussed in Venice. Effie was happy to forget the subject for the time being as she was busy with her friend Charlotte exploring the islands in gondolas, shopping for Venetian glass and polishing their Italian and German languages.
The great advantage of Venice was the freedom that it gave to the young women, to be able to follow ‘one’s own plans and pursuits’ was a real novelty. When out at dances or at the Opera Effie was admired by many Italian men and enjoyed the attention. Ruskin, who was well aware that other men found his wife attractive, felt proud and pleased to be her legal owner, knowing she would always conduct herself appropriately.
In March 1850, they headed back to London and home in Park street. Ruskin took a carriage to Denmark hill most days, to work on his book at his parent’s house. Effie was disappointed but kept herself occupied playing the piano, riding and socialising, making several new friends. One friend Elizabeth Eastlake, a writer, whose husband had been recently knighted and elected President of the Royal Academy, would later play an important part in the chain of events in Effie’s life. In June Effie and other prominent young ladies were presented to Queen Victoria at a reception in Buckingham Palace. She wore a long silk gown which was admired by other courtiers while she curtsied to the Queen. After this Ruskin and Effie were invited to the most luxurious receptions, balls and dinners.
John Ruskin & The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood
That summer there was excitement around the Summer Exhibition, with a new group of young men calling themselves the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. One of the artists had painted a ‘dreadful picture’, ‘Christ in the House of his Parents’, shocking because it portrayed Mary and Joseph as ordinary people in a carpenters shop and Christ as a barefoot young boy, with a bleeding hand. The artist was John Everett Millais, one of the founders of the Pre-Raphaelites. Ruskin was not impressed by the painting, but the following year’s Summer Exhibition would hold more to interest him.
Effie went to Bowerswell in the August of that year as her mother was pregnant again. At forty-two Mrs Gray was having another baby, yet Effie at twenty-two was uncertain if she would ever be a mother. She believed her health and demeanour would improve if she had children and her family doctor agreed, but Effie knew she had the challenge of persuading her husband. As there was only one certain way of avoiding pregnancy in Victorian times, it was noticed that Ruskin paid little attention to his wife. Hopeful men began calling on her, including a Russian aristocrat whom she had met in Venice. Effie turned them all away and reproached them, demanding they should not to return, making it quite evident she would be no one’s mistress.
In 1851 Ruskin had completed the first volume of ‘The Stones of Venice’ and was making plans to return to Italy. Before the couple left for their second tour, Effie visited the Great Exhibition alone as Ruskin thought it lacking in good taste, however they attended the Royal Academy’s Summer exhibition together and appreciated some of the new works by the Pre-Raphaelites.
Paintings by William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais were on show and ‘Mariana’ by Millais especially caught Ruskin’s eye. Yet once more the group of young artists faced intense criticism by leading critics, including Dickens, but this time Ruskin came to their defence.
Ruskin wrote a letter to the Times protesting against the onslaught of criticism, in which he endorsed their name, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood: “they have chosen their unfortunate though not inaccurate name because all artists did this before Raphael’s time, and after Raphael’s time did not do this, but sought to paint fair pictures rather than represent stern facts”, and advocated their source, signing himself, ‘The Author of Modern Painters’.
In a second letter, published two weeks later on the 30th May 1851, Ruskin expressed hope in these young men, ‘may, as they gain experience, lay in our England the foundations of a school of art nobler than the world has seen for three hundred years’.
The Pre-Raphaelites were thrilled have Ruskin on board, knowing of his esteemed reputation. Ruskin was keen to meet the new generation of artists and initiate himself as their patron, so he and Mrs Effie Ruskin visited Millais parents’ house, where John Everett and William Millais, his brother still lived. Ruskin believed he could influence their work through the theories and principles of his ‘Modern Painters’ ideals, hoping to make an impression on them and demonstrate his support.
The Stones of Venice II
Effie and Ruskin returned to Venice in August and stayed almost a year. As before, Ruskin worked on his note taking and drawings of architecture for a further volume of, ‘The Stones of Venice’, while oblivious to his wife. Effie wanted to help her husband in any way she could but Ruskin, irritable by her eagerness, refused her.
Effie therefore spent her time away from him, contentedly fraternising with Venetian high society, fully at ease with her companions, who were not blind to her husband’s indifference towards her.
Half way through their stay in Venice, Turner died and had made Ruskin executor of his will, which bequeathed almost all his work to the nation. Both Ruskin and Effie were mildly disappointed that none of Turner’s paintings were left to Ruskin personally.
Agitated and not ready to return, Ruskin wrote to his father asking him to keep Turner’s house secure and the art works safe until their return, adding that once they were home they would move closer and remain in England for the foreseeable future.
Ruskin wanted to live closer to his ageing parents even suggesting they all live together in the one house, that was if the old Ruskins could put up with his wife.
Ruskin’s parents decided on a semi detached villa in Herne Hill (the other half of Ruskin’s semi detached childhood home). Effie was not consulted in this plan. Writing to his Father Ruskin explained; “I do not speak of Effie in this arrangement – as it is a necessary one – and therefore I can give her no choice. She will be unhappy – that is her fault – not mine.”
Obviously the thought of going home and moving to a house she did not know, all arranged by her in-laws, dampened Effie’s relative happiness in Venice. She had no idea that Ruskin was coldly admonishing her personality and temperament by corresponding with his father. He in turn wrote to Mr Gray to complain about his daughter and her frivolous ways, describing her as extravagant and pleasure- seeking. The description was totally unfair as it was John Ruskin who was purchasing expensive books and engravings. Effie modestly kept her dresses up to date without spending large sums of money on jewels or fashion, she was not generally concerned with material possessions.
30 Herne Hill
In July 1852 Ruskin and Effie were back in south London at 30 Herne Hill, not her choice but Effie had by now resigned herself to living only a short distance from the old Ruskins. When she had tried to suggest that maybe she should have been consulted, John said; “he never intended as long as they lived” to consult her on any subject of importance as he owed it to his parents “to follow their commands implicitly”.
They were now living four miles away from their old home, leaving behind the social circles that Effie was used to having nearby. She could not call on friends or go to social gatherings without a horse-drawn carriage.
It was too dangerous for a lady to walk on the streets after dark and walking any distance during the day would have been difficult with long dresses and corsets. She was allowed to use Mrs Ruskin’s carriage once a week, but it was made clear that Effie should settle down and be a good house wife.
The old pattern of their life resumed, with Ruskin leaving Effie after breakfast, walking to his parents’ house to work in his old study, returning to her in the evening.
Effie struggled to please the Ruskins, who were often interfering, critical and contradicting in their behaviour towards her, yet their son could do no wrong. She began to dread the visits to her in-laws, as they either treated her as a child or a fool, accusing her of being mad.
In September Effie decided to visit her family in Perth and invite her sisters, Sophie and Alice to London for a six month visit, to help cheer her up for a while. Effie still yearned for a baby, it was now February 1853 and she had been married to Ruskin for nearly five years, yet still he refused to love her as his wife. Effie had endured marital misery, trying desperately to make the best of it, while feeling shunned and rejected by her cold hearted husband.
The Order of Release
Ruskin received a surprising request later that spring, Millais asked if he would be permitted to paint his wife, Ruskin readily allowed this, recognising that Millais had great potential as an artist and caring little how Effie spent her time. Still this was unconventional, as it was not a portrait Effie would sit for, but a heroic Highland woman in a painting with a narrative, ‘The Order of Release’. In Victorian times female models were thought to be disreputable. In any case Millais decided a Scottish model was what he needed and Effie began posing for the painting in March 1853. He worked slowly and meticulously, hiding the painting from her until complete.
In May the Summer Exhibition opened and ‘The Order of Release was a massive success, drawing in crowds and complements. Effie felt sad and remote, seeing the contrast of Highland woman in the painting, with a child and a husband who depended on her; to her own situation, childless with a husband who did not love her. Now twenty-five, Effie felt compelled to question Ruskin on what terms they were to live their life.
His old argument of a dislike of children and the disruption it would bring to their lives, was expressed as well as a new recommendation; ‘that many saints had lived together in chaste marriages living harmoniously without sin’.
Ruskin also claimed that he desired to preserve her beauty and her youth, but finally in frustration he told Effie his true reason:
“that he had imagined women were quite different to what he saw I was, and that the reason he did not make me his Wife was because he was disgusted with my person the first evening on 10th April 1848.”
It angered Ruskin that she had raised the subject and he called her wicked for wanting intimacy, saying that starting a sexual relationship with a diseased woman would be sinful. He added that she was not fit to bring up children because she was insane.
It was now clear, in the early summer of 1853, Their marriage was dead. That Effie had hoped a miracle could happen, demonstrated her ever faithful optimism in Ruskin’s character, an endearing trust which had been broken by his harsh, cold words. Effie was distressed and had severe headaches, but kept busy and met friends, pretending life was normal. At a party that she attended alone Effie briefly met Millais and they talked together, not mentioning it to Ruskin.
In June, Millais was commissioned by Ruskin’s father to paint a portrait of his son. He wanted Ruskin set against a rocky landscape with flowing water, in the style of Turner.
Ruskin had intended to invite the artists, Millais and Hunt on holiday to Scotland, so suggested it to them. When asked about his wife, Ruskin said she could come too and make herself useful. Their detachment and fury with one another was kept secret for the time being.
Effie was pleased to be getting away from her irritable in-laws and enlivened by the thought of spending time looking after a group of artists in the wild countryside of Scotland.
Ruskin looked forward discussing art and nature with the artists, also he hoped to teach them to paint like Turner. Holman Hunt was unable to go, as he had planned a journey to Syria to paint religious subjects, but Millais’ brother, William, a landscape water-colourist would later join them.
Ruskin, his manservant, Effie and Millais left London on 21st June 1853, with a large hamper of tea, sugar and sherry. They planned to stay a week in Northumberland with the Trevelyans before setting on their way up to Scotland.
Lady Trevelyan noticed the tension between Ruskin and Effie and the fact that Millais had already made an impression on Effie. She also observed that Mrs Ruskin would slip away soon after breakfast, followed a little later by Millais and not returning until dinner. The only attention Ruskin paid to his wife was noting her flaws and inadequacies of speech and manner in a personal notebook he kept in his pocket. Effie was by now probably weary of hearing Ruskin holding an admiring audience’s attention with his dialogue, and yearned to be out in nature.
A week later they reached the tiny Scottish village of Brig o’Turk, in the Trossachs, Stirling. Effie was in her natural element, her spirits soared as she headed for the woods and explored along the rocky edge of the trout stream, up to a small mountain lake. Millais followed her, exhilarated by the landscape and overwhelmed by the blue and purple hues of mountains, heather and sky.
Writing to Holman Hunt, Millais told him, “you would go mad if you saw some of this scenery it is so fine’, and ‘Today I have been drawing Mrs Ruskin who is the sweetest creature that ever lived; she is the most pleasant companion one could wish.”
William Millais arrived and joined his brother with the Ruskins at the Inn, which was on the edge of Loch Achray. Ruskin retreated to work on his lectures leaving Effie to be entertained by the Millais brothers.
It was decided that the background to Ruskin’s portrait would be Glenfinlas, with rushing torrents and craggy rocks, Millais’ forte. The painting was delayed due to rain, so the men played badminton indoors, while Millais painted a portrait of Effie sewing, with foxgloves woven into her hair.
After one week Ruskin, Effie and Millais moved to cheaper accommodation at the schoolmaster’s house, though William continued to stay at the Inn.
Ruskin chose to sleep in the parlour, while his wife and Millais were given a small box room each, either side of him. Effie cheerfully described hers as a ‘den’ and enjoyed this temporary way of living, relying on the brothers’ freshly caught trout and a supply of porridge, cream and eggs.
Effie was happy in the camaraderie of the Millais brothers, two personable, unwedded young men. In boyish courtesy they gave her the nickname of ‘the Countess’, as ‘Effie’ was too familiar and ‘Mrs Ruskin’ rather formal. Scrambling rocks and walking in the wooded valley, Effie enjoyed their youthful energy.
In his sketch book Millais recorded some of their activities in humorous drawings, which conveyed an increasing affection between them, in one ‘The Countess as Barber’, Effie cuts the brothers’ hair.
Millais taught Effie to draw and she made good progress, however Millais was on edge, Ruskin’s behaviour towards his wife irritated and disturbed him. Ruskin continued to frown and write notes in his book on Effie’s behaviour and once, when out on a walk the men all easily jumped and cleared a stream, which Effie, in her long skirts couldn’t cross, Ruskin coldly told her that she knew the way home.
William Millais in his later years accounted that Ruskin did not act wisely in continually putting his brother and Effie Ruskin together. Ruskin was keen on daily exercise and insisted that while he and William cut a canal with pickaxe and spade, he preferred that Effie and Millais should roam the hills together. When they returned quite late Ruskin commented to William, “how well your brother and my wife get on together”!
The Ruskin portrait progressed slowly, his father was impatient but Ruskin himself was very happy with the detailed landscape framing his presence. Millais’ work was painstaking and the spot he painted from was down a steep bank at the bottom of a dark ravine, where he was plagued by midges. Small wonder then that it was taking time.
Effie decided to spend a few days visiting her parents, Ruskin had suggested that Millais accompany her but Millais refused, as it would have stirred gossip and misunderstanding. It now seemed possible to Millais that Ruskin in fact, wanted them to have an affair. On Effie’s return the long afternoon walks resumed and they confessed their love for one another, Effie admitting her virgin state and unhappiness in marriage. They showed their affection but their moral integrity prevented them from ‘sleeping together’.
Ruskin and Effie’s facade of being an ordinary married couple on holiday with a friend continued, but it was not easy for the new lovers. Millais found the nights a torment with Effie only a few feet away behind a curtain, but he was mostly kept busy painting, while Ruskin wrote the index to, ‘Stones Of Venice’ and prepared his lectures.
Ruskin could appear innocently oblivious, absorbed in his work, separated from any emotional demands from Effie; nevertheless many concerned believed Ruskin wanted Effie to compromise herself so he could get a legal separation or later even a divorce. He could have divorced her for adultery, without question, if she had indeed committed it. The Divorce Act of 1857 would permit men to free themselves from a faithless wife, but not the other way round.
Millais and Effie were down-hearted, they had only three options which would enable them to be together: renunciation, a secret affair or elopement. All three seemed impossible, as they recognised the morality of the time which meant an elopement or an affair would ruin them and relinquishing the marriage would be inconceivable, probably beyond the bounds of possibility.
As autumn drew in Millais and Effie were despondent, feeling their situation was hopeless. Effie, realising that Millais’ artistic career was about to launch, did not want a scandal to taint his success, although Millais knew too well that an elopement or an affair would result in far greater repercussions for her than himself. Miserable, he knew for Effie’s sake he would have to end their close attachment, but not before the Ruskin portrait was complete.
Effie, desolate and frustrated informed her husband, “that if she ever were to suffer the pains of eternal torment, they could not be worse to her than going home to live at Herne Hill with him”. Ruskin’s reaction was stoney coldness and disdain.
Leaving the Trossachs at the end of October 1853, Ruskin and Effie stopped in Edinburgh, where Ruskin was to give his lectures and Effie complied in assisting him and greeting his guests. Millais arranged for his unfinished canvas to be sent back to London, then joined them to hear Ruskin’s address. Effie’s parents attended and Millais met them for the first time, striking up a warm friendship with her mother, Sophia Gray. The secret lovers had agreed that they would not meet again and said their anguished goodbyes, before setting back to their separate London homes.
Back in Herne hill, Ruskin’s bitterness towards Effie turned to hostility. All the while Ruskin wondered at her discontent, he was convinced she had a comfortable home and he didn’t interfere with her way of life more than was necessary.
He still believed his parents and himself had shown her every kindness. On 11th November he wrote to his father: ‘it might be better that I should declare at once I wanted to be a Protestant monk: and separate from my wife’ .
Poor Effie developed a twitching eye and neuralgia in her face which was most probably brought on by stress. It continued for a few months but became a recurring problem. Ruskin complained about her ‘sullen Melancholy’ and had no sympathy. The married pair still slept in the same bed despite the coldness and discord between them.
Effie tried desperately to make a new start, and writing to her Mother said, “as one of his objections to my conduct was not helping him in his work … I was quite ready to do anything he might desire”.
Ruskin was too irate at the thought of reconciliation and declared “that his marriage with me was the greatest crime he had ever committed in acting in opposition to his parents”.
On 21st November she went to Bowerswell to be with her family, leaving Ruskin to enjoy the single life and ‘selfish solitude’ that pleased him most. The Grays agreed that Effie’s little sister Sophie, would return with her to London as a companion and observer, Effie would be her teacher. Soon after she arrived Ruskin endeavoured to get Sophie on his side, by taking the ten year old out for walks and having confidential talks with her about her wicked older sister. Sophie recounted his words to Effie, “he is going to begin his harsh treatment when you come back, to try what harshness will do to break your spirit”. He said he could write a book about Effie’s behaviour, then added he would bring her sister Alice, (then aged eight), for a long visit ‘to see how they agree’.
The old Ruskins could barely disguise their loathing of Effie, but they too tried their best to influence Sophie against her family: Mrs Ruskin would kiss her and say, “she wished she could have the charge of her – for her mother was a weak ignorant woman, and I, a poor, silly creature”, (written to her mother by Effie). Effie was, of course disturbed by the Ruskins attempts to turn Sophie against her own family and she was adamant that they would not get to Alice.
In early 1854 the Ruskin portrait was still unfinished, it had become a tormenting task for Millais. The Ruskins were waiting impatiently, but only good manners and professionalism motivated Millais to continue. Ruskin was not troubled by his slow progress, instead he held Effie responsible for diverting the gifted young artist from his work.
Millais and Effie were still in love but they knew they could never meet, they were both thoroughly unhappy. Millais wrote to Mrs Gray, “Why he ever had the audacity of marrying with no better intentions is a mystery to me. I must confess that it appears to me that he cares for nothing beyond his Mother and Father’. Millais felt hopeless about the situation and wished that there was something he could do.‘It is my opinion that some steps should be speedily taken to protect her from this incessant harassing behaviour of the Ruskins”.
In March came a glimmer of hope. Since their return to London, Effie’s friendship to Lady Eastlake had become close and the older woman, concerned at Effie’s nervous state of health, became her confidante. Effie confided in her friend, about her miserable marriage saying she was deeply in love with Millais and could no longer bear a marriage without intimacy or children.
A Glimmer Hope
Lady Eastlake was averse to Ruskin, because he had criticised her husband’s management of the National Gallery and surmised he was quite capable of intimidation. Her father and brother were gynaecologists, and through them she knew not all marriages were consummated. Lady Eastlake had also sought the advice of a retired Judge and explained to Effie that if she could prove her virginity, a church court would possibly find her marriage null and void.
Effie was stunned at the astonishing news, she had not dared to believe there could be an escape from her miserable condition. She realised that that she would have to tell her parents all the details of her marriage and worse, inform the Ruskins. The thought of submitting herself to an intimate examination repelled Effie, but she knew she could put on a brave face in a crisis. After weighing up the risk of gossip and scandal against the thought of continuing as she had for years, she decided to write to her father about their failed marital relationship. The letter was dated, 7th March 1854 and was addressed to Mr Gray, because as lawyer he would know if there was a lawful way out of her wedlock.
Her parents were deeply shocked by the letter and at first did not know what to do. Mr Gray had never come across a case like this before and being cautious, he decided to consult the experts in London. Mrs Gray now understood why there were no grandchildren and was sorry her daughter had suffered so much. The prospect of a second, much happier marriage now seemed almost possible, so Mrs Gray swiftly passed on the news to Millais. Mr Gray travelled to London to seek qualified advice.
At that time Ruskin’s behaviour towards Effie deteriorated; in a letter to her mother she wrote, “he told me, my insolence was unpardonable and that the only thing for me was a good beating with a common stick”. Effie was anxious that Ruskin might “do some unheard of thing as he seems to believe himself quite perfect and me, quite mad”. She begged her mother to come as she was afraid of what her husband might do to her, alone in the house.
Mrs Gray joined her husband in London, who had by now discovered that it was in fact possible to annul a marriage on grounds of non-consummation. They met with lady Eastlake, taking care to keep their presence a secret from the Ruskins. The plan was for Effie to go home to Perth, making it appear to her husband as if she was going on a holiday, while he was away abroad. First Effie had an appointment with the eminent gynaecologist, Robert Lee. The doctor was astounded by her plight and the state of affairs, having read Ruskin’s books he had respected him. The doctor absolutely supported the Grays in taking Effie’s case to court.
Having put her personal matters in order and packed her belongings, Effie was prepared for the long journey she and Sophie would take the next day. On the 25th April 1854, early on a frosty morning, Ruskin escorted the two sisters to King’s Cross station, remaining silent the whole time until the train eventually departed. Once seated Effie explained to her little sister what was about to happen: They would meet up with their parents at Hitchin station, forty minutes out of London. Sophie would step out of the train and Mrs Gray would take her place. Effie passed a small package to her father before the train continued north. Mr Gray and Sophie returned to London, where he devised a plan and made arrangements. The next day they caught the steamer for their journey home to Scotland.
At 163 Denmark hill that evening, the Ruskins were all three together again, content and relaxed in the family home. There was a knock at the door and it was open by both Mr Ruskins. John was handed a citation from the court informing him that his wife was seeking an annulment to their marriage. He was also given a package which contained Effie’s keys, house book, wedding ring and a letter to Mrs Ruskin. In the letter she explained clearly and fairly her reasons for not being able to continue her marriage to their son, how the relationship was unnatural and un-Godly.
The family were taken by surprise, Ruskin’s father was staggered to discover his son had no sexual interest in his pretty wife. After much discussion and all considered, the Ruskins still believed it was Effie’s fault. They agreed to consult a lawyer, not to oppose the ending of the marriage but to avoid any scandal; then they would go on holiday to Switzerland as originally planned.
In the month of July, earlier than had been expected, the Grays were notified that ‘the Judge had signed a sentence declaring the pretended marriage a nullity and that Miss Gray is free from all bonds of matrimony’. Ruskin, who was travelling in Lausanne, corroborated, not wishing to contest the case.
The formal annulment was granted on 15th 1854 July by John Haggard Doctor of Laws, whose document included the lines:
“on the part of the said Euphemia Chalmers Gray falsely called Ruskin do declare that he the said John Ruskin being then a Bachelor did at the time libellate contract a pretended Marriage with the said Euphemia Chalmers Gray then and still a Spinster but since falsely called Ruskin, whilst the said John Ruskin was incapable of consummating the same by reason of incurable impotency” .
The document was highly embarrassing to Ruskin, but it was not published. John Ruskin was happy roaming in the Alps, immersed in his work, undisturbed.
Effie was overwhelmed with thanks to those who had helped her, she felt her freedom reinstated and her health re-vitalised by the mercy and kindness of friends and family. Now 400 miles away from Ruskin in her beloved Scotland she and Millais could write again, having had no contact for eight months.
Millais was painting in the Peak District, wanting to be far from London and have time to absorb all the changes. Gossip had spread rampantly, in Scotland as well as London and people were taking sides. Effie had been advised to keep away from Millais for at least a year, to avoid any blame, but they hoped to be together eventually. To create distance Millais went to Winchelsea in Sussex and remained there until November.
Effie was told by friends that she was being watched, others asked her if she would marry again. She had to act with caution and told those who enquired she was not fit to marry again after what she had suffered. Effie remained quietly and happily at home in Bowerswell teaching her young sisters and helping her parents. At forty-six Mrs Gray was pregnant with her fifteenth baby, due in March 1855, Effie was uneasy and concerned for her mother’s health and wanted to be close by.
February 1855 was mercilessly cold, the Gray family had influenza and Effie was the only one well enough to nurse them. After fifteen months apart, Millais travelled to Perth in bitter snow to visit Effie. It was a secret, only Lady Eastlake knew, he stayed for only two days. The timing was not the best, neither one of them were well, but although a little reticent at first, they were pleased to see each other. It is conceivable that Millais proposed to her on this occasion, however it was not a passionate moment as Effie’s concerns were with her mother, who was seriously ill. In mid March a few days after her forty seventh birthday, Mrs Gray gave birth to a healthy baby boy, but she declined a week after the birth and Effie was needed round the clock.
Millais was eager to see Effie again to talk about their plans for the future. They were advised by Lady Eastlake to leave marriage for at least two years, but the couple were yearning to go ahead as soon as a respectable time had passed.
In June they were engaged and planned to live out their life quietly in Scotland. Millais had a stag party which was hosted by Wilkie Collins on the 8th June and the next day the ‘groom to be’ travelled to Perth. The three weeks at Bowerswell were joyful, he fell in love with Effie all over again and saw Scotland with a new passion.
On a warm summer’s day, 3rd July 1855 Effie Gray married John Everett Millais in the drawing room of their family home. Mr Gray knew this time he was putting his daughter into good hands. After the ceremony the minister christened Effie’s baby brother, Everett and the newly married couple set off for their honeymoon.
Once alone together in their train carriage, Millais collapsed with emotion. All the stress that had weighed heavily on him, the gossip and having to act cheerfully when sneered at, had taken its toll over the weeks. He disintegrated in tears and Effie lovingly held him, calmly wiping her new husband’s face reassuringly.
As the train drew in to Glasgow Millais had recovered and Effie removed her white shawl and gloves, in exchange for grey tartan, dark gloves and a black veil. The couple did not want to stand out as newly weds, preferring a discreet and quiet journey on to the Isle of Arran, where they would spend time alone at last
Two carefree weeks were spent on Arran for their honeymoon, Effie was radiant with happiness and the pair laughed more than they ever had. Millais was delighted with his young wife, describing her in a letter to Mr Gray as an “altered girl, jolly with rosy cheeks“. On return to Perth they moved into their new home, Annat Lodge, which was only minutes walk away from Bowerswell. Millais was keen to get back to work after more days entertaining friends.
Effie was enthusiastic to help him in his work, modelling for him herself and finding other willing locals to sit for sixpence a time. By September 1855 Effie was pregnant with her first baby. Millais was inspired, ideas flowed while he painting freely and without difficulty. He produced some of his finest works during his early years of marriage, ‘Autumn Leaves’, ‘The Blind Girl’ and ‘Peace Concluded, in which Effie modelled. Effie’s sisters, Alice and Sophie Gray modelled for the older girls in ‘Autumn Leaves’ and the younger two were recruited by Effie from a nearby school.
There were some critics who grumbled that the painting had no meaning, but Millais advocated he was capturing transience; the ephemerality of youth; the seasons passing, leaves dying and the darkening sky ending the day. The paintings were taken to London in spring 1856 for the Royal Academy exhibition, Effie remained at home because her first baby was imminent. His exhibits were a success, even gaining praise from Ruskin who wrote in Academy Notes of ‘Autumn Leaves’, ‘the first instance existing of a perfectly painted twilight’.
Effie gave birth to her baby boy on the 30th May 1856 and they named him Everett. Millais was home just in time after having sold some paintings at the Academy, he declared delightedly that ‘another PRB has just come into the world’. Effie who was now twenty-eight, recuperated well, her celibate body had been strong enabling her to have no problems during the birth.
The following year in 1857 Millais exhibited what he then thought was his finest painting yet, ‘Sir Isumbras at the Ford (A Dream of the Past)’. Effie had supported him throughout the year with a supply of hot soup and wine, while Millais painted this huge medieval canvas out doors.
In May the critics at the Academy were fervent about the massive ‘Roman-nosed’ horse, calling it grotesque and abnormal. The couple were devastated by the criticism and Millais decided not to exhibit in 1858.
Effie had their second son George in September 1857 and the little family moved in to Bowerswell to be with her parents. Encircled by relatives Effie was at her happiest with plenty of help with the children.
It must be noted that two young Everetts in the same household, would have caused confusion. Throughout their marriage, Effie continued to model for Millais, serving as his artistic muse as well as his his studio manager.
Effie was nervous about returning to London, but it became clear that it would make sense for Millais to be based in the city, where the work and contacts were.
Her marriage was recognised by the church and the state, but Effie had rejected her first husband, instead of abiding his ways like a good Victorian wife. People gossiped about her being a ‘lewd woman’ who could not live without sex, so it was natural for Effie to fear castigation.
Nevertheless they spent two months of the winter in a rented house in London where Effie met some of Millais’ artists friends, and all went well.
In November 1858 Effie gave birth to her first daughter, Euphemia Gray Millais. The couple had been married only thee years, four months and now had three children. Over the next ten years Effie would bring five more babies into the world. Millais suffered two more years painting huge art works that failed to attain good critical review and he began to think he was about to face ruin.
Rumours reached him that Ruskin had said, ‘he had gone to the dogs and was hopelessly fallen’. Millais decided he would no longer paint large expensive pictures that nobody wanted, it was too much of a gamble with a young growing family. He started to work as an illustrator for a weekly journal, made eighty drawings for Anthony Trollope and worked on a series of woodcuts based on the Bible, using the landscapes of Perthshire as backgrounds. Millais continued to make the long journeys between London and Scotland and they talked again about moving.
In 1860 Millais’ painting ‘the Huguenot’ triumphed at the Academy, and marked a turning point in his career. The painting featured a young woman embracing her lover, trying to restrain him, from going to war to be killed.The young woman was modelled by Kate Dickens, Charles Dickens daughter.
Millais emerged as the nation’s most popular painter and sold the painting for the record price of a thousand guineas. There was no comment from Ruskin. Effie was unable to witness the success in person, as her second daughter Mary was delivered in Perth, at the time.
Effie remained in Bowerswell for many months recovering and nursing her sick mother. She needed a short respite between herself and her husband so her physical body could regain strength, but Millais sorely missed her.
Millais, London and Success
The time eventually came for Effie and her family to move South to London. After much searching, in 1862 they found a magnificent family house in Cromwell Place, Kensington.
She was now Mrs John Millais, the mother of five young children, after having just given birth to ‘Carrie’( Alice, Caroline).
The scandal, although in the past, was still prominent in the minds of some people and with her beauty no longer blooming, Effie would need to rely even more on her wit and intellect for acceptance.
Even so Millais loved her and found her very attractive, in December Effie modelled for romantic theme,’The Eve of St Agnes’, set in the empty mansion of Knole near Sevenoaks, Kent.
Effie posed in a sheer green/blue dress, with her shimmering skirts slipping seductively from her hips in the moon lit room. The work took three nights and left them frozen in the winter frosts, especially Effie. The resulting painting was resplendent, receiving much praise and admiration, it was Millais’ best painting that decade. The following year Geoffrey was born.
In 1863 aged thirty-four Millais was elected full membership of the Royal Academy. He went on to paint ever popular art works including his little daughter Euphemia aged four in ‘My First Sermon’, sat on a pew dressed in her Sunday best. It was a hit with the Archbishop of Canterbury, who thought it demonstrated the devoutness of childhood. Paintings of Mary and Carrie followed in ‘Sleeping and Waking’ and people started to ask for portraits of their children. Commissions came regularly and Millais was working all hours, but his critical reputation floundered, with a remark from William Rossetti, ‘it is rather exasperating to find a man of such pictorial power and command of expression as Mr Millais knocking off picture after picture of little girls and boys ‘.
In abandoning the Pre-Raphaelite style (of attention to detail) and painting in a looser manner, Millais lost his critical acclaim. Ruskin was highly critical and blamed Effie, as did many other regarded critics. Even the esteemed and current Sir Roy Strong said ‘it would have been better if Millais had drowned in a Scottish Loch, instead of running off with Mrs Ruskin’ !
Poor Effie did everything she could to make it easy for Millais, she never expected to be a model, but did so to help her husband; she found or made costumes for his models to wear, but was not essentially creative.
Her skills were her grace and charm, her liveliness and well presented beauty. By using her skills as a socialite she found new clients and brought in commissions, finding fulfilment as Millais’s wife, business manager and a society hostess. A friend of Millais told him, “Your wife alone makes it possible for you to exist”.
In autumn of 1864, Effie had been suffering from incessant insomnia, she had been unable to sleep without drugs for a long while and she was getting worn out by having a baby every eighteen months, on average. It seemed that marriage to a younger man with a normal sex drive left her constantly pregnant and unwell. The baby, John Guille arrived safely in March 1865.
Pregnancy and child birth were perilous for women in 1850s, many died from bleeding or other complications. Effie and Millais had friends, relatives and wives of fellow artists who had lost their lives in childbirth. In May 1868, Effie had just turned forty and was heavily pregnant with her eighth child, she knew that there was a risk, but thankfully her youngest daughter Sophie was born safely.
The Victorian Age was oppressive toward women; even Effie Millais with her flourishing family and successful marriage to the most famous and affluent artist of his time, was excluded from most social circles due to her annulment. There was a virtual ‘scarlet letter’ of shame hanging over her.
In spite of the stigma, Effie’s new life with Millais was rewarding and happy, the social ostracism was a small price to pay for having John Ruskin out of her life.
Ruskin & Rose La Touche
Meanwhile in 1858 Ruskin pursued another unsuitable relationship with a young Irish girl, who would ultimately win his heart, but the affair would disturb the young girl and later cause Effie great anguish.
Rose La Touche, first met Ruskin when she was nine years old. Her Wealthy parents of Huguenot descent had engaged Ruskin as their daughter’s private art tutor. Rose was a clever, high-spirited child and Ruskin’s interest in her grew from adoration, into infatuation.
He and the young girl became very close and when not together they wrote many letters. She addressed him as ‘St Crumpet’ and he would refer to her as ‘Rosie pet’ or ‘Rosie puss’, he kept her replies wrapped in gold leaf tucked inside his waistcoat, ‘close to his heart.’ Ruskin’s preference for daughter over mother may have caused some tension.
By the autumn of 1861 Ruskin felt a deep affection for the twelve year old Rose, but that October she became ill for the first time from a chronic psychosomatic disorder (possibly the as yet unrecognised condition, anorexia nervosa).
He was fifty years old when in 1866 he proposed marriage to Rose, who was then only eighteen. She asked him to wait three years for her decision, but Rose’s parents were opposed to the union for obvious reasons and kept their fragile daughter away from him. Ruskin was only able to communicate with Rose by intermediaries.
Mrs La Touche wrote to Effie to ask about the scandal surrounding her marriage to Ruskin and if the rumours of his incurable impotency were true. Effie replied honestly and openly, describing Ruskin as an oppressive and unnatural husband. The letters from Mrs La Touche caused Effie much anxiety because as well as scraping up her miserable past, the enquiries lead to serious questions about her own married state: if Ruskin could indeed prove his virility with a new woman, could her annulment be unravelled ? Since the reason for the annulment was his ‘incurable impotence’, could it result in her marriage to Millais being invalid and her children illegitimate? Millais became concerned about the impact that the correspondence was having on Effie so he wrote to Rose’s parents imploring them to leave his wife alone.
Having not seen Rose for three years, in January 1870, Ruskin met her accidentally at the Royal Academy. Rose, who was now 21 years old and very thin, began to see Ruskin on a regular basis.
John and Maria La Touche became increasingly concerned about the possibility that her daughter might marry Ruskin. Finally and thankfully in 1871, the engagement was broken off and resulted in a great deal of unhappiness.
Rose died at the age of twenty-seven in 1875, having been placed in a nursing home by her parents who feared their daughter had gone mad. The tragedy of her death led to Ruskin’s despair and deterioration causing him bouts of insanity from 1877.
Ruskin had no further contact with Effie and spent his final years in a huge house named Brantwood, set in the Lake District. He died from influenza on 20th January 1900, at the age of 80.
In 1873 Millais employed the architect Philip Hardwick to build him a new house on a plot he had bought in Palace Gate, Kensington.
The preceding year had been an unfortunate one for Effie, she had experienced a difficult pregnancy and her baby boy was born dead. She struggled to leave the house and lived like an invalid for almost a year. When Effie recovered, Millais painted her portrait, in which she wore a sumptuous crimson velvet dress. No longer a young woman, after eight children, insomnia, anxiety and loss, she looked resolute and respectable at the age of forty-five.
As the wife of a distinguished man, Effie could have expected to be presenting her eldest daughters to Queen Victoria, as she had once been herself in 1850, but without the Queen’s approval she would not be admitted. In 1874, the Duchess of Sutherland tried to get Effie into a reception, however She was unsuccessful. Victoria made it clear that she would not receive any lady who had been divorced. This news distressed Effie and infuriated Millais, who asked the Duchess to venture no further with the matter. Instead Millais escorted his daughters, Euphemia and Mary to society parties without Effie.
Millais was now painting portraits of the rich and famous, including Gladstone, Disraeli, Tennyson, also Lily Langtry and his paintings were bringing in a substantial income. Queen Victoria did not commission a portrait by him as she falsely believed he had seduced Ruskin’s wife. However Millais was now one of the most famous painters in England, he was also prolific, in one year he painted almost two hundred paintings.
In early 1877 the Millais family moved to 2 Palace Gate, near Kensington Gardens. Life was good, there was a spacious studio for Millais to work, with white walls to reflect the light, a sweeping staircase with white marble columns in the hall, a marble fountain and a dance floor. They entertained large groups of friends in their lavish new home and enjoyed their growing children.
Their worries seemed small even though Effie continued to have bouts of illness and Millais still received bad reviews. However towards the end of that year their son George, a Cambridge graduate who loved outdoor life caught typhoid.
A trip to France to convalesce was arranged by Effie, but George caught a chill which became consumptive. He died in August 1878 just three weeks before his twenty-first birthday. It was a traumatic time, George suffered dreadfully, a skeleton at the end but still maintaining his senses to the last day.
It was a real blow to the stunned parents. For weeks Millais was unable to work due to grief, so they travelled together to Scotland, where Effie spent her time in Bowerswell with her ageing mother and her younger brother, George.
Her father Mr Gray had died earlier that year and Effie’s brother had returned home from Australia to live with his mother and take care of the property. Millais lost himself in his favourite landscapes and resumed painting.
When back in London their usual routines returned, Effie stoically supervised her husband’s career, while caring for her remaining children and running a busy household. Her health floundered and her sleepless nights continued, but she persevered.
The next decade was happier, they saw their three daughters married, starting with Euphemia in November 1879, who gave birth to their first Grandchild in 1880. There were splendid wedding parties hosted by Effie in their magnificently spacious home. The family expanded as the Millais clan married and bore more grandchildren, new models for Millais and a great joy to Effie.
In 1885 John Everett Millais was recommended for a baronetcy by Gladstone. It was the first time this honour had been awarded to a British-born artist. Millais claimed he did not care about being referred to as Sir, but he did feel it was a tribute to all artists and an inspiration ‘to the pursuit of Art in its highest and noblest form’.
He was delighted that now he and Effie would be seen as an honourable and respected couple, furthermore he could pass this title down to his son and future generations. Effie was now known as Lady Millais, however she was still barred from any event at which Queen Victoria was present, a fact that upset her as she was very active socially.
As Millais and Effie grew older they looked forward more than ever to escaping to Scotland. As a public figure Millais had many demands on his time and grew tired of superficial socialising, valuing time with his wife, family and close friends.
It was also a relief to him to paint real scenes in the open air, rather than yet another portrait in a fine drawing room. The time spent painting outdoors in January however, took its toll on Millais health, a swelling in his throat began to concern him. Effie now sixty-six, had problems with her sight failing, she could see to get around but was finding it impossible to read.
In 1893, Millais was diagnosed with cancer of the larynx, he had been a keen pipe smoker, which may have contributed to the cause. Effie probably feared that she might lose her husband, but in public she and Millais acted normally as if his gruff, throaty voice was inconsequential. It would not have been in character for her to tell anyone outside the family about the fear and grief which were consuming her.
1894 was a bad year for the family, Effie and Millais’ health had not improved. Effie travelled to Germany to receive treatment from a renowned oculist. Millais felt depressed and unwell in her absence and not able to work, he went to Bournemouth to take the sea air.
In May Effie’s mother, Sophia Gray died, she was in her eighties, having survived nine of her fifteen children. There was more sorrow to follow, when two of Effie’s and Millais’ grandchildren died, three year old Dorothy and seven year old Phyllis.
After the death of Frederic Leighton in January 1896, Millais became his successor as the tenth President of the Royal Academy. He had been taking on some of his predecessor’s duties during his illness, but wasn’t eager to replace him, as he was very ill himself. However between February and May he busied himself with the usual Summer Exhibition preparations at the Royal Academy. It was described by a journalist, that there was something very pitiful in the way Millais lingered round the galleries of the Academy, before the private view. ‘Millais had been shaking hands with old friends and saying, in a hoarse whisper, which told its’ tale tragically enough, that he was better’.
On the night of 11th May, 1896 when Millais was wheezing and gasping for air, the eminent surgeon, Frederick Treves, performed an emergency tracheotomy to enable Millais to breathe. The surgery was carried out by candle light and it kept him alive for another three months. During this time old friends attended Millais’ bedside to say goodbye and Effie quietly begged them not to appear too astonished at the sight of him. He sat propped up with pillows, white beard and moustache un-shaved, unable to utter a word, using a chalk and slate to communicate. One distinguished visitor was Louise, the fourth daughter of Queen Victoria, who had brought a message from her mother. The Queen asked if there was anything she could do. Instantly Millais wrote on his slate, ‘receive my wife’.
On the 3rd of July Effie travelled to Windsor to be presented to the Queen. By now Effie was partially blind, but the inconvenience and awkwardness would be worth it. A curtsey and a short talk, sympathies expressed, were all it took to repair Effie’s reputation and prove Millais was indeed her husband, not Ruskin. A few weeks later, surrounded by his family, Millais died at home on the afternoon of 13th August 1896, aged sixty-seven.
A short time after Effie abandoned 2 Palace Gate, for Bowerswell, her most treasured place with all its happy memories. At Bowerswell she had her brother George, her unmarried daughter Mary and her old friends nearby. Effie filled her time of grief helping her youngest son John Guille plan and compile Millais’ biography. Although she could not read or write by now, she could dictate. It is known that the first year after the death of a spouse is precarious for the survivor.
In spring 1897 Effie was diagnosed with cancer, she had not been well for a while. In the summer she appeared a little better and had time to enjoy the garden with her grandson. Then tragedy struck, Effie’s firstborn son Everett died suddenly of pneumonia, leaving his wife, baby and daughter alone.
The shock and loss hit Effie hard, depleting her of any will, or ounce of strength to fight her illness. Effie died at Bowerswell on 23rd December 1897, aged sixty-nine. The certificate said cause of death was ‘tumour of intestine, perforation of bowel’. She was buried with her son in Kinnoull churchyard, the setting for Millais painting, ‘The Vale of Rest’. Her parents, brothers and sisters were at rest close by.
Effie Gray had been a bright, intelligent young woman, with a generous and optimistic heart. She was willing to dedicate herself to Ruskin, a clever man who could not show love. He tried to break her spirit, but her innate courage enabled her to defy him and his Victorian values.
Effie Ruskin never was and never could be a Mrs Ruskin; she needed to be loved and valued in a more equal relationship with her husband, a very modern aspiration for a woman of Victorian Britain.
As Mrs Millais, Effie found the reciprocal love she needed and revealed herself as a strong and determined woman, devoted to her husband and his work, finding fulfilment in her role as studio supervisor, business manager and mother to her ever growing family.
It was as Lady Millais that Effie triumphed. An accomplished society hostess, she charmed her guests and potential clients with her social finesse and business flair. she secured commissions and contributed to her husband’s success, which lead to Millais’ fame as Britain’s highest paid, most regarded artist of his time.
Other Pre-Raphaelite muses by Marina
Bibliography and Acknowledgements
Effie: The Passionate Lives of Effie Gray, John Ruskin and John Everett Millais.
Suzanne Fagence Cooper, St Martin’s Press, 2012.
Effie A Victorian Scandal, Merryn Williams, Plas Gwyn Books, 2010.
Pre-Raphaelite Sisters, Jan Marsh, National Portrait Gallery, Oct 2019
Pre-Raphaelite Girl Gang, Kirsty Stonell Walker, Unicorn Publishing, 2018
Marriage of Inconvenience, Robert Brownwell, Thistle Publishing, 2014.
The Order of Release: The story of John Ruskin, Effie Gray and John Everett Millais Told in Their Unpublished letters. Edited by Admiral Sir William James, John Murray Publishers Ltd. 1947.
Scandalous Women, by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich
The Kissed Mouth, by Kirsty Stonell Walker