History Remarkable Women

Effie Gray (Remarkable Women #44)

Early life

Effie Gray, 1851

Euphemia Chalmers Gray was born on 7 May 1828 in Perth, Scotland to lawyer and businessman George Gray and Sophia Margaret, daughter of Andrew Jameson, Sheriff-substitute of Fife.

Euphemia grew up at Bowerswell, an Italianate-style house near the foot of Kinnoull Hill. Though she was given the pet-name “Phemy” by her parents as a child, she started to be known as “Effie” by the time she was a teenager. Her sisters Sophie and Alice often modelled for John Everett Millais.

Marriage to John Ruskin

John Ruskin wrote the fantasy story The King of the Golden River for Effie in 1841, when she was 12 and he was 21. Effie‘s family knew Ruskin‘s father and encouraged a match between the two when she had matured. She ended up marrying Ruskin, after an initially unsteady courtship, when she was 19 years old on 10 April 1848.

During their honeymoon, they travelled to Venice where Ruskin was doing research for his book The Stones of Venice. While in Perth, they lived at Bowerswell, the Gray family home, and site of their wedding.

In 1817, Ruskin‘s mother, Margaret, during her engagement to Ruskin‘s father had stayed at Bowerswell and was witness to three tragic deaths within its walls in quick succession (Ruskin’s grandmother, grandfather, and newborn cousin). This caused her to develop a severe phobia of the place, keeping her from attending her son’s wedding to Effie.

Effie and Ruskin‘s different personalities were thrown into sharp relief by their contrasting priorities. For Effie, Venice provided an opportunity to socialise while Ruskin was engaged in solitary studies. In particular, he made a point of drawing the Ca’ d’Oro and the Palazzo Ducale (Doge’s Palace), because he feared they would soon be destroyed by the occupying Austrian troops.

One of the troops, Lieutenant Charles Paulizza, made friends with Effie, apparently with no objection from Ruskin. Her brother, among others, later said that Ruskin was deliberately encouraging the friendship in order to compromise her, as an excuse to separate.

When Effie met John Everett Millais five years later, Effie was still a virgin. Ruskin had persistently put off consummating the marriage. Effie and Ruskin had agreed upon abstaining from sex for five years to allow Ruskin to focus on his studies. Another reason involved his apparent disgust with some aspect of her body.

As Effie later wrote to her father:

He alleged various reasons, hatred to children, religious motives, a desire to preserve my beauty, and, finally this last year he told me his true reason… 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 the first evening.

Ruskin confirmed this in his statement to his lawyer during the annulment proceedings: “It may be thought strange that I could abstain from a woman who to most people was so attractive. But though her face was beautiful, her person was not formed to excite passion. On the contrary, there were certain circumstances in her person which completely checked it.”

The reason for Ruskin‘s disgust with “circumstances in her person” is unknown. Various suggestions have been made, including revulsion at either her pubic hair  or menstrual blood.

Robert Brownell, on the contrary, in his analysis Marriage of Inconvenience, argues that Ruskin‘s difficulty with the marriage was financial and related to concerns that Effie and her less affluent family were trying to tap into Ruskin‘s considerable wealth.

Relationship with John Everett Millais

While married to Ruskin, Effie modelled for Millais‘ painting The Order of Release, in which she was depicted as the loyal wife of a Scottish rebel who has secured his release from prison. She then became close to Millais when he accompanied the couple on a trip to Scotland in order to paint Ruskin‘s portrait according to the critic’s artistic principles.

During this time spent in Brig o’ Turk in the Trossachs, they fell in love. While working on the portrait of her husband, Millais made many drawings and sketches of Effie. He also sent humorous cartoons of himself, Effie and Ruskin to friends. Some of his works were copied by her.

After their return to London Effie left Ruskin, ostensibly to visit her family. She sent back her wedding ring with a note announcing her intention to file for an annulment. With the support of her family and a number of influential friends, Effie pursued the case, causing a public scandal. Their marriage was annulled on the grounds of “incurable impotency” in 1854.

Marriage to John Everett Millais

In 1855, Effie married John Millais and they had eight children together: Everett (b.1856), George (b.1857), Effie (b.1858), Mary (b.1860), Alice (b.1862), Geoffrey (b.1863), John (b.1865) and Sophie (b.1868).

Their youngest son, John Guille Millais, became a notable bird artist and gardener.

Effie modelled for a number of her husband’s works, notably Peace Concluded (1856), which idealises her as an icon of beauty and fertility.

In 1885, her husband was elevated to the baronetage by Queen Victoria, having been created Baronet Millais of Palace Gate, in the parish of St Mary Abbot, Kensington, in the county of Middlesex and of Saint Ouen in the Island of Jersey. Upon her husband’s elevation, Effie became entitled to use the style Lady Millais.

Effie was an effective manager of Millais‘ career and often collaborated with him in choosing his subjects. Her journal indicates her high regard for her husband’s art and his works are still recognisably Pre-Raphaelite in style several years after his marriage.

However, Millais eventually abandoned the Pre-Raphaelite obsession with detail and began to paint in a looser style which produced more paintings for the time and effort. Many paintings were inspired by his family life with his wife, often using his children and grandchildren as models. Millais also used his sister-in-law, Sophie Gray, then in her early teens, as the basis of some striking images in the mid to late 1850s, provoking suggestions of a mutual infatuation.

Later life & death

Effie had been officially presented to Queen Victoria on 20 June 1850. This was arranged by Lady Davy, a friend and neighbour of hers from London who was also friends with one of the Queen’s ladies-in-waiting. However, the annulment from Ruskin barred her from events at which the Queen was present.

Effie‘s social status was affected negatively, although many in society were still prepared to receive her and to press her case sympathetically. Eventually, when Millais was dying, the Queen relented through the intervention of her daughter Princess Louise, allowing Effie to attend an official function.

Sixteen months after Millais‘ death, Effie died at Bowerswell on 23 December 1897. She was buried beside her son George, who died aged 21, in Kinnoull Parish churchyard, Perth, which is depicted in Millais’s painting The Vale of Rest. Gray’s father had donated the Millais window, the West window, to Kinnoull Church in 1870. It is based on designs drawn by Millais.

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