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Pre-Raphaelites return to Tate after two-year world tour: One of the gallery's most popular paintings, Ophelia by Millais, back on display

August 8, 2014

Maev Kennedy

One of the Tate's best-loved paintings, Ophelia by John Everett Millais - a painting that in 1851 won the artist a 300-guinea fee and a threat of legal action from a farmer whose hay he trampled on, as well as giving the model a near terminal chill - returned to the gallery yesterday after a world tour with other gems from the pre-Raphaelite collection.

The paintings, including Dante Gabriel Rossetti's glowing Beata Beatrix, Ford Madox Brown'sJesus Washing Peter's Feet and William Holman Hunt's The Awakening Conscience have been on tour in the US, Russia, Japan - where a poster of Ophelia was once banned for fear it would encourage young girls to emulate her suicide - and Italy. Along the way, they were seen by more than 1.1 million people.

The exhibition, staged at Tate Britain in 2012, celebrated the works of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, members of which saw themselves as returning in their works to the colour and truth of medieval art. Although they were often sneered at by contemporary critics and those since, their paintings have always been among the most popular works in the gallery.

Ophelia was part of the founding collection of the gallery, presented by the sugar millionaire Sir Henry Tate in 1894, and has always been one of its top 10 best-selling postcards.

Penelope Curtis, director of Tate Britain, said: "It has been fascinating to see how popular the pre-Raphaelites have been in different international contexts and how they resonate with other cultures. It is great to welcome them back and to be able to integrate them into our permanent displays again."

The Millais painting shows Ophelia drowning, as described in Shakespeare's Hamlet: "Her clothes spread wide/ And, mermaid-like, awhile they bore her up/ Which time she chanted snatches of old tunes/ As one incapable of her own distress."

Millais painted in obsessive detail the landscape of riverside plants and flowers on the banks of the Hogsmill river in Surrey. He worked for up to 11 hours a day, six days a week, and was threatened by the local farmer with prosecution for destroying the hay in his field. "My martyrdom is more trying than any I have hitherto experienced," Millais grumbled. "The flies of Surrey are more muscular, and have a still greater propensity for probing human flesh."

Even Millais recognised that he couldn't keep his model, Rossetti's lover Lizzie Siddal, lying in a cold river for more than 60 hours a week. Instead he persuaded her to lie, fully clothed in an old gown that he had bought for pounds 4, in a bath at his studio.

He kept the water warm by lighting little oil lamps underneath it, but in one particularly gruelling session the lamps burned out and Siddal ended up lying in freezing water. She caught an appalling cold and her father threatened to sue Millais for her medical bills - which allegedly came to pounds 56, a sizeable sum in the mid-19th century.

Although it has often been claimed that the chill was fatal, Siddal in fact lived for another 10 years before dying from an overdose of laudanum.

The critic John Ruskin liked the painting but not the fact that Millais had used a home counties brook, describing it as "that rascally wirefenced garden-rolled-nursery-maid's paradise". Three years later, Ruskin's wife Effie Gray left him for Millais after the artist painted her portrait. The Ruskins' unconsummated marriage was annulled and Gray married Millais. The couple had eight children.


Ophelia returns to the Tate gallery along with other paintings from the pre-Raphaelites Photo: Sarah Lee for the Guardian

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Source: Guardian (UK)

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