This little picture belongs to a group that Millais painted in the mid-1840s, two or three years before the foundation of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1848. They were commissioned by Ralph Thomas (1803-1862), sergeant-at-law-cum-picture-dealer, who lived at Stratford Place, running north of Oxford Street just west of Marylebone Lane. They met in 1845, when Millais was only sixteen, and Thomas gave him a two-year contract to paint him pictures or add backgrounds to existing works. Payment was meagre, whether the figure was £100 per annum, as J.G. Millais claimed in his Life and Letters of his father (1899), or a guinea a day, as Millais' great friend William Holman Hunt recalled when describing the episode in his autobiography (1905).
There are other discrepancies in the records. According to J.G. Millais, his father worked for Thomas 'every Saturday', while Hunt believed that Thomas - 'the Chartist barrister', as he calls him - expected the boy to produce him a picture 'every day or two'. All, however, are agreed that Millais undertook the work at Thomas's house, where, according to Hunt, he would stay on for dinner with the lawyer and his wife, 'discussing the subject to be treated on the morrow. This was essentially of simple character, a mountebank showing his tricks, girls gathering fruit in an orchard, a shepherd driving sheep, a tired tramp having water given to him by children at a cottage door, and such-like'.
In view of the general consensus that Millais painted his pictures for Thomas at the latter's house, it is curious that the present work shows every sign of being executed en plein air. Whatever the explanation, the approach anticipates that of Millais' Pre-Raphaelite masterpieces of the 1850s.
Thomas's son, also Ralph, who wrote a pamphlet on his father's relationship with Millais in 1901, claimed that the lawyer was a good friend to young artists, but in Millais' case he seems to have taken advantage of the youth's age and inexperience. This emerges in both the accounts, J.G. Millais describing his father as 'worried beyond measure' by his patron's 'constant interference, his restrictive rules, and his general insolence of manner'.
Eventually there was a blazing row, Millais flinging a palette at his tormentor's head and slamming the door as he left the house, vowing never to return. Subsequently, however, they made it up; Thomas raised the artist's annual salary to £150 and Millais continued to work for him, possibly even beyond the expiry of his contract. A portrait of his employer in Tate Britain is dated 1848.
We are grateful to Dr Malcolm Warner and Dr Jason Rosenfeld for their help in preparing this catalogue entry.