Oct 19, 2014 | artists, films, art, drawing

New films: Effie Gray

Below: Emma Thompson and Dakota Fanning who plays Effie Gray. Her husband John Ruskin is portrayed by Thompson’s real-life husband Greg Wise.

Effie Gray Film Poster

Picture ‘Effie Gray’ © Sovereign Films

Effie Gray is a new film about the famous Victorian art critic, philanthropist, draughtsman and champion of the Pre-Raphaelite movement John Ruskin, his young wife Euphemia (Effie) Gray, and her eventual lover and second husband the Pre-Raphaelite painter John Everett Millais. This was no straightfoward love triangle however – Ruskin and Gray’s unhappy marriage was eventually annulled on the grounds of non-consummation, for reasons which are unclear and have been the subject of speculation ever since with Ruskin cast as the ultimate repressed Victorian prude. This film scripted by Emma Thompson is more even handed and sympathetic to both but strangely inert and uninvolving.

John Ruskin is perhaps now best known for the famous libel case brought against him by the aesthetic movement painter James McNeill Whistler, after Ruskin wrote a scathing review of Whistler’s exhibition at the Grosvenor Gallery and in particular his (now) much revered work Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket, accusing Whistler of “ask[ing] two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face”. Whistler filed for libel and won, but the case ruined him financially.

One can hardly come down on Ruskin’s side of the argument, however I do remember being surprised how much I enjoyed some of Ruskin’s own sketches and watercolours when they were exhibited at the Tate Gallery in 2000 as part of an exhibition called Ruskin, Turner and the Pre-Raphaelites. They seemed quite atmospheric. Ruskin himself wouldn’t have considered himself a great artist, but I really liked his mixed-media works made during his European travels. Here are a few of them and Ruskin himself as painted, ironically, by John Everett Millais.

John Ruskin Freibourg

John Ruskin: Freibourg c. 1859

John Ruskin Study of a Velvet Crab

John Ruskin: Study of a Velvet Crab approx. c. 1870

Back to Ruskin’s private life and the subject of the film: the annulment of his marriage to Effie. The great myth about Ruskin which set him in the public imagination as the ultimate repressed Victorian was that he was such an innocent that the site of his naked wife on his wedding night was such a shock that he was too appalled to consummate the marriage. What Ruskin himself said on the matter was that: “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.” These ‘special circumstances’ have been interpreted as the pubic hair that Ruskin had no idea ladies possessed, a story which has persisted ever since and was supported by Effie’s own statement 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”. It seems unlikely however that Ruskin was so naive and ignorant. One might assume that Ruskin was either asexual or gay – it has also been suggested that he was suffering from overly strong religious scruples to an aversion to the idea of having children, or a revulsion at the idea of female menstruation, or even that he had paedophiliac tendencies.

However a new book published last year called Marriage of Inconvenience by Robert Brownell sought to dispel all of these notions. Reading surviving correspondence between the two parties, Brownell came up with a revisionist theory which described how Effie, who had known Ruskin since childhood and initially refused his proposal having many other admirers and perhaps more attractive prospects, was pressured by her father to marry Ruskin for his money after Mr Grey found himself in danger of bankruptcy. The wedding date was brought forward to forestall the bailiffs, and Effie provided no dowry – instead Ruskin settled the huge sum of £10,000 on her. Brownell argues that it was Ruskin’s realization that Effie had married him only for his money was a disappointment and betrayal he couldn’t get over. They made an agreement to wait until Effie was 25 in the hope that genuine affection might grow between them, but the pair were mismatched and never grew closer together. As Brownell describes it, Ruskin eventually virtually set Effie up with John Everett Millais to get her off his hands. He then used the threat of divorce to pressurize Effie and her family into the much less public annulment proceedings instead. It’s an interesting theory.

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