‘Isabella and her Brother’ by John Everett Millais
Accession number: 1906P651
These preliminary sketches, with some others in the Birmingham collection, indicate the beginnings of Millais’s work Lorenzo and Isabella (Walker Art Gallery, 1849). Millais was 19 when the painting was completed, and around 18 when the sketches were done, but his growing maturity of style and his Pre-Raphaelite tendencies can be seen strongly in both. At the top we see Isabella’s brother, very similar in feature and expression to the final work, with cadaverous eyes and a dour look upon his face as he sees what is unfolding before him. The face of one of her other brothers, contemplatively chewing his finger, can be seen at right angles below this. Between these two images Lorenzo and Isabella appear, appearing physically closer than in the final painting, sharing their food.
The subject of these works is Keat’s poem ‘Isabella; or, The Pot of Basil’, based on Boccaccio’s story. Keats tells of the forbidden love of Lorenzo and Isabella, and the hatred her brothers bear for her lover. The brothers’ appearance and nature is described by Keats, and reflected in Millais’s drawings here, in their thin cheeks and mean eyes:
With her two brothers this fair lady dwelt,
Enriched from ancestral merchandize,
And for them many a weary hand did swelt
In torched mines and noisy factories,
And many once proud-quiver’d loins did melt
In blood from stinging whip;—with hollow eyes
Many all day in dazzling river stood,
To take the rich-ored driftings of the flood.
The brothers kill Lorenzo, and his head is buried in a pot of basil, where it eventually betrays them. The moment of Millais’s work, however, is that of realisation: he chooses a moment of dramatic tension which he has invented: there is no mention of such a feast in the poem, but of the brothers’ growing awareness of the problem of their sister’s lover, which Millais finds a place for at the dinner.
These brethren having found by many signs
What love Lorenzo for their sister had,
And how she lov’d him too, each unconfines
His bitter thoughts to other, well nigh mad
This is the time when murder is decided on, then: as with many Pre-Raphaelite works relating to literature, the moment depicted is the defining moment when there is no turning back and fates are sealed. This sketch focuses our attention on the intent gaze of the eyes of the figures, which can be easily overlooked in the more busy, fuller finished work, where the gaze is significant: crossing back and forth across the table, angry, malevolent or loving looks abound in this painting. The remarkable Pre-Raphaelite detail, in every hair on a head, or wrinkle on fabric, for which Millais later became famous, can be seen in embryo in the sketches. It is worth a close-up look in order to appreciate the characterisation of Keats’s poem represented visually.