Frederic George Stephens

1 portrait

Frederic George Stephens, by Sir John Everett Millais, 1st Bt, 1853 -NPG 2363 - © National Portrait Gallery, London

© National Portrait Gallery, London

Later Victorian Portraits Catalogue

Frederic George Stephens

by Sir John Everett Millais, 1st Bt
Pencil on paper, 1853
8 1/2 in. x 6 in. (216 mm x 152 mm)
NPG 2363


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Inscriptionback to top

Signed in monogram and dated lower right: ‘Millais / 12th April 1853’;
inscr. (in a different hand?) lower edge centre: ‘To Thomas Woolner’.
Label formerly on back of frame (removed to Primary Collection Associated Items plan chest, NPG Archive) inscr. by sitter: ‘At a meeting of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood at J.E. Millais’s studio, No. 83 (since altered to No.7) Gower Street, Thomas Woolner and James Collinson being absent, April 12, 1853, this portrait of myself was drawn by Millais and sent to Woolner, then in Australia.
Woolner gave it to my wife, Feb.14, 1883.
Collinson had quitted the P.R.B. before the meeting. Portraits of Millais, W.Holman Hunt, and the Rossettis were drawn at the same time,. and sent with this one.
F.G.Stephens. 22/2/83.’

This portraitback to top

Sitter and artist, who first met in 1844 at the Royal Academy Schools, were both present on 12 April 1853 when five of the original seven members [1] of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood gathered to draw mutual portraits of each other to send to their absent colleague Thomas Woolner, who had sailed to Australia the previous summer.

Though the PRB had begun to disperse, they remained friends. On the fourth anniversary meeting of the group, on 31 December 1852, Dante Gabriel Rossetti proposed they prepare a sort of composite PRB memento. He wrote to Woolner:

Last night at my party it was agreed that all your intimates here should meet at a certain day and hour […] for some act of communication, the nature of which was left for me to decide. I therefore fix that on the 12th of April (which will keep us clear of the Exhibition burners) at 12 o’clock in the day, we shall each of us, wheresoever we be, make a sketch of some kind (mutual portraits preferable) – or for any who do not draw, some verses or a letter – and immediately exchange them by post, between London and Melbourne. [2]

For a full account of the gathering, see Ormond 1967. It took place in Millais’s studio at 83 Gower Street, London, as Stephens wrote to Woolner on 21 April:

we agreed then to meet at Millais’s house on the Friday [sic – 12 April was in fact a Tuesday] and make the sketches, which was done, and I understand you are to receive them with this. You will recognise doubtless the ghastly countenance of one of your Friends which J.E.M. drew – I made an attempt at his most splendid head, but the failure was utter and in spite of all the tauntings he could pronounce, with proddings from Hunt, I viciously refused to proceed. You will I hope forgive me, when I add that I was very ill or so sick at heart from some bad news I had just received that any noise was welcome, but actual thought seemed almost madness. I am giddy still at times. [3]

This letter went with one from Rossetti, explaining how ‘[T]his letter is accompanied by, or rather accompanies, the sketches made by the PRBs now in London, on the 12th, according to the appointment which I made in my last letter to you [...] Your letter was read aloud on Tuesday morning (the day the sketches were made & the day after I got it) at breakfast at Millais’s, where we met to draw and afterwards spent the evening together here.’ [4]

Annotating the image three decades later, on 22 February 1883 (see text of detached label under ‘Inscriptions’), Stephens explained when and where the portrait was drawn, how it was sent to Woolner and then given to Stephens’s wife. [5] Some fifteen years later, for Millais’s biography, he returned to the event:

Millais fell to me to be drawn, and to him I fell as his subject. […] Unhappily for me, I was so ill at that time that it was with the greatest difficulty I could drag myself to Gower Street; more than that, it was but the day before the entire ruin of my family, then long impending and long struggled against in vain, was consummated. I was utterly unable to continue the sketch I began. I gave it up, and Mr. Holman Hunt, who had had D.G. Rossetti for his vis à vis and sitter, took my place and drew Millais’s head. My portrait, which by the way is a good deal out of drawing, attests painfully enough the state of health and sore trouble in which I then was. This meeting was one of the latest ‘functions’ of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in its original state ... Up to that time the old affectionate conditions still existed among the Brothers, but their end was near. Millais was shooting on ahead; Mr. Holman Hunt was surely, though slowly, following his path towards fortune; D.G. Rossetti had retired within himself, and made no sign before the world; W.M. Rossetti was rising in Her Majesty’s service; and I was being continuedly drawn towards that literary work which brought me bread. [6]

In his memoirs, William Holman Hunt provided his own slightly different account:

We therefore all met one morning at Millais’ studio, and set to work to complete a collection of our portraits, in pencil, chalk, or pastel. Millais did William Rossetti and Stephens. William did, if I am not mistaken, make a beginning with some one, but gave up his purpose to save the time for others. Stephens abstained from any attempt. Gabriel chose me for his subject, and I managed to get Millais and Rossetti done, although the slowness of Gabriel, with his appeals for special posings, gave the dusk the opportunity of overtaking us before I had quite finished Millais. […] the drawings all went as they were left that evening, and they were framed together to hang in Woolner’s studio at Melbourne, and afterwards in London. [7]

The other surviving drawings are those of D.G. Rossetti (Manchester AG, 1922.25); Hunt (Birmingham MAG, 1904/392); and Millais (NPG 2914). As Rossetti’s April letter to Woolner explains, those by Hunt were coloured with pastel. The others were, more conventionally, in plain pencil.

Stephens’s account of feeling ‘sick at heart’ at this date referred to his personal and professional situation. Despite having small portraits of his parents accepted at the RA in 1852 and 1854, he was making little or no progress as a painter, could judge his limited artistic potential by reference to his fellow PRBs and had not yet found his niche as a critic. At the same time his family circumstances were poor and in 1853 his father was imprisoned for debt for the second time, following unsuccessful ventures into shop-keeping. [8]

Modern scholarship endorses his self-assessment. ‘[T]he shadowed face and the falling mass of dark hair provoke a sense of unease, as if the sitter were attempting to avoid, but nevertheless engaging, the artist’s full attention. Biographical evidence suggests that this unease was not an invention of the artist but reflected a serious domestic crisis, the financial collapse of Stephens’ family.’ [9] However, the sitter’s shadowed brow is chiefly the result of his also being engaged in vis-à-vis portrait sketching, with lowered head and lifted gaze showing the iris above the sclera (white) of the eye; compare a similar effect in Hunt’s portrait of D.G. Rossetti. Millais had sketched Stephens’s features several times previously (see ‘All known portraits, 1849–50’) and, as the same scholar notes, ‘Millais evidently liked drawing Stephens’ face.’ [10] The reason the present work has been judged ‘surprisingly tentative’ [11] may be that Stephens’s attempt to draw Millais caused him such nervous anxiety that the latter worked more hastily than usual.

With the other sketches, that of Stephens was sent to Woolner, and returned with him from Australia to Britain in October 1854. Three decades later it was given by Woolner to the sitter’s wife Clara Stephens, according to the label cited above. On Clara Stephens’s death in 1915, the work passed to her son, engineer Holman Frederic Stephens, who in 1927 offered it to the director of the National Portrait Gallery, writing as follows:

I do not know if you would care to have the enclosed photograph, which is that of a pencil drawing by Millais, of my father … Thomas Woolner had gone to Australia and the Members of the Brotherhood drew each others portraits [sic], in pencil, to send to Woolner … If, at any time, you would care to have the actual drawing, I daresay I would present it, if it is of any interest to the Gallery. / The late Mr. George Scharf, who was keeper of the Gallery at one time, was very much interested in some of these drawings, and he was a great friend of my father’s. [12]

At the end of the year he wrote again, asking if the Trustees ‘might prefer to have a portrait of my father by Holman Hunt, (or by W.H. Fisk) … instead of the drawing by Sir John E. Millais’. [13]

After inspecting photographs supplied by Lt.-Col. Stephens at their meeting in February 1928, the Trustees agreed ‘that F.G. Stephens ought to be represented here by an early portrait and that they should rule out the portrait by Fisk’. It was ‘almost impossible’ to choose between the present work and the oil portrait by Hunt, but the Trustees ‘came to the conclusion that the Millais drawing, though light in treatment and small in scale, is the more spontaneous document of the two and perhaps the truer likeness. At the same time, they could not help regretting that the more finished portrait [by Hunt] should not be in a public gallery and expressed the hope that it might ultimately come to the National Portrait Gallery.’ [14]

In further correspondence with NPG assistant director Charles Kingsley Adams, H.F. Stephens listed four portraits of his father in his possession (by Hunt, by Fisk, a silverpoint by Alphonse Legros and the present work) adding that all were currently on loan to the Tate Gallery. ‘If you would go down there, and choose what you would like, then let me know, I have no doubt arrangements can be made, and we would ask [Tate director] Mr Aitken to release them. I am very much obliged to you for your offer. It is a great happiness to me to know that my Father’s portrait will be in the Gallery he was so fond of, years ago.’ [15] Adams promptly telephoned Aitken and learned that the portraits by Millais and Hunt had been on loan and display ‘for years’ and that the Tate Gallery hoped they would ultimately become bequests. [16] Sometime later they were then seen by the Trustees, who definitively chose the Millais drawing for the NPG collection. The Tate Gallery was reluctant to break up its display and only in July 1929 did Adams formally request the transfer of the work, [17] which was received on 2/3 August. The earlier Hunt portrait remained with the Tate Gallery and joined its collection in 1932 following Lt.-Col. Stephens’s death.

Dr Jan Marsh

Footnotesback to top

1) J.E. Millais, W.H. Hunt, D.G. Rossetti, W.M. Rossetti, Thomas Woolner, James Collinson and F.G. Stephens.
2) Letter from D.G. Rossetti to T. Woolner, 1 Jan. 1853; Fredeman 2002–10, vol.1, letter no.53:1, p.224. See also {NPG 2914} for an account of the proposal.
3) Letter from F.G. Stephens to T. Woolner, 21 Apr. 1853, printed in Woolner 1917, p.58.
4) Letter from D.G. Rossetti to T. Woolner, 16/17/22 Apr. 1853; Fredeman 2002–10, vol.1, letter 53:23, pp.241–2. This letter was written over several days and sent in a parcel despatched by Mary Howitt, together with the drawings and Stephens’s letter cited in note 3.
5) Label (removed by C.K.A[dams], 3 Aug. 1929. A secondary note reads: ‘Woolner gave the portrait of D.G. Rossetti to W.M. Rossetti.’
6) F.G. Stephens quoted in Millais 1899, vol.1, pp.81–2.
7) Hunt 1905, vol.1, p.341.
8) Philip Shaw, ‘Holman Stephens “Family Tree”’ at {http://www.hfstephens-museum.org.uk/other-topics/holman-stephens-family-tree.html}.
9) Leonee Ormond, ‘Early and Pre-Raphaelite Portraits’, in Funnell & Warner 1999, p.45.
10) Leonee Ormond, ‘Early and Pre-Raphaelite Portraits’, in Funnell & Warner 1999, p.45.
11) Ormond 1967, p.26.
12) Letter from H.F. Stephens to J.D. Milner, 1 July 1927, NPG RP 2363.
13) Letter from H.F. Stephens to C.K. Adams, 14 Dec. 1927, NPG RP 2363.
14) Letter from H.G. Hake to H.F. Stephens, 15 Feb. 1928, NPG RP 2363.
15) Letter from H.F. Stephens to C.K. Adams, 18 Sept. 1928, NPG RP 2363.
16) Memorandum by C.K. Adams, 20 Sept. 1928, NPG RP 2363; the portrait by Fisk was also on display, but not that by Legros, which Aitken did not recall.
17) Letter from C.K. Adams to Charles Aitken, 30 July 1929, NPG RP 2363.

Physical descriptionback to top

Head-and-shoulders, to viewer, head bent forward, gaze lifted.

Conservationback to top

Conserved, 1979.

Provenanceback to top

Rebecca Clara Stephens; H.F. Stephens, by whom given 1929.

Exhibitionsback to top

Tate, London, on loan from unknown date to August 1929.

Millais: Portraits, NPG, London, 1999 (13).

The Poetry of Drawing, Birmingham MAG and AG of New S Wales, Sydney, 2011 (89).

Reproductionsback to top

Funnell & Warner 1999, pp.44, 80.

Upstone 2003, p.188.

Cruise 2011, p.103, fig.127.

View all known portraits for Sir John Everett Millais, 1st Bt

View all known portraits for Frederic George Stephens