Sophy Gray (Pre-Raphaelite muse)

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Portrait of a Girl, Millais' 1857 painting of Sophy Gray

Sophia Margaret "Sophy" Gray (October 1843 – 15 March 1882), later Sophy Caird, was a Scottish-born model for her brother-in-law, the pre-Raphaelite painter, John Everett Millais. She was the younger sister of Euphemia (Effie) Gray, who married Millais in 1855 after the annulment of her marriage to John Ruskin.

From the late 1860s she suffered from a mental illness which seems to have involved a form of anorexia nervosa. In 1873 she married the Scottish entrepreneur James Caird. The marriage produced one child. She died in 1882, probably as a result of her anorexia.


Sophy[1] Gray was born in October 1843. Her parents were George Gray (1798–1877), a Scottish lawyer and businessman, and Sophia Margaret Gray, née Jameson (1808–1894). Her grandfather, Andrew Jameson, became Sheriff-substitute of Fife.[2] Sophy was the tenth of fifteen children, although five, including three daughters, pre-deceased her. Two of her three elder brothers alive in 1843 died before she was seven. Effie (1828–1897), known initially to the family as Phemy, was the eldest child. The Grays' second daughter, also named Sophia Margaret, died aged six in 1841.[3]

The family lived at Bowerswell, a house near the foot of Kinnoull Hill, above the Scottish city of Perth, that was re-built in 1842.[2] As a child Sophy frequently visited or stayed with Effie, who lived in London after her marriage in 1848 to the critic and artist John Ruskin. To an extent Effie, who was fifteen years older, acted as Sophy's "second mother", while Sophy, at a very young age, was exposed to the increasingly strained circumstances of the Ruskins' unconsummated marriage.[4] In fact, through her increasing presence in the Ruskin household, Sophy may, in some respects, have been a convenient chaperone for her elder sister, whose largely independent social life tended to attract comment.[5] According to Effie, Ruskin's manservant, Frederick Crawley, expressed to Sophy his concern that other servants might spread gossip "all over Camberwell", while Sophy's governess of three years, a French woman named Delphine, appears to have been discharged by the Grays in March 1854 because of Sophy's habit of confiding in her.[6]

Effie Gray's flight from Ruskin and marriage to Millais[edit]

On 25 April 1854 Effie left her husband on the pretence of visiting her parents in Scotland. Sophy had been staying with the Ruskins, at their home in Herne Hill, since just after Christmas 1853 and appears to have been complicit in her sister's flight. She and Effie were seen off in silence by Ruskin[7] at the recently opened King's Cross station, where, accompanied by Crawley,[8] they boarded a train for Edinburgh. However, Sophy alighted at Hitchin, Hertfordshire where her parents were waiting. Mrs Gray took her place on the train, while she and her father returned to London to deliver a package from Effie to her solicitors. That evening a citation of nullity was delivered to Ruskin, together with certain effects such as Effie's wedding ring and her keys.[9] The following day Sophy and her father returned to Scotland by steamer.

Effie was granted a decree of nullity on 20 July 1854.[10] The previous summer, she, Ruskin and his protégé, John Millais, had spent four months together in the Scottish Highlands, during which time she and Millais formed a close and increasingly intimate bond.[11] In early 1854, Millais painted a portrait of Sophy for her parents. Through her regular visits to his studio in Gower Street, London, where she impressed Millais by her patience,[4] Sophy was able to act a go-between with Effie. During this period, Ruskin's mother (to whom her son was very close) appears to have indulged Sophy, while, at the same time, casting aspersions on Effie, who was under very considerable stress.[4] For his part, Ruskin sometimes accompanied Sophy on walks, in the course of which he too spoke slightingly of his wife, possibly seeking to turn Sophy against her.[12] Effie's surviving letters to her parents suggest that Sophy kept her well informed of such adverse criticism.

After the annulment of her marriage, Effie avoided Millais for some time. She and Sophy, whose governess was not replaced, spent much of the summer at St Andrews, on the coast of Fife, with their younger sister, Alice (1845–1929).[13] They went for walks together and Effie, who had been well educated herself, acted as the others' teacher.[14] The following year, Effie eventually invited Millais to Bowerswell, where they were married in June 1855.

Sophy as muse[edit]

Sophy, centre, in Autumn Leaves. Alice Gray is on the left.

For the next few years Sophy continued to sit for Millais. After he and Effie moved to Annat Lodge, close to Bowerswell, she was readily available for this purpose, but it seems also that she was beginning to displace Effie herself as a favoured subject.[15] In the words of art historian Suzanne Fagence Cooper, whose biographical chapter about Sophy (2010) provides the fullest account of her life, Sophy "changes before our eyes from a child to a stunning teenager".[4] This change can be traced in three works by Millais: Autumn Leaves (1855–56), Spring (or Apple Blossom) (1856–59) and, most strikingly, in a small,[16] but "unnerving"[4] portrait of her at the age of 13, entitled Portrait of a Girl, or simply Sophy Gray (1857). Charles Edward Perugini also painted a portrait of Sophy as a young woman; the date is not known with certainty[17] and for some years it was attributed mistakenly to Millais.[18]

Millais' Spring (Apple Blossoms), with Sophy on the far left.

Autumn Leaves and Spring[edit]

In Autumn Leaves, Sophy is one of four girls beside a smoking bonfire of leaves. Her sister Alice was also in this picture, together with two local girls procured by Effie.[4][19] Of the four, only Sophy appears to be verging on womanhood.[20]

Spring is in some ways a complementary work. Eight girls (whose ages ranged from 12 to 15) recline in an orchard. Sophy is depicted in profile, wearing a colourful, striped robe, with long flowing hair, while Alice lies a little provocatively with a blade of grass in her mouth.

Sophy Gray and Sophy’s relationship with Millais[edit]

Sophy Gray is a very sensual, "knowing" and direct image, which, almost inevitably, has provoked questions about the nature of Millais’ relationship with his sister-in-law. There was undoubtedly a strong affection between them, which may well have grown into mutual infatuation. According to Mary Lutyens, who researched the lives of Effie, Ruskin and Millais,[21] it was rumoured that Effie had to send Sophy away because of concerns that she and Millais were growing too close, but there is no clear evidence of a more intimate relationship between them. Sophy's parents were content for Millais to chaperone her – for example, on an overnight train to London – and, whatever the truth of any rumour, Effie remained close to her sister and often invited her to stay after she and Millais moved back to London in 1861.[4] When Sophy later became very ill, Effie visited her frequently.[12]

Unlike Millais' 1854 portrait of Sophy, his later work was not kept by the family. It was sold to George Price Boyce, a friend of Millais' pre-Raphaelite "brother", Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who painted a portrait of Fanny Cornforth, a lover he shared with Boyce,[22] to hang alongside that of Sophy.[4] Entitled Bocca Baciata ("the mouth that has been kissed") after a theme in Boccacio's Decameron, Rossetti's picture (1859) was described by William Holman Hunt, another member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, as "remarkable for gross sensuality of a revolting kind ... I see Rossetti as advocating as a principle the mere gratification of the eye".[23] As Cooper has remarked, this "after-life" of Sophy Gray demonstrated its "erotic potential".[4]

In 2012 Autumn Leaves and Sophy Gray, the latter in a private collection, were displayed alongside each other in Tate Britain's major exhibition of Pre-Raphaelites, Victorian Avant-Garde.[24]

Mental illness and marriage[edit]

In 1868 Sophy became very unwell. It is clear from letters at the time that she was suffering from anorexia nervosa. She also became extremely restless and obsessed with music, especially piano playing. Her speech was often incoherent. In March 1869 Millais wrote to William Holman Hunt that Sophy had "been ill a whole year, and away from home, with hysteria".

At the request of the Grays, Millais placed Sophy at Manor Farm House, Chiswick under the care of Dr Thomas Harrington Tuke (1826–88), a leading practitioner in lunacy.[25] Tuke had treated Millais' friend, the painter Edwin Landseer,[4] and, a year or so after Sophy came to him, was involved in the case of Harriet Mordaunt, respondent in a scandalous divorce action.[26] Sophy lived with the family of one of Tuke's colleagues until she was well enough to move to lodgings in Hammersmith in 1869 and then back to Bowerswell.[4] Although the state of her health fluctuated, it was to remain a problem for her and a concern to others for the rest of her life.

Marriage to James Caird[edit]

On 16 July 1873 Sophy married James Key Caird (1837–1916), a Dundee jute manufacturer[27] who had courted her for several years. Caird was disliked by her family, who thought him two-faced and were still mindful of Effie's disastrous marriage to Ruskin. They would have been aware also that the port of Dundee had, for some time, been taking trade away from Perth.[28] However, attempts to dissuade Sophy from going ahead with the wedding were muted by fears of triggering a further collapse of her health.[4]

The Cairds' only child, Beatrix Ada, was born in 1874.[29] The father was notably absent during Sophy’s confinement, thereby intensifying bad feeling with her family. In 1875, he forbade Sophy from staying with Effie on her way to France[4] and, generally, at a time when his business was expanding, he seems to have been both inconsiderate and uncaring towards her.

Final years[edit]

Millais' 1880 portrait of Sophy

During her final years, Sophy spent much of her time alone with Beatrix, mostly living between Dundee and Paris. In 1880 Millais painted a final portrait of her, which was exhibited at the new Grosvenor Gallery. Mary Lutyens wrote of it that Millais "perhaps more than anyone, knew the secrets of Sophie's [sic] short life, and in her hauntingly sad expression portrayed an old sadness of his own."[17]

By then Sophy had become increasingly emaciated (the effects largely hidden from others by the weight of late Victorian clothing) and in 1882 returned to the care of Tuke.[4] She died on 15 March 1882, aged 38. Tuke gave the cause of death as exhaustion and "atrophy of nervous system, 17 years". Rumours that Sophy committed suicide have never been substantiated.[12]

Sophy's daughter, Beatrix Caird, who Millais painted in 1879,[30] died in 1888. James Caird subsequently used his wealth to support Ernest Shackleton's Trans-Antarctic expedition of 1914–17 and was a significant benefactor to the city of Dundee.[29] He became a baronet in 1913.[31]

Popular culture[edit]

In Emma Thompson's film, Effie Gray, completed in 2013, the part of Sophy is played by Polly Dartford. The film was delayed by legal proceedings about copyright, but was released in October 2014.[32]


  1. ^ This is the spelling preferred by Sophy's father and that used by Suzanne Fagenece Cooper who has researched original papers relating to the Gray family. "Sophie" has often been used by other writers.
  2. ^ a b Mervyn Williams (2012) Effie
  3. ^ See family tree in Suzanne Fagence Cooper (2010) The Model Wife: The Passionate Lives of Effie Gray, Ruskin and Millais at pp 240–1
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n Suzanne Fagence Cooper (2010) The Model Wife: The Passionate Lives of Effie Gray, Ruskin and Millais, chapter 12
  5. ^ Robert Brownell (2013) Marriage of Inconvenience; Mervyn Williams, op. cit.. Brownell makes this point rather more forcefully, suggesting that Sophy's parents had deliberately placed her as a chaperone in her sister's household because they were concerned about Effie's flirtatious behaviour. Sophy was ten years old in 1853.
  6. ^ Brownell, op.cit.
  7. ^ Brownell, op.cit.; Mervyn Williams, op.cit.
  8. ^ Ibid.
  9. ^ Phyllis Rose (1983) Parallel Lives, "Effie Gray & John Ruskin". Crawley, who probably had a prior inkling of what was afoot, remained on the train with Effie and her mother: Brownell, op.cit.; Williams, op.cit.
  10. ^ Rose, op. cit.
  11. ^ Franny Moyle (2009) Desperate Romantics: The Private Lives of the Pre-Raphaelites. A revisionist view of Effie's relationship with the wealthy Ruskin is that Effie, never short of male admirers, married him because her family was in financial difficulty and that, subsequently, Ruskin encouraged her relationship with Millais as a means of ending the marriage, threatening divorce if proceedings for annulment were not begun: Robert Brownell (2013) Marriage of Inconvenience; Michael Prodger in You, Mail on Sunday, 28 April 2013. It was even rumoured that the wedding between Ruskin and Effie has been brought forward to forestall baliffs: Rachel Campbell-Johnston, The Times Saturday Review, 23 August 2014.
  12. ^ a b c Mervyn Williams, op,cit.
  13. ^ Alice Elizabeth Gray, married George Stibbard 1874
  14. ^ Mervyn Wiliams, op,cit,
  15. ^ Effie had first sat for her future husband's The Order of Release in March 1853 and previously for other artists.
  16. ^ 30 x 23 centimetres: see Barringer, Rosenfeld & Smith (Tate, 2012) Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde
  17. ^ a b Kendall Smaling Wood, Christies catalogue, Victorian and Traditionalist Pictures, 2008.
  18. ^
  19. ^ Autumn Leaves is now in the Manchester Art Gallery and is still used frequently to illustrate autumnal themes and/or bonfires: see, for example, Country Life, 23 November 2011.
  20. ^ Barringer, Rosenfeld & Smith (Tate, 2012) Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde
  21. ^ Daughter of the architect Sir Edwin Lutyens, Mary Lutyens edited three books of Effie Gray's letters between 1965 and 1972.
  22. ^ J.B. Bullen in Oxford Today, Michaelmas Term 2011, vol 24, no 1
  23. ^ Letter to Thomas Combe, 12 February 1860, quoted in Laurence des Cars, The Pre-Raphaelites: Romance and Realism (New Horizons translation, 2000)
  24. ^ Barringer, Rosenfeld & Smith, op,cit.
  25. ^ Br Med J 1888 June 23; 1(1434):1364
  26. ^ Br Med J, loc.cit.; Elizabeth Hamilton (1999) The Warwickshire Scandal
  27. ^ The James Caird Society
  28. ^ Mervyn Williams, op.cit.
  29. ^ a b
  30. ^
  31. ^ As a result, both Effie and Sophy Gray married men who received baronetcies, Millais having been granted his in 1885 (in Effie's lifetime).
  32. ^ Rachel Campbell-Johnston, The Times Saturday Review, 23 August 2014

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