John Ruskin love triangle scandal still fascinates

A visitor looks at a portrait of John Ruskin, dated 1854, by John Everett Millais, which sits alongside works by Ruskin. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
A visitor looks at a portrait of John Ruskin, dated 1854, by John Everett Millais, which sits alongside works by Ruskin. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
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IT was the love triangle involving Britain’s leading art critic, his virginal wife and a pre-Raphaelite which still fascinates 150 years on from the scandal.

The story of Perth-born Effie Gray’s doomed marriage to John Ruskin and her passionate affair with one of his protégés, John Everett Millais, is set to be the subject of a star-studded film and major new exhibition.

National Galleries of Scotland has scooped some of the world’s leading film festivals by landing the premiere of Effie Gray, written by Oscar-winner Emma Thompson, along with a separate exhibition.

Thompson stars in the movie with American actress Dakota Fanning portraying the emotionally-tortured teenage bride.

The film will premiere at the Scottish National Gallery on The Mound, while the exhibition will run at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery on Queen Street.

The producers of Effie Gray, shot extensively in the Scottish Highlands, London and Venice, have agreed to bring it to Edinburgh to coincide with the major exhibition of Ruskin’s own drawings, the biggest ever retrospective of his work.

It is hoped that members of the cast – which also include Derek Jacobi, Robbie Coltrane and Thompson’s husband Greg Wise, who plays Ruskin – will be in attendance.

At the centre of the exhibition, which opens today, is a striking portrait of Ruskin by Millais, who is thought to have fallen for Effie when he travelled north to paint it. Nine years his junior, Effie was a family friend of Ruskin, the most revered English art critic of the Victorian era, who was also renowned as a leading thinker.

Millais, who was born in Southampton, was one of the founders of the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood artistic movement, which involved poets, painters and critics. He was hugely encouraged in his work by Ruskin.

Effie posed as the key protagonist in the Millais painting, entitled The Order of Release, showing the wife of a wounded Scottish soldier securing his freedom from the English after the 1745 Jacobite Rising.

With Effie and Millais falling deeper in love, she set about having the marriage to Ruskin annulled – claiming that it had never been consummated.

Medical evidence was infamously sought to back her case.

The marriage was ended in 1854, the year Millais’ portrait of Ruskin was completed, and the two lovers went on to marry and settle in Effie’s native Perthshire.

Although born in London, Ruskin was the son of an Edinburgh sherry and wine importer. Effie was brought up in Ruskin’s grandfather’s old house, Bowerswell, in Perth.

The collapse of Ruskin’s marriage following the completion of the portrait, which shows the writer surveying the landscape in front of a waterfall in Glenfinlas, features prominently in the guide to the new exhibition, which runs until 28 September.

Gallery director Christopher Baker writes: “Millais’ portrait of Ruskin took 17 months to complete and was essentially a commission for Ruskin’s father. It is a key document in his career and a seminal example of mid-19th century British portraiture.”

The big-screen version of Effie Gray’s life has been some four years in the planning but had its release held up due to lengthy legal wrangles with two writers who claimed Thompson was guilty of plagiarism over the screenplay.

The cast and crew of the film were in Scotland for 15 days, with key scenes for Effie Gray, due to be released in early October, shot in the Lochaber area along with Aberfeldy, in Perthshire.

Speaking to The Scotsman from New York, producer Dan Rosenfeld said: “Scotland is absolutely central to the whole plot. That was where the two families were from.”