About the artwork
This is one of a series of Scottish landscapes that Millais painted from 1870 onwards. All of them have a melancholy air. As a group they represent a significant departure from the portrait and narrative painting that had come to dominate Millais's output.
A major feature of these works is the importance of the landscape to the picture's meaning. Millais had used landscape backgrounds in his 1850s Pre-Raphaelite pictures to convey meaning and mood. However, these tended to simply reinforce the meaning of the main narrative. For example, in Millais's earlier painting 'Apple Blossoms', also on display at the Lady Lever Art Gallery, the orchard in full bloom is a symbolic natural parallel to the beautiful young girls seated before it. The blossom will fall within days; the girls will grow old and die.
The place shown in this picture is the millstream at Murthly Moss in Perthshire, with the River Tay in the background. There are various channels and a foreground sluice gate to control the flow of water. Millais visited Scotland annually each September and October to hunt and to fish for salmon. From 1881-1890 he rented the shooting and fishing at Murthly, staying at Burnam Hall. His wife's family also came from Perthshire - which was an additional attraction to the area.
When exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1891 this picture attracted critical approval. It was praised for both its display of technical virtuosity and its successfully capturing of the subtle changes in vegetation that characterise autumn in Scotland. Millais's brushwork is much more detailed than was usual in his other pictures of the time. Although not as precise as that used in his earlier Pre-Raphaelite works, he does seem to be reclaiming in these and other later landscapes something of his earlier manner. The plants in the foreground are painted with a botanical accuracy. Millais appended a quotation from the poet John Donne to the picture's title in the Royal Academy exhibition catalogue:
“No Spring, nor Summer beauty had such grace
As I have seen in one autumnal face”
Millais is often viewed as having become a rather conservative artist by this stage in his career. He was often dismissed as an establishment figure - a leading society portraitist - turning out sentimental, technically brilliant pictures for which he was paid a great deal of money. However one can see 'Lingering Autumn' and other of Millais's landscapes of this period as being intentionally modern essays in naturalistic landscape. These may have been intended to compete with landscape painting being done by other artists in both France and Britain.
Despite his conservatism, Millais was very aware of developments that were taking place in French painting. He would never have wanted to have identified himself with the loosely-painted Impressionist landscape paintings by Monet and others. However, he was conscious of the theoretical discussions that preoccupied not only the Impressionists, but also other less avant-garde Salon exhibiting artists.
A great deal of discussion took place about different ways in which it was possible to be accurate and truthful in depicting nature whilst at the same time using pictures to convey feeling and strong emotion. Artists and critics were concerned that landscape should not simply be a record of a particular place, however technically novel might be the way of recording it. During his own more radical earlier Pre-Raphaelite phase in the late 1840s and 1850s Millais and his fellow Pre-Raphaelites had had similar discussions about painting directly from nature and how that connected with sincerity and broader moral concerns.
The little girl in the picture carrying water is said to have been posed by Effie Stewart, daughter of a local ploughman. She does not have any narrative significance nor is intended particularly to attract attention. It is arguable that the picture might have been more austere had she been omitted. Although on a small-scale she still has a mildly sentimental, distracting attractiveness that perhaps undermines the power of the picture.
Other examples of late Millais landscapes can be seen at Manchester City Art Gallery ('Winter Fuel') and at Tate Britain ('The Moon is Up'). 'Chill October', which is in a private collection is perhaps the masterpiece of these later landscapes paintings.