Art Love Triangle: Effie Gray
Due for UK theatrical release on 10 October, Effie Gray depicts the famous love triangle between famed Victorian art critic John Ruskin, his teenage bride Euphemia Gray and Pre-Raphaelite painter John Everett Millais, a confirmed user of Winsor & Newton paints. With an impressive cast including Emma Thompson, Dakota Fanning and Greg Wise, the film is based on true events, tracking a set of tangled relations more compelling than most Hollywood dramas.
Responsible for recreating the works of both Ruskin and Millais, artist Alexander Newley sat down with us to discuss his contributions to the production. And, on a break between shows at London’s Royal Court Theatre, actor Tom Sturridge joined us to talk about preparing for the role of Millais, and the challenges involved in playing an artist.
Effie Gray: Background
‘I think what attracted writer Emma Thompson to the story is the unbelievable resolve this young woman Effie Gray showed in standing up to the Victorian establishment.’ says Newley.
Ruskin married Effie (played by Dakota Fanning) whilst she was still a teenager, but their marriage was never consummated. Newley believes Ruskin may have had an over-developed aesthetic sensibility that made physical realities difficult.
The movie follows the life of the newlyweds, including a trip to Scotland which was accompanied by Ruskin’s young protégé, Millais. During this sojourn, Effie and Millais become close and eventually fall in love. Bravely going public and filing for annulment of her marriage on the grounds of non-consummation, Effie eventually leaves Ruskin and goes on to have an extraordinary life and raise eight children with Millais.
‘Ruskin was a very well-known and respected man, and for this unknown girl to denounce him caused a huge scandal,’ explains Newley.
Artist Alexander Newley
Phyllida Law, the actress-mother of Emma Thompson, recommended Newley to the producers after the artist painted her portrait. His creative contributions are at the heart of the production.
An early sequence shows Ruskin drawing Effie at a time when his obsession with her has reached its height. Ruskin sketches furiously whilst Effie dances and the camera moves around the pair on a circular track in a darkened space. Newley was asked to make the drawings using Ruskin’s actual tools, and when the film cuts to Ruskin’s hands sketching, they don’t belong to actor Greg Wise but rather to Newley, wearing frilly cuffs. One shot required charcoal to spray off the nib of his pencil. As Newley remarks, ‘Hollywood loves the idea of artists working in a fever of passion!’
Throughout the movie, Millais is seen painting his famous portrait of Ruskin posing by a tumbling river. Newley made the painting in his New York studio and photographed each stage of its development. These still images are the ones seen in the film.
Producer Donald Rosenfeld was unable to find the original setting for Millais’ portrait, so decided to commission an artist rather than a prop-maker to make his own version of the painting. His intention was to have something that would have a life after the movie and be an artwork in its own right. Attention to detail and accuracy was paramount – Rosenfeld approached Winsor & Newton for archived tubes and art materials to be copied and used in the production.
Newley created his painting true to the spirit of the Pre-Raphaelites rather than their techniques. He found the way Millais worked very difficult to adopt, as Millais would perfect one part of a painting before moving on: ‘His attention kind of crawled across the canvas in a way that is completely alien to me.’ Describing himself as an ‘all-over painter,’ Newley likes to keep the whole work moving along at the same time, a lesson learnt from art after the Pre-Raphaelites, such as Post-Impressionism and American action painting.
Actor Tom Sturridge
‘My knowledge of that period of art is incredibly juvenile,’ says Tom Sturridge, ‘so I stood for hours in Tate Britain looking at Millais’ Ophelia, ironically a painting that haunts adolescent culture.’
Tom approaches new roles with the same question: ‘How do I realise this character?’ When playing a person from history, and especially an artist, an actor has the unique resource of access to their character’s creative expression. ‘Millais obviously spent a lot of time doing very small, detailed things. To be that kind of person means you must have an extraordinary amount of patience.’ This insight into his character’s personality makes sense to Sturridge in the context of the film, as Ruskin, by contrast, was not a patient man.
Given months to prepare a film about Millais, Sturridge would have taught himself to paint as closely in style to him as possible. As the role was cast relatively late and the focus is on Effie, Tom concentrated on making his movements and gestures appear natural: mixing paint on a palette, holding a brush, applying colour and so on. Newley helped with this and spent a lot of time showing him how to articulate the kind of detail seen in the flowers and foliage of Millais’ Ophelia. As Sturridge remarks, ‘Millais’ technique is very specific, the way he ‘gives’ paint to the canvas is so delicate.’
Effie is in UK cinemas starting 10 October.
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Images Courtesy of Sovereign Films