Sir Coutts Lindsay and his wealthy Rothschild wife, Blanche, were both amateur artists who’d aspired for more. What they didn’t have in terms of talent, they made up for in terms of money. So in 1877 they opened The Grosvenor Gallery in London focusing on artists snubbed by the mainstream. One such artist was James Abbott Whistler, a snob himself who turned his nose up at paintings expressing sentiments and morals. Art, he’d said, should exist only for the sake of art. Hugh and I didn’t really agree however we went to his exhibition at the Grosvenor with great enthusiasm. Whistler’s compositions were severe and his use of colour melancholic.
One painting that stood out was a portrait of his mother seated within a geometric space that was all grey and black and undecided white. The mother’s hands were folded on her lap as if they’d never caressed a face, ruffled someone’s hair, or wiped a tear away. No wonder Whistler’s art was so formal.
While there we saw the art critic John Ruskin with his bushy eyebrows and lunatic glares busy scribbling notes and making faces. His vibes were so bad that it came as no surprise when we later read his savage review about Whistler’s work. Ruskin accused the artist of being a dandy audacious enough to ask outrageous sums of money simply for having flung a pot of paint in the public’s face. Whistler was incensed and sued Ruskin for libel.
It was all very exciting as it reanimated gossip about Ruskin. Everyone in the art world knew that Ruskin had once been married to Effie Gray, John Everett Millais’ wife. But the marriage had been annulled due to Ruskin’s “incurable impotency”. And when Millais and Effie married, Ruskin began to violently criticize the artist’s paintings.
Since Millais, being one of the founders of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, was not popular with the status quo, Hugh thought that having him paint my portrait would be a form of activism. So it was arranged that two or three times a week I would go to Millais’ studio on Palace Gate and pose for my portrait. The room was big with tapestries on the walls, several paintings on easels, and a stack of ornate frames leaning up against the wall.
After posing, Millais’ wife Effie would generally offer me tea and crumpets. Eventually we became friends. She was so very middle-aged, normal, and grounded that talking came easily. It took a few months but we began to exchange confidences and she then told me the story about her marriage to Ruskin.
Ruskin and Effie had met when she was just a young girl with no sentimental experience. Ruskin said he was in love and wanted to marry her despite his mother’s objections. On their honeymoon night, Ruskin took one look at his bride’s body and refused to have sex with her. Effie said her pubic hair had repulsed him. The only naked women Ruskin knew were statues and they were hairless.
This went on for six years until Effie’s friends Elizabeth Eastlake stepped in. Elizabeth, an art historian and critic, liked fresh flowers, Mendelssohn, and stern judgements. She didn’t like Germans, naughty books or John Ruskin. Elizabeth, with the help of others, convinced Effie to seek annulment on the basis that her marriage had not been consummated. Ruskin said his wife was mad but there wasn’t much he could say after a doctor certified her as a virgin. So Effie finally got rid of Ruskin and the following year married Millais. The two had eight children together.
Meanwhile, Ruskin asked Rose La Touche, his drawing student 30 years his junior, to marry him. Instinctively, Rose didn’t trust Ruskin so she wrote his ex-wife for advice. Effie told the young girl of the difficulties she had had with Ruskin so Rose refused to marry him.
But Rose had her own problems. She was anorexic and died a few years later. At that point the dam was broken and Ruskin became obviously wacky. Desperate over the loss of Rose, he began going to spiritualists hoping to re-establish communication with his lost love. Now there was no doubt about it. Ruskin was mad.
If beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, beware of the beholder.