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1871 The Year of Modern Landscape

“No artist will pass by No. 14 in the first gallery without a long halt before ‘Chill October’, the first landscape, in the technical sense of the word, painted by Mr. Millais.” Thus, The Times began its first review of the Royal Academy Exhibition of 1871. The reviewer, likely Tom Taylor, delineated further the exceptionalism of the painting:

in this picture Mr. Millais has for the first time dispensed with figures altogether, and has made inanimate nature embody his feeling and tell history. It is the sentiment of autumnal sadness, the story of recent storm and storm to come … Nothing can be simpler than the materials of the picture, nothing less pretentious than the composition. But it strikes home to the imagination with a power at once swift, straight, and strong. It does what all good landscape should do—embodies a sentiment and expresses a feeling.1

The first painting to be described in the paper’s first review of the Annual Exhibition, John Everett Millais’ much anticipated Chill October was clearly understood to be one of the major achievements of that year’s season (Fig. 1). The reception of Millais’ painting, and the fact that the 1871 Academy Exhibition was the first to allow critics to view the Exhibition on their own specially designated day in advance of the public opening—Press Day—is a useful reminder that elevation of a particular canvas to celebrity status was typically the product of both artistic accomplishment and also a public relations campaign.2

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For Millais, Chill October proved to be a pivotal moment in his career as it opened up a new vein of landscape painting, followed by such works as Flowing to the River, which signalled Millais’ desire to be aligned with the tradition of British landscape painting initiated by John Constable, as well as Winter Fuel (Fig. 2), and The Fringe of the Moor. Strategically, it also allowed Millais, long associated with figure painting, to consolidate his position within the Academy and public opinion by affiliating himself with a genre well established in the British school. The painting was a heroic effort, done directly from nature; Millais installed his easel on a specially built platform along the backwater of the River Tay in Scotland.3 The canvas is a sombre commentary on the passing of the seasons. A grey sky looms over the scene and is reflected on the water’s surface, dry brown grasses dominate the foreground, and trees in the middle-ground respond to the winds coursing over the landscape. In The Athenaeum’s first notice of the Exhibition, the work was described as “noble and pathetic” as well as “a poem in painting”.4

Millais’ choice strategically positioned the artist directly within contemporary debates about the state of the Academy and landscape painting. Indeed, advance notice of his intent to submit a landscape painting to the Annual Exhibition may have further fomented attention to the state of British landscape painting, given the painter’s considerable stature in the artistic community at this moment.5 By the last quarter of the nineteenth century, charges were circulating that the Academy had failed to nurture or elevate landscape painting.6 To counter such concerns, the Academy could point to the inauguration of the Turner Gold Medal for landscape painting in 1857, for example, and the success of Peter Graham’s A Spate in the Highlands (1866 Exhibition), a stormy river scene that “moved” the public.7 In 1871, the year of Millais’ pure landscape debut, the Academy was seeking to redress perceptions that it had “slighted” the genre in recent years by assigning landscape paintings to “places of honour”, according to The Art-Journal.8

Chill October and Millais’ landscape paintings that followed were also absorbed into questions about the nature of landscape painting: should the genre hew more closely to its roots in empiricism and scientific observation, or pursue the imaginative evocation of poetry and emotion, regardless of truth to nature? Millais appeared to move fluidly between these opposing camps, having begun his career as a Pre-Raphaelite painter, known for his keen-eyed observation of nature, close attention to detail, and highly finished canvases, and now, with Chill October, signalling a desire to explore broader effects, sensation, and affect. Many artists, critics, and scientists perceived this debate as being staged on the walls of the Academy. The year before, in 1870, the painter John Brett, who shared Millais’ roots in Pre-Raphaelitism, authored a review of the Academy Exhibition for the journal Nature, in which he accused artists of frequently violating the laws of nature and instead basing their works on the conventions of the past.9 As a remedy, he proposed that artists and scientists work together, a sentiment later evoked by the scientist Thomas Huxley, who, as a representative of the Royal Society, had given a well-received speech at the Academy Annual Banquet held on 29 April 1871. Huxley shared with his audience his belief that art and science were twinned enterprises: “our purpose is the same as yours … We both seek truth and we both seek beauty.”10 Despite Huxley’s belief in a shared destiny, artists and scientists in Britain dedicated to the study of nature disputed the disposition of their relationship throughout the last quarter of the nineteenth century and into the early decades of the twentieth century.11

But how effectively could the public extract these debates from the walls of the Academy given the over 1,300 works on display in 1871? Indeed, The Art-Journal, in its first notice of the Academy Exhibition, made precisely this point, commenting on the increasing numbers of works accepted for the exhibition, particularly after the Academy had relocated to Burlington House in 1869. This anxiety regarding excess on the walls of the Academy was a persistent theme in reviews over the second half of the nineteenth century, reflective of doubts about the ability of art and exhibitions to offer intellectual refinement, as opposed to commodified entertainment.12 The profusion of works, and the diversity of styles and genres represented, also fed an increasingly frequent complaint that Britain lacked a unified and cohesive school of art, a charge laid at the feet of the Academy.13

  1. “Exhibition of the Royal Academy”, The Times (London), 29 April 1871, 12. The Athenaeum likewise began its first notice of the Academy with an account of Millais’ landscape painting; see “The Royal Academy, First Notice”, The Athenaeum, 29 April 1871, 531.↩︎

  2. "To meet the wish of the Art Critics of the Press, and to prevent the annoyance to which they were subjected on the day of the Private View, the Academy appropriated a day for their special benefit, that they might have every facility in their careful examination of the Works." Annual Report from the Council of the Royal Academy to the General Assembly of Academicians for the year 1871 (London: W. Clowes and Sons, 1872), 7–8.↩︎

  3. The painter claimed “I made no sketch for it, but painted every touch from Nature, on the canvas itself, under irritating trials of wind and rain.” John Guille Millais, The Life and Letters of Sir John Everett Millais, Vol. 2 (London: Methuen, 1899), 29.  This account derives from a note, reportedly pasted to the back of the stretcher for Chill October, signed and dated by John Everett Millais on 18 May 1882.↩︎

  4. “Fine Arts, The Royal Academy (First Notice)”, The Athenaeum, 29 April 1871, 531. The review was likely authored by F.G. Stephens.↩︎

  5. For example, the critic Sidney Colvin, in his profile of the artist published earlier in the year, forecast “Next May … he will exhibit the new and eagerly-to-be-looked-for experiment of a large landscape.” Sidney Colvin, “English Painters of the Present Day, XVIII- John Everett Millais, R.A.”, The Portfolio 2 (1871):  6.↩︎

  6. J. Beavington Atkinson, “G.F. Watts”, English Painters of the Present Day (London:  Seeley, Jackson, and Halliday, 1871), 29.↩︎

  7. Philip Gilbert Hamerton, “The Landscape Painters”, English Painters of the Present Day, 59.↩︎

  8. “The One Hundred and Third Exhibition”, The Art-Journal 33 (June 1871): 149.↩︎

  9. John Brett, “Natural Science at the Royal Academy”, Nature 2 (30 June 1870): 157, 158.↩︎

  10. “Banquet at the Royal Academy”, The Times (London), 1 May 1871, 6.↩︎

  11. For more on this theme, see Anne Helmreich, Nature’s Truth, Photography, Painting, and Science in Victorian Britain (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2016), especially Chapter 2, 79–117.↩︎

  12. Anne Helmreich, “Excess on the Walls: Victorian Exhibition Culture and Anxieties of Art and Commerce”, in Julia Skelly (ed.), The Uses of Excess in Visual and Material Culture, 1600–2010 (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2014), 111–135.↩︎

  13. “The One Hundred and Third Exhibition”, 180.↩︎

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