The announcement of the acquisition by the Ashmolean Museum of John Everett Millais’s celebrated portrait of John Ruskin marks a new chapter in the history of a painting that not only has an important place in the grand narrative of the history of art, but also a more private history, through one of Ruskin’s pupils, the photographer Sarah Angelina Acland. Bequeathed by Ruskin to her father Henry Wentworth Acland, Regius Professor of Medicine at Oxford, for three decades the portrait hung over Miss Acland’s writing desk in her home opposite the Sheldonian Theatre. As well as treasuring the painting as a likeness of her close friend and mentor in artistic matters, in the late 1890s Miss Acland also used the work as a test subject in her experiments in orthochromatic photography, which she pursued in the spirit of the Pre-Raphaelites, around whom she had grown up.
Miss Acland’s father had held the canvass for Millais when Ruskin’s portrait was begun at Brig o’Turk in Scotland in 1853. He also witnessed the “wondrous free” manner (as he put it) of the artist with Ruskin’s wife Effie, née Gray (Effie would later petition for the annulment of her marriage on the grounds of Ruskin’s “incurable impotency” and marry Millais). Before his death in 1900 Acland recognized the importance of the painting, describing it as “a unique national picture of the Century.”
Ruskin’s portrait owed its place above Miss Acland’s desk to her intimate friendship with her ‘Cricket’, as she called him (he referred to her as his ‘Teaze’). “The fact is your relations to Ruskin are very special”, her father commented when discussing what should happen to the work, “with all its touching associations”, on his death. Although he left it as an heirloom to his eldest son, (Admiral) William Alison Dyke Acland, he hoped it would remain accessible to students locally in Oxford, in the University Galleries (now the Ashmolean Museum), rather than go to the National Gallery, as some had proposed. Before that happened, however, Miss Acland would keep it close by her for another twenty years, taking it to a new home in Park Town, North Oxford, into which she moved after her father passed away.
Miss Acland placed the picture in “a very good dry place on an inner wall” in her drawing room in Park Town. There it proved something of a magnet for visitors, when not out on loan (before she went on holiday to Madeira in 1911 she lent it to the Ashmolean; in 1919 her friend Thomas Herbert Warren, President of Magdalen College, persuaded her to allow the Royal Academy to borrow it for the Ruskin Centenary exhibition). Whenever the question of its return was raised with her brother she was unequivocal about wanting to hold onto it, even if her custodial responsibilities were sometimes a worry. In 1921, for example, a year after she had it re-varnished by Alec Macdonald (1862–1930), son of the Ruskin Drawing Master, Alexander Macdonald (1839–1921), the plate-glass front fell out. “No one could blame you if it was burgled”, her brother Harry (Ruskin’s godson) later reassured her, “nor if it was burnt as that would be by accident. In any case it is insured” (for £5,000 in 1897, but only £2,000 in 1919).
The photograph above is an Autochrome of the portrait, taken by Miss Acland between 1913 and 1917, showing the type of domestic setting in which it hung for much of its history. The plate is the earliest surviving colour photograph of the painting (Miss Acland might conceivably have made an earlier study with the Sanger Shepherd colour process, which she pioneered, but none is known to survive). Unfortunately, dampness has damaged the photographic image, causing the green dye to spread, and obscuring the reds and violets. Digital restoration (right) provides a partial correction. The small frame above the portrait is “We Are Seven”, a drawing based on Wordsworth’s poem of the same title by Elizabeth Siddal (Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s muse). The drawing was a gift from Siddal to Miss Acland’s father in 1855, after she stayed in the Acland house to be under his medical care, at Ruskin’s insistence.
Prior to photographing Ruskin’s portrait in colour, Miss Acland also copied it in black and white. The reason for doing so was primarily as an experimentum crucis in her investigation of orthochromatic photography, although she also needed copies to meet requests for reproductions from art historians. An early advocate of orthochromatic emulsions, from 1897 Miss Acland collaborated with the manufacturer James Cadett in testing and promoting the capabilities of his new orthochromatic “Spectrum plates”. The problem of orthochromatic photography was an old one, stemming from the insensitivity of silver salts to the red end of the spectrum, which resulted in the incorrect translation into monochrome of the relative brightness of different hues (blues would come out too light, reds too dark). As such, it was of particular relevance to the copying of paintings and other artworks in which colour was important.
In 1900 Miss Acland gave a lecture at the Oxford Camera Club on orthochromatic photography and published a paper on the subject in one of the leading photographic journals. In both lecture and paper she included two reproductions of the Millais portrait: one taken on an “ordinary” (non-orthochromatic) plate, the other on one of Cadett’s Spectrum plates. “The difference between the two plates is very noticeable”, she argued, highlighting the superiority of the Spectrum plate by pointing out that Ruskin’s coat was dark blue and that there was “a good deal of red and yellow colour in the face.”
Miss Acland’s decision to use this most photographic of portraits as a test subject was partly scientific, partly artistic, and also, no doubt, partly sentimental, coming soon after Ruskin’s death on 20 January 1900. It also served to cast orthochromatic photography as a Pre-Raphaelite undertaking: a search for greater “truth to nature” in representation, not only of form and detail, but also in the accurate depiction of colour. Truths of nature were not to be discerned by the uneducated senses, nor, for Ruskin, by the ordinary photographic plate. However, for Miss Acland, the Spectrum plate was capable of educating the camera’s eye and therefore of lending photography a degree of validity denied by her teacher. To reinforce the point, at the head of her paper she quoted the great Ruskinian (and Pre-Raphaelite) motto, the spirit of which underpinned the scientific and artistic endeavours of her father, Ruskin and herself: “The Truth of Nature is a part of the Truth of God”.
Giles Hudson, Sarah Angelina Acland: First Lady of Colour Photography (Oxford, 2012)