They found the scenery they were looking for in Glen Finglas in the Trossachs, where the Finglas Burn cascades through tough metamorphic rock in a series of rapids waterfalls and pools. Ruskin wrote to his father: ‘Millais has fixed on his place – a lovely piece of worn rock, with foaming water, and weeds and moss, and a noble overhanging bank of dark crag and I am to be standing looking quietly down the stream.....’
With the Ruskins in a cottage in the glen and Millais in the inn at Brig o’ Turk, the scene was set for a creative summer. Ruskin’s enthusiasm was intense: ‘We shall have the two most wonderful torrents in the world, Turner’s St Gothard and Millais’ Glenfinlas’ (referring to a picture that Ruskin had actually commissioned from Turner).
Millais pitched a tent by the painting spot and whimsically painted the words ‘Pre-Raphaelite Emporium’ on it! The work went forward all through that summer though the actual figure of Ruskin himself was not started until Millais returned to his London studio in the autumn. Millais even returned to Glen Finglas in the spring and early summer of the next year to do more foreground work, not completing the portrait till the end of 1854. (Ruskin’s father paid him £350 for it and thought it a good likeness.)
For years after, many believed that the spot where the painting was undertaken had been altered by the building of the Glenfinlas dam in 1965. However, it was simply awaiting rediscovery. One claim for this is dated to 1993, according to a feature in The Burlington Magazine of April 1996. Another contemporary artist claimed its discovery in The Guardian of 20 June 2010. Whatever the truth, the key finding is that little had changed there since 1853. Hawkweed, violet, butterwort – common plants of the Trossachs, and painstakingly included in the painting – still grow there.
Ruskin’s dictum had been followed: ‘Every Pre-Raphaelite landscape is painted to the last touch, in the open air, from the thing itself. Every Pre-Raphaelite figure, however studied in expression, is a true portrait of some living person.’
In the finished work, some viewers find the figure of Ruskin to be curiously at odds with the setting – as though he had set out for a walk along a city street and been ‘beamed up’ to a wild spot in the Trossachs! As a result, some find it a little uncomfortable and artificial. However, it was very important in the history of British landscape painting – the first example of Ruskin-influenced Pre-Raphaelitism.
The work is also associated with a scandal that was brewing throughout that summer in the Highlands. While Effie spent the days in Glen Finglas reading, sketching and helping the two men, she and Millais fell in love. (She had already spent time with him as a model for a successful painting with a Jacobite theme – The Order of Release - exhibited in 1853 – so they were well acquainted!) Supported by her family, Effie promptly filed for annulment, and it transpired that Ruskin had never consummated their marriage.