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Wilkie Collins

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Wilkie Collins

by Sir John Everett Millais, 1st Bt
oil on panel, 1850
10 1/2 in. x 7 in. (267 mm x 178 mm)
Purchased, 1894
Primary Collection
NPG 967

Sitterback to top

Artistback to top

  • Sir John Everett Millais, 1st Bt (1829-1896), Painter and President of the Royal Academy; ex-officio Trustee of the National Portrait Gallery. Artist associated with 41 portraits, Sitter in 76 portraits.

This portraitback to top

On 25 August 1894 George Scharf, the Director of the Gallery, wrote to Millais, who was then a Trustee of the Gallery, to say how sad he was that he had not been able to attend the meeting on the previous Thursday when the trustees had acquired Millais' portrait of Carlyle. He added that, 'Curiously enough, at the last moment before the meeting, a small portrait of Wilkie Collins attributed also to your pencil, was submitted to the Trustees. It represents Collins with a tremendous forehead, wearing spectacles and the face turned in three-quarters to the spectator's left. His raised hands are joined, palm to palm and fingers very flexible. Do you remember painting such a portrait?' Millais did indeed remember it, particularly the great bump on the sitter's forehead, but was more concerned by the discolouration owing to the 'nasty brown varnish'. It is an atmospheric portrait, intense and private, as befitted the author of The Woman in White' and The Moonstone.

Linked publicationsback to top

  • Smartify image discovery app
  • 100 Writers, p. 58
  • Victorian Portraits Resource Pack, p. 11
  • Funnell, Peter, Victorian Portraits in the National Portrait Gallery Collection, 1996, p. 11
  • Funnell, Peter (introduction); Marsh, Jan, A Guide to Victorian and Edwardian Portraits, 2011, p. 35 Read entry

    The novelist Wilkie Collins (1824-89) began his career articled to a firm of tea merchants and subsequently qualified as a lawyer. His literary career developed through the friendship and encouragement of Charles Dickens, and Collins became a regular contributor to Dickens’s magazine Household Words. As well as collaborating with Dickens, he wrote several popular novels, including The Woman in White (1860) and The Moonstone (1868).

  • Funnell, Peter; Warner, Malcolm, Millais: Portraits, 1999 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 19 February to 6 June 1999), pp. 53; 76 Read entry

    Millais knew the writer Wilkie Collins through the latter's brother Charles, who was an artist and one of Millais's dearest friends. When this portrait was painted, Wilkie was living with Charles and their widowed mother Harriet Collins at 17 Hanover Terrace, Regent's Park, where Millais was a frequent visitor; no doubt he gave them the work as an expression of friendship. Wilkie was enjoying a modest celebrity, following the publication of his historical novel Antonina. He was to begin his series of 'novels of sensation', the stories of mystery, suspense and crime that made his name, with Basil (1852); among the most successful were The Woman in White (1860) and the seminal detective novel The Moonstone (1868). According to John Guille Millais, the original of the 'woman in white' was a beautiful, distressed young woman in flowing white robes who suddenly emerged from the gates of a villa as the Collins brothers were walking Millais home after an evening together.1 This would have been Wilkie's future mistress, Caroline Graves.

    Holman Hunt claimed that Millais's portrait of Wilkie 'remained to the end of his days the best likeness of him', adding: 'It will be seen he had a prominent forehead, and in full face the portrait would have revealed the right side of his cranium outbalanced in prominence that of the left.'2 The coat of arms at the upper left belongs to various Collins families, to which the sitter may or may not have been related. It was perhaps suggested by Thomas Combe, who had an interest in heraldry and whose own portrait features a similar device. Charles Collins also made a small panel portrait of Wilkie in 1850 (private collection), perhaps at the same time as Millais was painting his; he made another in 1853 which he apparently gave to Millais (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge).

    1 Millais, Life, vol.I, pp 278-81.

    2 William Holman Hunt, Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, 1905, vol.II, pp 185-6.

  • Lucinda Hawksley, Charles Dickens and his Circle, 2016, p. 91
  • Marsh, Jan, The Pre-Raphaelite Circle, 2013, p. 57 Read entry

    'He had a great bump on his forehead as depicted,' recalled Millais when the National Portrait Gallery acquired the portrait, adding, 'It is exactly what he was about the time he commenced his novel writing.' Showing the sitter in contemplative pose, perhaps devising the plot of his next story, this portrait only hints at Collins's lifelong dislike of formal dress, but successfully conveys his nervous energy - the main is like a coiled spring.

  • Marsh, Jan, Insights: The Pre-Raphaelite Circle, 2005, p. 54
  • Saumarez Smith, Charles, The National Portrait Gallery: An Illustrated Guide, 2000, p. 126
  • Saumarez Smith, Charles, The National Portrait Gallery, 1997, p. 126 Read entry

    On 25 August 1894 George Scharf, the Director of the Gallery, wrote to Millais, who was then a Trustee of the Gallery, to say how sad he was that he had not been able to attend the meeting on the previous Thursday when the Trustees had acquired Millais' portrait of Carlyle. He added that, 'Curiously enough, at the last moment before the Meeting, a small portrait of Wilkie Collins attributed also to your pencil, was submitted to the Trustees. It represents Collins with a tremendous forehead, wearing spectacles & the face turned in three-quarters to the spectator's left. His raised hands are joined, palm to palm, & fingers very flexible. Do you remember painting such a portrait? Millais did indeed remember it, particularly the great bump on the sitter's forehead, but was more concerned by the discoloration owing to the 'nasty brown varnish.' It is an atmospheric portriat, intense and private, as befitted the author of The Woman in White and The Moonstone.

  • Saywell, David; Simon, Jacob, Complete Illustrated Catalogue, 2004, p. 137
  • Various contributors, National Portrait Gallery: A Portrait of Britain, 2014, p. 139 Read entry

    At the time this portrait was painted, Wilkie Collins was about to begin the ‘novels of sensation’ that would make his name. This series of tales of mystery, crime and suspense opened with Basil (1852). It would eventually include Collins’s most famous novels, The Woman in White (1860) and The Moonstone (1868), which breathed life into the new genre of the detective story.

    The artist John Everett Millais (1829–96) was one of the leading members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, who held their first exhibition in 1849. This group took the name ‘Pre-Raphaelite’ in protest at the academic principles that, they believed, had constricted Western art since the Renaissance. Collins’s brother Charles was one of Millais’s closest friends, and Millais was a frequent visitor at 17 Hanover Terrace, London, where both brothers lived. Millais’s fellow Pre-Raphaelite Holman Hunt later wrote in his memoir Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre- Raphaelite Brotherhood (1914) that this portrait of Collins ‘remained to the end of his days the best likeness of him ... It will be seen that he had a prominent forehead, and in full face the portrait would have revealed the right side of his cranium outbalanced in prominence that of the left’.

Events of 1850back to top

Current affairs

Cardinal Wiseman, a Catholic priest who had exerted a strong influence on the Oxford movement, is made a Cardinal and leader of the Catholic church in England, thus restoring Roman Catholic hierarchy in England.

Art and science

Death of poet laureate William Wordsworth; his great autobiographical poem The Prelude is published posthumously, famously charting the growth of the poet's mind.
Tennyson's In Memoriam is also published. A poignant record of his grief over the death of his friend Arthur Hallam, the poem also movingly questions the strength of faith in an increasingly scientific age.

International

Up to 50,000 pioneers travel west in wagons on the Oregon trail in the United States, one of the main overland migration routes across the continent. Spanning over half the continent, the trail led 2,170 miles through territories and land which would later become six US states, including Kansas, Wyoming and Oregon, helping the US to implement its goal of Manifest Destiny - building a nation spanning the North American continent.

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