Millais Parables
Frontispiece showing Millais, The Hidden Treasure (published 1863)

The illustrated edition of The Parables of Our Lord was a six year project by John Everett Millais and the Dalziel Brothers. The intention was for Millais to produce thirty drawings which would sit alongside biblical parables (as wood-engravings) as taken from the King James Bible.

Sir John Everett Millais, Bt ‘The Rich Man and Lazarus’, published 1864
Millais, The Rich Man and Lazarus (1863, Tate)

Although Millais was commissioned in the autumn of 1857, the project was not completed until 1863. Despite having taken six years for the project to be publishable, the final sum of drawings was only twenty; the Dalziel brothers felt ‘the world of art was poorer for the loss of the ten but after six years, it seems to have been painfully apparent the last drawings were never going to be delivered.

The Dalziel Brothers were an established firm of wood-engravers who worked on several projects with members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. These designs were purely Millais’ and are exemplar of boxwood etching.

Boxwood lends itself to etching due to it being such an extremely hard wood. A burin (French for ‘cold chisel’) is used to gouge out the wood that is not to appear in the finished print, leaving the lines of the design in relief, which are then inked for printing. [1] The use of the burin is important as this marks it out from woodcutting which cuts a softer wood in a different lengthwise manner, as well as providing a look which is near to the detail one would find in an etching.

Boxwood-engraving was also cheaper and lent itself to higher volume printing which had become de rigeur in the 1860s. The smallness of the blocks (due to the size of the Box tree) meant that blocks had to be screwed together to make larger designs, but this perhaps was a benefit when more than one engraver was involved during the printing stage.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti ‘Maids of Elfen-Mere, engraved by the Dalziel Brothers’, published 1855
Rossetti, The Maids of Elfen Mere (1855, Tate)

Millais may have been approached because of his exceptional use of line, which was bolder than Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s often softer line, yet glided gently in a manner which William Holman Hunt’s did not. Rossetti complained his line was spoiled by the Dalziel’s during the engraving process (although I would suggest prints such as The Maids of Elfen Mere (1855, Tate) are remarkable none the less). Millais drew his designs in reverse straight onto the wood block, using ink or lamp black or sometimes pencil, onto a surface prepared with Chinese white.[2]

Millais was perhaps an interesting choice subject wise, for since the furore against Christ in the House of his Parents (1849, Tate) Millais had toned down his experiments with religious art. That is not to say he avoided it altogether but it was clear that Millais smarted from the virilous attacks he received in 1850, not least from Dickens.

The Dalziels provided a list of the parables Millais was to illustrate and he was essentially left to produce the designs as he wished. There was correspondence between all parties which gives some insight to the detail of the designs but does not unveil anything particularly striking about the religious insight behind the works, instead it refers to details of dates, progress, and money etc. Millais’ understanding of the parables is not particularly conclusive, he even depicted one parable incorrectly although the text was later amended to ensure a match.[3] It is not easy to date all of the drawings or to determine the order they were produced in, although Millais did declare ‘I shall make it [the project] a labour of love’).[4]

Four of the original drawings still exist, e.g. The Marriage Feast (V&A) (no image is available on their website, as is frequently the case with the vast V&A archive) and The Unmerciful Servant (1863?, MFA, Boston) which rather curiously seems to have St. Paul’s Cathedral in the background.

Millais, The Unmerciful Servant (pre-1863, MFA, Boston)

Most of the works are of an exceptional standard but as a whole they are a mix of styles, emotions and themes. Some of them are hugely modern in look and several were made up into oil and watercolour versions, e.g. The Lost Piece of Silver and The Tares.[5] Proofs of four of the engravings were exhibited at the R.A. in 1862 and another four the following year.

Millais, The Lost Piece of Silver (1863, Tate)

The Lost Piece of Silver has a modern but poetic mood to it. Despite the dress of the girl being obviously Victorian and not at all Jewish / biblical in style, the sentiment remains effective and compelling. There is a timelessness about the work and the repetitive quotidian activity of domesticity is easily identified as a common experience by us all. Millais has captured the balance of light and shade perfectly: the woman’s face glows with her concentration. ‘The Art Journal’ of June 1862 described the use of candlelight as an example ‘that may be attributed to Velazquez’ but ‘enunciated as a precept of Pre-Raphaelitism’. The barrenness of the room and the task brings home the sense of ‘joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth’ (Luke 15:10).

Sir John Everett Millais, Bt ‘The Wise Virgins’, published 1864
Millais, The Wise and Foolish Virgins (1863, Tate)

Whilst this is a distinctly successful work, it could still be subject to criticism because of its lack of biblical authenticity. There is one pot or gourd on the floor, and a bare window allowing us to look out into the sky at the half penny shaped moon. The windows are distinctly un-Victorian in their construction, there no heavy velvet drapes here, but the work feels more British than first century AD. Other drawings in the set are subject to similar successes and similar absences, e.g. in The Wise and Foolish Virgins the dress is Victorian and is seemingly the same one used for all the figures (who all seem to be Effie Millais). This lack of historical authenticity would be a less significant criticism if the works had been approached thematically throughout the project, but alas, that is not the case. They are not all modern, or all historical – although the more one looks, the more Millais’ ignorance of Israel is evident. The Lost Sheep is a distinctly Pre-Raphaelite and English work and it is worth considering Holman Hunt’s Our English Coasts (1852, Tate) when one approaches it. How different these engravings would have been if Holman Hunt had designed them. Lutyens points out The Wicked Husbandmen draws on a Scottish architectural detail which would be alien to the landscape of Israel but fits well in The Love of James I of Scotland, a world which Millais was much more familiar with. Even the trees in some of the most inventive scenes, such as The Sower, bely a British landscape. The completed selection should not be considered a failure though, far from it; when you take in the wonderful Ruskinian attention to natural detail and the inventive vine around the murdered son’s throat, which coils upward accusing the husbandmen who look on from the murky background, Millais’ skilful execution is a delight.

Photograph of 1858 / 1859 showing wall of Balhousie Castle used in background of the adjacent The Love of James I of Scotland by Millais.

If we turn to other examples we can see that Millais has used more authentic costume and detailing, such as the loin clothes of the figures in The Labourers of the Vineyard and even the headscarf of the man in The Hidden Treasure. The design of The Hidden Treasure is strikingly empty in the top left of the picture, and although this lends itself well to the frontispiece of the book, as seen at top of this page, it is too bold and sparse as a complete image. The Pearl of Great Price has a somewhat bolder Renaissance feel to it, particularly in the strength of the arms which I suspect, appealed least to the likes of Rossetti and Hunt. Hunt’s influence (or potential approval) can be better felt in the aforementioned The Lost Sheep or The Unjust Judge.

Sir John Everett Millais, Bt ‘The Lost Sheep’, published 1864
Millais, The Lost Sheep (1863, Tate)
Hunt, Our English Coasts (1852, Tate)

One or two works are rather awkward and Millais’ The Rich Man and Lazarus has a strangely disorientating and glaring banister staring out at one from the middle of the work. Lutyens agrees with this, stating the ‘baluster is so obtrusive that it spoils the composition’.[6]

All in all Millais was ‘delighted with the Book’ when he wrote to Dalziel on December 5th, 1863.[7] It is unfortunate that the book did not sell as was expected, perhaps, as Lutyens suggests, because of an over ambitious pitch during Christmas time when it had to compete alongside many other books of a religious character.[8]

Millais was right though, the book is a delight: the font, the drawings, the arrangement alongside the scripture all serve to enhance the meaning of the text, as well as demonstrate Millais’ capabilities in a truly unique contribution to nineteenth century religious art. The work serves as a record of Pre-Raphaelite interests, as an example of British wood-engraving of the nineteenth century and for us today, it offers new possibilities for readings of Pre-Raphaelitism, and understanding Victorian religious values, whilst not detracting from its originally intended form – as a piece of religious art. The work is a wonderful gift for those who wish to use the text and images for religious contemplation, as it is for us art historians. Millais was right when he said ‘the public will slowly and surely appreciate it’. The appreciation has been slow and yet there is still much left to be analysed within these works, but this does not detract from a successful and beautiful rendering of the parables.

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And He spake many things unto them in Parables (Matthew 13:3)

Millais, The Lost Piece of Silver (c1863, Harvard)

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N.B. The Tate has a page presenting the collected engravings.

[1] This is the reverse process of intaglio engraving on metal.

[2] Mary Lutyens, The Parables of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ with pictures by John Everett Millais, engraved by The Brothers Dalziel (New York: Dover Publications, 1975) pg. xii

[3] Millais depicted ‘The Marriage of the King’s Son’ and not ‘The Marriage Feast’, so the Dalziels altered the text to reflect this misunderstanding.

[4] Lutyens, The Parables of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, pg. x

[5] The Dalziels owned the copyright of the engravings.

The oil version of The Lost Piece of Silver was destroyed in a gas explosion in 1862: the watercolour still exists.

[6] Lutyens, pg. xxvi

[7] Lutyens, pg. xxx

[8] Lutyens, pg. xxvii