This painting marked Millais’s departure from the original principles explored by the Pre-Raphaelites. He moved away from a truthful representation of nature and experimented with more painterly surfaces and theatrical compositions.
At the Royal Academy the painting was exhibited with lines of poetry by the playwright and critic Tom Taylor (1817-80). His poem described how the old knight ‘Sir Ysumbras’ was persuaded to let two children ride with him. 'A Dream of the Past' was satirised by the artist Frederick Sandys in an engraving entitled 'A Nightmare'. Millais, alongside fellow Pre-Raphaelites Rossetti and Hunt, is shown riding a long-eared donkey recognisable as John Ruskin.