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May 7th 1828

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Effie Gray

Effie Gray was born on May 7th 1828 at Bowerswell House in Perth. Her father, though not rich was of comfortable means and was able to buy Bowerswell House as a home for his wife, himself and their fifteen children. He had bought the house from John James Ruskin, father of John Ruskin the famous art critic. It was because of the connection between the two families that Effie was to meet and later to marry John Ruskin.

John Ruskin himself enjoyed an unusual and in many ways a very sheltered childhood. Up to the age of ten he had been educated entirely by his mother, then tutors took over. Each summer the family made a leisurely tour of the continent examining the paintings and architecture of Germany, Italy, France and Switzerland. It was a very close family, unnaturally so. “I had no companions to quarrel with, nobody to assist and nobody to thank,”  said Ruskin. When he went to Oxford his mother took lodgings in the town for the duration of each term. Even at this time he had become quite well known and his reputation was further enhanced by the publication of ‘Modern Painters’.

Effie and her brother George who were educated at schools in London often stayed at the Ruskin’s house on their way home to Perth and naturally met John there. Effie was a beautiful girl and not altogether surprisingly Ruskin fell deeply in love with her. He persuaded his mother to invite Effie down to London and during her two month stay she convinced John Ruskin, and more importantly his mother and father, that she would make a suitable wife for him. They became engaged and when at last they were married at Bowerswell on April 10th 1848, it seemed to many an ideal match.

For John, the next five years were a time of tremendous literary output and ever increasing reputation. The later volumes of ‘Modern Painters’, The Seven Lamps of Architecture’ and ‘The Stones of Venice' all created immense interest and critical acclaim. The demands made by his work left him little time for social pursuits but on the surface the marriage appeared quite happy. Effie wrote regularly to her parents but there was a change in the early part of 1849. “You may fancy how dull and weak I feel when I tell you I have not tasted meat for a week and during this time only tea and beef tea, and today nothing at all.”  She became seriously ill and in the spring returned to Bowerswell while John accompanied his parents on a long holiday to Switzerland, a somewhat bizarre reaction to Effie’s illness. For all that he wrote regularly and with affection to Effie but at times rather strangely. “I often hear my mother or father saying ‘poor child - if she could but have thrown herself upon us, and trusted in us, and felt that we desired only her happiness and would make her ours, how happy she might have been; and how happy she might have made us all” 

In July while still abroad he wrote a long and extraordinary letter to Mr Gray. “If she (Effie) had not been seriously ill, I should have had fault to find with her: but the state of her feelings I ascribe, now simply to bodily weakness - and this is a serious and distressing admission - to a nervous disease affecting the brain……If Effie had in sound mind been annoyed by the contemptible trifles which have annoyed her: if she had cast back from her the kindness and affection with which my parents received her and refused to do her duty to them under any circumstances whatever but those of an illness bordering in many of its features an incipient insanity, I should not now have written you this letter respecting her.” 

Effie had certainly been suffering from a nervous complaint. However it had not been brought about by her attitude towards John’s parents, though their protective dominance towards him must have made life very difficult for a young wife. It was certainly not brought about by ‘incipient insanity’. It was brought about by John’s peculiar attitude to the physical side of marriage which he did not see fit to mention in his letter to Mr Gray.

Effie’s stay at Bowerswell gradually improved her health and she became well enough to return to London. There followed a trip to Venice and another stay in London. John hated the social round which kept him away from his work but with Effie it was different. As a pretty and very intelligent young woman she met and made friends with most of the leading hostesses of the day and enjoyed meeting many of the leading literary and political figures. She was presented at Court with John but was not particularly impressed by the occasion.

Later there was a second visit to Venice but far more importantly there was the emergence of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. As the name implies they were a set of painters who wished to take their inspiration from the great masters painting before Raphael. In particular they were concerned to paint what they saw in nature with minute fidelity, and to regain the sincerity of the early Italian painters. The reaction to their work from the art world was in the main both hostile and vituperative. “We can hardly imagine anything more ugly, graceless and unpleasant than Mr Millais’ picture of ‘Christ in the Carpenter’s Shop.”  “There are many to whom his work will seem a pictorial blasphemy.”  “Mean, revolting and repulsive.” 

The three most important of the Pre-Raphaelites were Holman Hunt, Rossetti and Millais - in particular it was Millais who was producing the most important and the most controversial work. The Pre-Raphaelites did have their supporters, the most important of whom was Ruskin. “Their works are, in finish of drawing and in splendour of colour, the best in the Royal Academy.”  By this time Ruskin was almost a dictator of artistic taste, and public attitudes towards the painters began to change. More importantly a friendship developed between Ruskin and Millais. One of the results of the friendship was that Millais asked Effie to sit for his picture ‘The Order of Release’. It was immensely successful and when exhibited at the Royal Academy it required the presence of a policeman to move the crowds on. Later in the year, as a result of this new found friendship, John Ruskin asked John Millais and his brother William to accompany Effie and himself on a holiday to the Trossachs. On the surface the holiday was successful though the weather was very wet. But in spite of the apparent friendship both Millais and his brother had been appalled at John Ruskin’s treatment of his wife. It seems reasonable too, to assume that Millais had already fallen in love with Effie. He wrote to her occasionally when they returned home but the Ruskins were already insinuating that this quite innocent correspondence betokened something more sinister. Mrs Gray, hearing of this wrote to Millais. In his reply he wrote. “I should never have written to your daughter had not Ruskin been cognisant to the correspondence and approving of it or at least not admitting a care in the matter. If he is such a plotting and scheming fellow as to take notes secretly to bring them against his wife, such a quiet scoundrel ought to be ducked in a mill pond……The worst of all is the wretchedness of her position, wherever they go to visit she will be left to herself in the company of any stranger present, for Ruskin appears to delight in selfish solitude. Why he had the audacity of marrying with no better intentions is a mystery to me. I must confess that it appears to me that he cares for nothing beyond his mother and father, which makes the insolence of his finding fault with his wife (to whom he has acted from the beginning most disgustingly) more apparent.” 

Later he suggests that one of Effie’s sisters should come down to live with her and promises that he, John Millais, will be out of the country for the next year. Mrs Gray took up Millais’ suggestion and sent Sophie, then a child of ten, to live with Effie. This seemed to spur the Ruskins, especially Mrs Ruskin, to new heights of malice. At one stage she told Sophie that her mother was a weak ignorant woman and Effie was a poor silly creature raised into respectability by John’s talents. John too, used Sophie as a channel to express his dissatisfaction. He was going to begin harsh treatment of Effie when she returned from Germany and that he intended to try what harshness would do to break her spirit.

Effie herself was indeed coming near to breaking point. Finally on March 7th, nearly six years after her wedding, she wrote to her father. “……To go back to the day of my marriage I went as you know away to the Highlands. I had never been told the duties of married persons to each other and knew little or nothing about their relations in the closest union on earth. For days John talked about this relation to me but avowed no intention of making me his Wife. He alleged various reasons, hatred to children, religious motives, a desire to preserve my beauty, and finally this last year told me his true reason (and this to me is as villainous as all the rest) that he had imagined women were quite different to what he saw I was, and that the reason he did not make me his Wife was because he was disgusted with my person……then he said he would marry me when I was twenty five. This last year we spoke about it, he then said as I professed quite a dislike to him that it would be SINFUL to enter into such a connection, as if I was not very wicked I was at least insane and the responsibility that I might have children was too great, as I was quite unfit to bring them up……” 

Mr Gray took immediate action to move for an annulment of the marriage. The case of course created a sensation, but it was remarkable that almost all Effie’s friends stood by her in her ordeal. It was July before the December ree of Nullity was granted but already the long nightmare had ended for her. The Ruskins put about various malicious stories about Effie and her parents but there is little doubt that they were more than happy to have their son back without the encumbrance of a wife.

Millais corresponded regularly with Mrs Gray but did not write to Effie until after the decree was announced. It was not quite a love letter though everyone, including Effie, seemed to be aware that he was in love with her. “…how glad I shall be to see you again, this is all I can say now, and you must imagine the rest.”  It was eight months before she invited him to stay with her at Bowerswell.

They became engaged a month later and were married in July 1855. They had eight children many of whom appeared as models for Millais paintings. Though they lived in London they spent long holidays in Perth at Annet Lodge, near Bowerswell, and many of Millais’ best known paintings were executed while staying in Scotland. Effie Millais died in 1897 a year after the death of her husband. She is buried in Kinnoull churchyard. Bowerswell House is now an old people’s home.

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