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Sir John Everett Millais, 1st Bt

Sir John Everett Millais, 1st Bt, by Alexander Munro, circa 1853 -NPG 4959 - © National Portrait Gallery, London

© National Portrait Gallery, London

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Sir John Everett Millais, 1st Bt

by Alexander Munro
Plaster of Paris plaque, circa 1853
21 7/8 in. x 18 1/8 in. (557 mm x 459 mm) overall
NPG 4959

Inscriptionback to top

Faintly marked below truncation of neck, lower right, with sculptor’s monogram: ‘A’ and ‘M’ [interlaced].

This portraitback to top

Alexander Munro arrived in London from Inverness in 1844. He enrolled in the Royal Academy Schools in 1847 and joined the group around Dante Gabriel Rossetti. ‘[A]s it took shape, the Pre-Raphaelite principle of absolute truth to nature, combined with poetic truth, was filtered to Munro through Rossetti’s interpretation,’ writes Katharine Macdonald, Munro scholar and donor of NPG 4959. [1] In the prevailing spirit of friendship, Munro began work on portrait medallions of William Bell Scott and Millais in 1853; he promised versions of these to Rossetti. [2]

William Bell Scott – poet and artist from Edinburgh, twice Millais’s age – left an account of an early encounter with Millais, as the two chanced to meet in the sculptor’s studio:

During my visit to London in the summer of 1853, Alexander Munro was modelling my profile, in a friendly spirit making a medallion of me. He was doing the same for Millais, and there we met again. Millais mounted the sitter’s chair vacated by me, when I observed for the first time the red mark on his left eye or eyelid. All men of genius, unhappily, are not so handsome as Millais was then. I asked him how he had caught the irritation, or wound, or whatever it was. No, he had not caught it, he had had it all his life; ‘there are spots on the sun, you know!’ was his exclamation as he laughingly placed himself in position on the model’s chair. I laughed too, but looked at him narrowly. There was no expression of self-conceit or vanity, it was mere exuberance of spirits and amusing chaff. [3]

Munro carved Millais’s head in low relief, an ideal but perfectly recognizable portrait; the hair is stylized and in high relief, and the sideburns are left out, not to distract from the classic contours of the profile. Together with the painting in oils by C.R. Leslie (NPG 1859), this is one of the few non-photographic portraits that Millais sat for during the 1850s. [4]

The prime, marble medallion was in the Millais family collection until 1973. [5] NPG 4959 is one of several extant plasters. Less sharp than the marble, and pricked with small air bubbles, it is enhanced by an impressive carved laurel wreath frame. [6] A medallion of Millais by Munro (unclear whether the marble or a plaster) was exhibited at the RA in 1854 (1523).

NPG 4959 belonged to Munro’s granddaughter, Katherine Macdonald. She was inspired to offer it to the National Portrait Gallery when Sir Ralph Millais consigned the marble version to Christie’s in June 1973: ‘I am writing because I have the plaster cast [of Munro’s medallion portrait of Millais]. It has unfortunately been broken – with a clean break right across. Could this be repaired? And is it possible to clean it? I really feel that if it can be made good, it should be in the NPG, particularly if the marble goes somewhere else.’[7] The plaster was accepted without demur and was repaired five years later. [8]

Carol Blackett-Ord

Footnotesback to top

1) K. Macdonald, ‘Alexander Munro: Pre-Raphaelite Associate’ in Read & Barnes 1991, p.47.
2) ‘I […] shall soon have another memento of you in Munro’s portrait, which, together with that of Millais, he is going to give me’; letter from D.G. Rossetti to W.B. Scott, [25 Aug. 1853], Fredeman 2002–10, vol.1, letter 53:49, p.282.
3) Minto 1892, vol.1, pp.307–308.
4) For an account of Millais’s slightly earlier pencil portrait of Munro (12 April 1853, now William Morris G., Walthamstow), see Millais 1899, vol.1, p.81.
5) Sold Christie’s, 14 June 1973 (48, ill.), bought Maas Gallery (1,600.00 guineas); now priv. coll. It is signed with Munro’s monogram, set into a rectangular gilt gesso frame decorated with Millais’s initials in the corners; repr. Read & Barnes 1991, p.47.
6) Other plasters of Millais by Munro include a version at Ashmolean M., Oxford, WA1857.8 (Penny 1992, vol.3, no.547, ill.); and one sold Christie’s, 9 Apr. 2003 (487, ill.), in an oval carved giltwood frame.
7) Letter from Mrs K. Macdonald to R. Ormond, 14 June 1973, NPG RP 4959.
8) Carried out by Peter Smith Ltd at a cost of £48: ‘dowelling and refixing where broken removing paint and cleaning’. Munro’s monogram is most clearly seen on a photograph taken in 1973 (before removal of paint), NPG RP 4959.

Physical descriptionback to top

Head, profile to left, clean shaven.

Conservationback to top

Conserved, 1977.

Provenanceback to top

Mrs Katherine Macdonald, grandaughter of the sculptor, who presented the plaque to the Gallery in September 1973.

Reproductionsback to top

See notes 5 and 6 for reproductions of the marble and other plaster versions of this plaque.

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

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