Ashmolean Museum acquires Millais' famous Pre-Raphaelite portrait of John Ruskin

By Richard Moss | 20 May 2013

It's one of the most important portraits of the Pre-Raphaelite period, with a juicy back story that belies its apparent formality. Now it has been permanently acquired by the Ashmolean Museum.

a painting of a man in a Victorian frock coat holding his hat by his side next to a babbling stream and rocks.
John Millais' portrait of John Ruskin is one of the defining paintings of Pre-Raphaelitism.© Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford
John Everett Millais’ imperious portrait of Victorian critic and painter John Ruskin has been on loan since January 2012 at the Ashmolean, where it accompanies some great examples of Pre-Raphaelite artwork.

Now, thanks to the Art Council-administered Acceptance in Lieu scheme which allows people to off-write inheritance tax bills, it’s part of the permanent collection.

The portrait was started in the summer of 1853 when the artist, together with Ruskin and his wife were staying in Glen Finglas, a remote area of the Trossachs in central Scotland.

During the holiday, in which Ruskin hoped to sharpen the technique of the young painter, Millais and the beleaguered Effie Ruskin fell in love, setting in motion the events which would break the Ruskins’ marriage, Millais’s friendship with Ruskin, and the artist’s engagement with the Pre-Raphaelite movement. 

Finishing the picture was to become, for Millais, “the most hateful task I have ever had to perform.” It was also an arduous beginning for the young artist, who had to endure the wet summer and biting midges of the Trossachs as he made his studies.

Ruskin's countenance certainly belies the difficulties surrounding portrait, and for students and fans of Pre-Raphaelitism and British painting it is a key work.

Not only does it depict the great Victorian sage next to, in his own words, “a lovely piece of worn rock, with foaming water and weeds, and moss, and a noble overhanging bank of dark crag”, it epitomises a central tenet of Pre-Raphaelitism.

Truth to nature and intricate landscape detail remained an important element throughout the various incarnations of Raphaelite painting, which Ruskin famously defended in its fledgling years.

At the Ashmolean it is displayed alongside two of the works that Ruskin championed in his famous vindication of the Pre-Raphaelites in his letter to the Times: Charles Allston Collins’s Convent Thoughts; and Millais’s own Return of the Dove to the Ark.

Peter Bazalgette, the Chair of Arts Council England who brokered the deal, said it was “wonderful that such a celebrated portrait is now on permanent public display at the Ashmolean Museum”.

“This was one of the finest pieces at the Tate’s sell-out exhibition on the Pre-Raphaelites, and can now be admired by even more people.

“Acceptance in Lieu is an important part of the Arts Council’s work. Thanks to this scheme, unique cultural objects which for years may have been glimpsed only in textbooks are once again being displayed for everyone to enjoy.”
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