Sunday, September 20, 2009
Millais, Ruskin, and the love triangle which tore apart the pre-Raphaelites
By Jonathan Brown
Even by the sexually modest standards of Victorian society, John Ruskin's marriage to Effie Gray was alarmingly chaste.
Throughout the couple's six-year relationship, before she found happiness in the arms of Ruskin's protégé John Millais, the art critic invented a bewildering array of excuses to avoid consummating their union.
First he claimed that he objected on religious grounds, then that he would not risk having children. Finally, he insisted sex would defile his wife's much admired beauty.
In the publicity surrounding Tate Britain's new Millais exhibition, the life and turbulent times of Effie have been somewhat overshadowed by her husband's earlier muse, Lizzie Siddal, the model for his drowned Ophelia. But as visitors to the exhibition admire that famous work, they should spare a thought for Ruskin's wife. Effie accepted her husband's explanations for the lack of physical love.
She told her father in 1854 that she 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".
Eventually, her husband confessed. "He had imagined women were quite different to what he saw I was ... he was disgusted by my person," she recalled.
In other words, Ruskin, the high arbiter of mid-Victorian artistic taste, was consumed with the smooth-curved ideal of womanhood objectified in the classical statues of his beloved Italy and was revolted by Effie's pubic hair.