Pre-Raphaelitism and the PRB
William Holman Hunt (1827-1910) related an account of the following monologue from Millais:
"Why, your 'Christian and Druids', 'The Two Gentlemen of Verona', The Hireling Shepherd, and The Strayed Sheep, are as bright and sound as though they had been done yesterday, and so are mine of the same date. It is true that lately when I saw the Ophelia, some of the foliage had gone quite blue, as I have seen leaves in Dutch fruit paintings changed; but I could put it right in half an hour if the owner would let me take it in hand. Lately, you know, there has been a prejudice against allowing a painter to touch an early work of his, and I have not yet heard from the possessor of the Ophelia. Why, my picture of 'Lorenzo and Isabella' is as pure and clear as any early Italian or German work. You say we happened to be very lucky in our plan of painting in one coat on an absolutely white ground, and with copal varnish, and that we were more fortunate than we knew of at the time, in having the choicest of our colours prepared by George Field, whose system has been proved to be more perfect than the pigment supplied since, and labelled with the same names. Well, you see, we took things as they came, and we were very right. If we had gone bothering about, waiting till we had proved that the materials were perfect, we should never have done anything to this day. You now see, my dear fellow, that I don't like you to be always thinking about the remote future. It is to-day we have to live, and you, for the sake of some far-off good which may never come to any one, sacrifice your present chances. Why, if I were to go on like you do I should never be able to go away in the autumn to fish or to shoot, and I should be always out of health and spirits; and one should always try not to be a 'distressful person'. I should become so if I did not get my holiday. You take my advice, old boy, and just take the world as it is, and don't make it your business to rub up people the wrong way."
Hunt added an explanatory footnote:
"The alteration referred to came from the use of a paint called chrome green, which we were assured was a simple chromium, whereas it was an admixture of chrome yellow and Prussian blue identical with the Brunswick green used by house painters for common doors and palings. Out-of-door exposure in a few years causes the combined pigment to lose all its yellow, and in some degree this seems to have been so with Millais' picture."
Hunt explained the background to the composition:"Millais agreed with me that for the subject of Ophelia in the Stream, which he had settled upon, and made a hasty sketch for, and for mine of The Hireling Shepherd, there was good probability of finding backgrounds along the banks of the little stream taking its rise and giving its name to our favourite haunt, Ewell; accordingly we gave a day to the exploration. Descending the stream for a mile from its source, I soon found all the material I wanted for my landscape composition, but we looked in vain during a long tracing of the changing water, walking along beaten lanes, and jumping over ditches and ruts in turn, without lighting upon a point that would suit my companion. Many fresh hopes were shattered, until he well-nigh felt despair, but round a turn in the meadows at Cuddington we pursued the crystal driven weeds with reawakening faith, when suddenly Millais' luck presented him with the exact composition of arboreal and floral richness he had dreamed of, so that he pointed exultantly, saying, Look! could anything be more perfect? and we sat down to enjoy its loveliness, as surely as many thousand other revellers in the beauty of such scenery have since done before the finished picture. Afterwards we searched out lodgings at Surbiton, and in the evening dined at a little inn where we had in the morning ordered a repast, well earned by sundown. When we reached the distant station it turned out there was no train to town, so we trudged home, arriving about 2 a.m., very well satisfied with our day's work. In a few days we returned to Surbiton, provided with all painting needs, and commenced the landscapes of our pictures. Our course when established was a steady one; we started each morning after an early breakfast to our respective places of work, parting at a stile on the road, where we met again on our way home in the evening.
"Millais was eager to see how I should place upon the canvas the features of the landscape I had chosen. He relinquished his work an hour earlier than usual to satisfy himself, and I was no less impatient to see the commencement of his painting, so I made a detour in my morning walk to see the beginning of the Ophelia background.
"For the sake of avoiding the contamination of hue resulting from the use of palettes only partially cleansed, we used white porcelain tablets which would betray any remains of dried paint that would otherwise work up into tints that had need to be of pristine purity. We knew how impossible it was to give the purity and variety of nature's hues if we allowed our pigments to get sullied. The inconvenient weight of porcelain palettes induced us afterwards to use for such purposes papier-mâché".
Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, 1905, William Holman Hunt.