Our venues
Our museums and galleries

Also in this section…?

Transcript of 'Bubbles', John Everett Millais podcast

Good afternoon everybody, I'm Julian Treuherz and I'm the Keeper of Art Galleries for National Museums Liverpool. I'm responsible for the Walker Art Gallery, the Lady Lever and Sudley House which is closed at the moment for refurbishment and my particular interest has always been Victorian painting. Today I'm going to talk about 'Bubbles', by Sir John Millais.

This painting is a recent arrival at the Lady Lever Art Gallery. It's only just come here; it was never part of Lord Leverhulme's collection. It's a bit of a visitor, indeed it was bought by the great rival of Lord Leverhulme. Lever, later Lord Leverhulme, was the promoter of Sunlight Soap which made his fortune and Lever's great rival, the Director of Pear's Soap, was one of the early owners of this.

However in 1914 Lever Brothers acquired Pears, the company that made Pears Soap, and although they kept the brands very separate Lever Brothers owned this picture. It lived in the head office of Pears for very many years, very recently in the last 20 years it was lent to the Royal Academy of which Millais had been a very distinguished member and, latterly, President. That's the Royal Academy in London.

The Royal Academy apparently no longer wished to keep it or didn't display it and so Unilever, as it now is, that owns all these cosmetics and soap manufacturers, Unilever have allowed us to have it on long loan. We feel that although it was not part of Lord Leverhulme's collection like everything else here, in a way it's come home because, first of all, Millais was Lord Leverhulme's favourite painter. If you take it by the number of pictures by Millais and I'll be talking about some of the other Millais paintings here shortly. And also it does have this history of being associated with soap advertising, again like a number of paintings here.

So now I'd just like to look at the painting and describe what's happening in it. It shows a little boy with blond curly hair, sitting on what appears to be a piece of wood. It's a rather rustic setting with a bowl of soap suds and a clay pipe and he's blowing soap bubbles and you can see a few objects - a broken flowerpot, a potted plant, which shows that he's in some sort of potting shed or garden, it's not very clear.

One rather strange thing, or strange to me, is the clothes he is wearing. It's not the sort of thing that a child would wear when playing or when in a dirty bottom of the garden setting. He is wearing a velvet suit with what appear to be silver buttons maybe, with some kind of stones on them, not really sure. Probably silver buttons and a lace ruffled collar and jabeau, even velvet covered shoes. It is a strange costume.

It is actually a costume that is copied from portrait painting of the 18th and early 19th century, painters like Reynolds and Lawrence. You may remember a painting of ‘Master Lantern’ by Lawrence. I'll show you some pictures in a minute. So it's not a kind of realistic costume, however it was worn in the 19th century by children as their best clothes, party costume. We do know that.

In fact what this picture is, it's a picture based on Millais's grandson. The story is that Millais saw the little boy playing and decided he was beautiful and pretty enough for a picture and so he painted it. Millais said that he had problems painting the bubbles. Of course bubbles don't last very long if you're trying to paint them, they burst the moment they're formed almost, they float around and they burst. So he actually had specially manufactured a glass sphere so that he could study and paint it with the reflections - make it accurate.

He also must have had some problems with the pose of the little boy and we know that he had a photograph taken of his grandson to help him paint the picture. Now at this period photography is fairly new, it was invented earlier in the century and it wasn't the sort of cheap, common thing that it is now. Also, it was a bit controversial. Artists did use photographs but they tended not to talk about the fact that they used photographs in the same way that they might previously have used sketches to establish a pose or to try something out.

The only reason we know about the photograph is because a young lady who later became famous, Beatrix Potter, who was very interested in art, wrote in her journal in 1885 that Mr Millais came here on the 15th in the evening to get Papa, that's her father, to photograph next morning.

“I just want you to photograph that little boy of Effie's”.

Effie was Mrs Millais, or Lady Millais I should say.

“I've got him, he's like this (and he imitated the pose) with a bowl and soap suds and all that and a pipe. It's called ‘A Child's World’.”

So that was the original title, not ‘Bubbles’, he was going to call it ‘A Child's World’.

“He's looking up and there's a beautiful soap bubble. I can't paint you know, not a bit. That was said with his head on one side and his eyes twinkling. I just want to compare it, I get this little thing, a photo, and I hold it in my hand and I compare it with the life and I can see where the drawing's wrong”.

So you can see he used a photograph just to make sure his drawing was correct. And he was only joking of course when he said I can't paint a bit because at this stage in his life Millais was a very famous painter.

And that's what I'd like to talk about next. Millais, in 1886 was aged about 57, he died about 10 years later and his career was at the height of its success. He'd just been made a baronet in 1885. As a young man he was regarded as an infant prodigy, he painted very fluently and well.

In 1848 he joined with the young Rossetti and the young Holman Hunt and all three of them were in their early twenties, if that, they were straight out of art school. This is in 1848; I'm talking quite a long time before this work was painted. As young artists they founded the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood which was a group of artists who wanted to change art.

Some of you may be familiar with the paintings of that period and if you're not go to the Walker Art gallery and you'll see one of Millais's first major paintings it's called 'Lorenzo and Isabella'. We have in the Lady Lever just further up there 'A Dream of the Past', called 'Sir Isumbras at the Ford' and the picture that is just behind you called ‘Spring’ which is a little later still.

All of those show the earlier phase of Pre-Raphaelitism, brilliant bright vivid colours and very sharply focused detail particularly detail of nature, of flowers and leaves. Also, a kind of angularity and deliberate awkwardness. Those are characteristics of a Pre-Raphaelite style. They were trying to attack the stale, formulaic art of their period.

This picture is very different, by this time Millais had changed his style. It's much broader and softer; it doesn't have those sharp outlines. The colours are quite subdued, that's not the vivid green that you see in the background of 'Apple Blossom' for example. You don't have any clashing colours, reds, greens and blues all thrown together, this is all harmonious. So, Millais's style has changed.

At this period he was famous for his portraits of great men and we have one there, the one in the middle where I'm pointing that's Alfred Lord Tennyson. Millais painted many of the great figures of his day - Gladstone, Disraeli, statesmen and poets like Tennyson and fellow artists like George Frederick Watts. He was painting portraits of famous people, he was also painting landscapes, unlike the pre-Raphaelite landscapes they were also subdued in colour and there's one of those which is the third one along in the main hall, just beyond the door, it's called ‘Lingering Autumn’.

And then he was also painting more popular pictures, often with children or telling stories. Many people today think that it's Millais's early work, the Pre-Raphaelite work, the brightly coloured work which shows that he's a great artist and they view paintings like this or that as a decline. However I read an obituary of Millais when he died in 1896 and the writer of the obituary was of the opinion that it was the work of the last ten years which shows Millais as a great British artist. So it shows how taste changes, there is no definite view on what is great art. Some of you might like this better, some of you might like the earlier work better.

I think there's no doubt that his work was varied and there's no doubt in my mind that the very early work is more inventive and more intense somehow. And it's true also that in this period of his life in the ten, twenty years before his death Millais did paint potboilers. He painted a lot of portraits for wealthy people, they didn't carry much conviction they were very competent but he rather churned things out.

Now let's focus on the pictures of children to give a bit of context because we have some of his paintings of children of this period that Lord Leverhulme himself bought. This, I've said, is a portrait of Millais's grandson but that's not strictly true. It isn't a portrait, it's not a commissioned work meant to record how he looked. He's used the grandson as the model for what art historians call a fancy portrait.

That's a portrait, that is meant to tell you what Tennyson looked like. This little girl in white that's another fancy portrait. We probably know which little girl sat for it but that doesn't matter. The point is that she's making a bouquet of the flowers. That is called the 'Little Speedwell's Darling Blue' and that was painted six years after this one and it's the same sort of thing, a charming little girl engaged in ordinary activity, in that case flowers, in this case blowing bubbles.

Another child picture and you'll have to swivel your necks a bit, right at the top up there, that's actually got a mother and child but the child has a similar sort of wide-eyed appeal as all these. That's called ‘The Nest’ and that was painted in 1897. These pictures by Millais created a fashion for rather sentimental prettified pictures of children. The one right at the top, above the Little Speedwell, of the girl dressed in that rather fancy satin costume with the little dog, though it looks as though it might be by Millais, it's not. It's by a lesser artist called Philip Morris. It's called 'Quite Ready'. Rather charming but perhaps a little sentimental, chocolate-boxy I think some people might call it.

But it shows that in any period you have people who innovate and people who copy and Philip Morris was definitely one of the followers rather than the leaders. I mentioned how the costume here is based on portrait painting of an earlier period. Millais as he grew older and became one of the great artists of the art establishment looked back at earlier periods of art and he was a great admirer in particular of the work of Joshua Reynolds who was a founder of the Royal Academy and one of the great portrait painters.

We find very deliberate echoes of Reynolds in his work. That's a rather fuzzy reproduction of ‘The Age of Innocence’, a portrait of a little girl by Joshua Reynolds of the 1780s I think or 90s, so it's almost a hundred years before that, but I'm sure he had pictures like that in mind when he was painting the ‘Little Speedwell Darling Blue’.

I've also got an example of a Reynolds portrait, this is a commissioned portrait of the Lamb family and you can see that the boy in yellow is wearing a little, I think that might be satin or might be velvet, but he's wearing a suit a little bit like that and that's what I mean about him taking this kind of costume. It kind of elevates his art in a way, it's meant to lift it out of the specific period in time and make it kind of artistic, he's trying to equal the art of his predecessors.

There's another here of ‘Charles, Earl of Dalkeith’, also by Reynolds and in that pink costume with the lace collar is the kind of costume you see in Van Dyck, so you see that even Reynolds was looking back to previous artists to elevate his art.

These child portraits were extremely successful, most successful of all was 'Cherry Ripe', which I've got a bigger picture of, it was sold at Sotheby's a few years ago and I've got the colour reproduction. That is by Millais, date 1879, so that's a few years before that. And that is by Reynolds, again 100 or so years before, so again he's looking back.

Now, let's talk about childish innocence, but a bit of a knowing look which I think was imitated by our friend Mr Morris at the top. 'Cherry Ripe' was sold for a thousand guineas so Millais made a lot of money out of it. Not to a private collector but to ‘The Graphic’ magazine. There were two illustrative magazines that vied for popularity in the late Victorian period - the 'Illustrated London News' which you may remember because it carried on until the sixties or 70s and 'The Graphic'. In that time they were illustrated mainly in black and white with wood engravings because colour photography was expensive.

They often had special colour plates. The reason the graphic bought this was because they made a presentation colour print of it by a new process called chromolithography which was a mechanical process and they apparently made 600000 copies of this which they gave away with a special issue in order to increase their circulation. 'Cherry Ripe' was also engraved in black and white and Millais would have made quite a lot of money out of selling the copyright to the engravers as well as selling the actual painting to ‘The Graphic’ magazine.

This picture was widely circulated because of all these copies floated around far more people could see it than ever saw the one oil painting and Millais's supposed to have received letters from all over the world from Australian miners, Canadian backwoodsmen and South Africa trekkers, saying what a wonderful painting this was. Or so his biographer tells us.

Now a few years later he made the painting of 'Bubbles' and it was bought, this time, by the proprietor of the 'Illustrated London News', Sir William Ingram. I don't know how much he paid for it, he also bought the copyright and it too was issued as a special colour print with the Christmas issue of the London Illustrated News in 1887. Even before the Christmas number had been published however, Mr Ingram of the Illustrated London News, because he'd done what he wanted with it, sold it on to Thomas Barrett, the Managing Director of Pears Soap and Mr Barrett decided to use it or bought it with the purpose of using it as a soap advertisement and he got his designers to mock up a print of this picture with a bar of Pears soap, the oval soap, in the corner and it said Pears Soap at the top and he went to see Millais to show it to him and Millais was of course horrified. He was furious because he thought this was cheapening his art.

However he was persuaded that at least it was a good quality print, and he had no control, because he had sold the copyright, over what people could do with his image. Once the advertisement appeared however a lot of people thought that Millais was degrading his art and wrote letters to the papers and there was a bit of a fuss about it. But you can't blame Millais because he had no control in the matter.

This was in 1887. Two years later Sir William Lever, actually I don't think he was Sir then, he was plain William Lever, Mr Lever bought a painting by Frith called ‘The New Frock’ which shows a little girl holding her pinny up so that you can see her frock and he issued it as an advertisement for Sunlight Soap with the slogan so clean and if you want to see that picture it's downstairs in the gallery about Lever which is just next to the shop.

So it wasn't Lever who pioneered this use of art for advertising which of course today is very commonplace. You get photographic mock-ups of famous paintings. You get music by famous composers being hijacked for advertisement. It's all no holds barred now and no-one seems to mind. But this was the first occasions that paintings had been used for that purpose.

I've left what for me is the most interesting aspect of this picture till the end. It's the meaning of the painting because it's not what it seems. It's not just a pretty little boy with curly hair, blowing bubbles and gazing up at them. It falls into a long-established artistic tradition which began in the 16th century. In the 16th and 17th centuries many artists painted pictures which looked realistic but they referred to emblems, they used emblems or symbols which had quite another meaning.

The bubble which appears in these early works was an emblem of the brevity of human life. I've already said the bubble disappears almost as soon as it emerges. It bursts. It was used for paintings which we sometimes call memento mori paintings. Paintings which remind us of death, which remind us that we all die, paintings are material things which remind us that there is something beyond.

The earliest instance of this that I can trace is an engraving by a Dutch engraver called Hendrick Goltzius and it's a little boy with a bubble and a skull and it says on it ‘Quis Evadet?’, Who can evade, who can avoid death? And if that is not conclusive that the symbol of the bubble meant death I don't know what is.

In the 17th century it was taken up by the Dutch painters of the golden age, Dutch interior painters and there are quite a number of pictures like this of boys blowing bubbles, some of them have a skull, some of them don't. There's a famous one in the Maurits’ house in The Hague by Jan Steen. Jan Steen paints these merrymaking peasants and they are all having a wonderful time in the foreground and then in the background is a little boy peeking over a balcony blowing bubbles, holding a skull. So it's saying that all these people are merrymaking, eating and making love but it all comes to an end. Earthly pleasures come to an end.

The same motif appears throughout art history. Chardin, the still life painter in the 18th century. Manet, who is associated with the Impressionists in the 19th century, not too far in date from Millais, that's 20 years before Millais.

So that's the emblem of the man with the bubble, as a memento mori. Now you may say how do I know that Millais actually was thinking of that? I'm sure he was because the idea of death is present in many of Millais's paintings. You can go right through his art and pick out ones which were about death and this is not particularly common in the Pre-Raphaelites and his colleagues.

In the room through the doorway off the Main Hall is ‘The Black Brunswickers’, a picture of the parting of a soldier and his love, his lady love, on the night of the Battle of Waterloo. He is wearing the badge of his regiment, the Black Brunswickers, which is a skull. The implication of course is that he may get killed the following day.

The picture along there by Millais of the old knight carrying the children across the river 'Sir Isumbras at the Ford' or sometimes called 'A dream of the past' that harks back to the myth of the bark of Charon, in classical mythology Charon ferried a boat across the River Styx, the river of forgetfulness taking people to the other side. Also it's the old knight nearing death in his last act of charity.

Perhaps most relevant of all, just turn round and look at 'Spring' or 'Apple Blossom', the first picture there. Just on the right hand side of the woman in yellow in the foreground who's lying down there is a scythe. This is a picture of young girls in the spring of their youth and beauty, the season is spring, they're eating curds and whey and they're perhaps admiring the beautiful flowers. It's a picture about the beauty, but it's a picture about the fragility of beauty, that death is ever-present and that beauty will fade.

So, I'm sure that Millais in painting the boy with the bubbles that we all think of as a sentimental pretty picture, has that deeper meaning. Now this picture of course has been reviled by many people as an example of Victorian sentimentality. Maybe, superficially it is a little trite and he's made the boys a little bigger than they perhaps were and he's rather beautiful with his hair, beautiful blond hair, he's the typical young pretty innocent boy which you see in so many Victorian pictures of childhood and, again if you don't know it, go to the Walker again to look at 'And when did you last see your father?', the hero of that is a little boy in a similar vein.

It may look to modern eyes sentimental, particularly since the idea of childhood as a period of sweetness and innocence has been totally exploded by Freud and psychoanalysis. Childhood is now a period of latent sexuality, of hidden desires, you can't look at this painting with the same eyes that Millais did. Nevertheless I would like you to go away with the message that there is more to this picture than you might think and that it is a memento mori, a reminder that we all die.