Millais was born in Southampton, the youngest son of John William Millais. The family was of Norman origin but had been settled for generations in Jersey and they returned to the island shortly after the child’s birth. Millais showed extraordinary precocity as a draughtsman and, having received some tuition from a Jersey drawing master, he came to London in 1838, at the age of nine, with an introduction to Sir Martin Archer Shee, President of the Royal Academy. He attended the School of Henry Sass; then, in 1840, at the age of eleven, he was entered as a student at the Royal Academy where he carried off every prize. He showed for the first time at the Royal Academy in 1846. Two years later he formed the ‘Pre-Raphaelite’ movement, first with Holman Hunt and then Dante Gabriel Rossetti. One of the movement’s most avid supporters was John Ruskin. Millais subsequently married Ruskin’s wife, Euphemia (Effie) Gray, after she had obtained a divorce from Ruskin on the grounds of ‘nullity.’
Many of Millais’ paintings from his Pre-Raphaelite period have since become icons, but, in truth, the inspired quality in paint of his detailed observation became diluted with time as he acquired ever-greater status as a highly successful Victorian portrait painter. For all that, his finest portraits, such as those of Gladstone and Henry Irving, are very impressive. The DNB comments, ‘He was the life of his own family, and regarded with affection by a very large and distinguished circle of acquaintance; but he did not care for ordinary social gatherings, and preferred to spend his evenings at the Garrick Club, where he was sure to meet a number of congenial friends.’ Millais was unanimously elected President of the Royal Academy in January 1896, on the death of Lord Leighton, but he himself died later the same year. Millais became a member of the Garrick Club in 1855.