Glen Finglas and a Victorian Scandal

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Glen Finglas (or Finlas), lies north of Brig o’ Turk, on the main road into the heart of the Trossachs. In 1853 it was the setting for a scandal that shocked the British art establishment and uptight Victorian society in general. At its heart is a significant painting that was intended to be ground-breaking.

It all came about when the critic John Ruskin sprang to the defence of a small group of painters who had called themselves the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. They believed that the imitation of nature was the highest form of art and disliked what they saw as the influence of the artificial, mannered style and the classical poses characterised by the work of earlier European artists such the Renaissance painter Raphael.

The upshot was various dialogues between the Pre-Raphaelite painter John Everett Millais and John Ruskin. Millais was encouraged to create a great work with both wild scenery and a portrait as its subject – a painting that would revolutionise British landscape painting and portraiture at one and the same time. Ruskin was later to say that ‘mountains are the beginning and the end of all natural scenery’.  At the same time, he himself would feature in the portrait!

At the time of this artistic debate, Scotland and the Trossachs in particular were very fashionable – thanks to Sir Walter Scott, one of Ruskin’s favourite authors. Ruskin was also a champion of the painter JMW Turner, especially his paintings of Swiss mountain scenes. It was decided that Millais would accompany Ruskin and his Scottish wife Effie Gray to the Highlands in the summer of 1853. Ruskin would be painted amid Nature’s wild grandeur.

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).

John Ruskin in Glen FinglasMillais 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.

A later portrait of Effie Gray by MillaisAmid shock and scandal, Effie and Millais married in 1855 and they lived happily ever after! She bore him eight children and Millais gradually abandoned the obsessive attention to detail that characterised Pre-Raphaelite work. He became more ‘commercial’ and successful thus providing a steady income for the family. (Unsurprisingly, his paintings were frequently criticised by Ruskin in print.)

Effie may have been the wife of a high-profile painter moving in ‘high society’ but not until the very end of Millais’ life was she was never invited to any function if Queen Victoria was to be present  – as one other curious outcome from the romance and scandal of Glen Finglas. Subsequently, the story became the subject of several dramatic works, including an opera and even a tv series, ‘Desperate Romantics’.

The painting, John Ruskin at Glenfinlas, is in a private collection but has in the past been publicly exhibited.  Millais never painted anything like it ever again.

The most important site in the history of British landscape painting is now in the care of the Woodland Trust.