The Boyhood of Ralegh


T.N. Brushfield

Devon Notes & Queries, vol. I, (January 1900 to January 1901), illus. pp. 97- 101.

Prepared by Michael Steer

Brushfield’s Note describes and discusses the provenance and composition of Millais’ famous painting. Raleigh is shown as a boy listening with rapt attention to ‘tales of wonder on sea and land’ told by a Genoese sailor. The toy ship in the foreground suggests Raleigh’s future adventures, while the sharp edge of an anchor on the right may allude to the final words he uttered at his execution: ‘Strike, man, strike’. The Note’s author, Thomas Nadauld Brushfield (1828–1910) was an English alienist and antiquarian. On his retirement Brushfield settled at Budleigh Salterton, living in a Georgian house known as The Cliff, Cliff Road, near Hayes Barton, the birthplace of Sir Walter Ralegh. Brushfield made the career of Ralegh his main study for the rest of his life. He became a member of the Devonshire Association in 1882, was elected to the council in 1883, and was president in 1893–4. The extract, from a copy of a rare and much sought-after journal can be downloaded from  the Internet Archive. Google has sponsored the digitisation of books from several libraries. These books, on which copyright has expired, are available for free educational and research use, both as individual books and as full collections to aid researchers.

THE BOYHOOD OF RALEGH. The recent addition to the Tate Gallery of the late Sir J. G. Millais' painting of "The Boyhood of Ralegh" has directed the attention of the public to one of the most valuable works of that artist ; and there are several reasons for its being of especial interest to Devonians.

It was painted at Budleigh Salterton during a visit of the artist in 1869-70 ; the scenery of the background belongs to that place ; it contains the portrait of a sailor who resided there at that time ; it depicts an incident, and a very probable one, in the life-history of one of the greatest of the worthies of the county Sir Walter Ralegh; and it is believed to be the sole work of the painter relating to Devonshire. It was purchased by Mr. James Reiss in 1870, who paid either £800 or £900 for it, and, I am informed, would never allow it to be engraved. At his decease, it was bought by Mrs. Tate for the sum of £5,460, and was presented by her to the Tate Gallery. It is said : "This particular work was one that Sir Henry Tate was very anxious to obtain, so that he might make the series of pictures by Millais as complete as possible ; and, as no opportunity of securing it occurred during his life-time, his widow has now devotedly carried out his wish ; " and the nation now possesses, to quote a remark in the Athenaum," one of the most sympathetic and poetical of the great artist's works."

In 1869, Millais resided for a short time in a quaint looking structure in Budleigh Salterton, known as Octagon House (shown in the accompanying illustration), situated at the com- mencement of the Parade, opposite the last house on the other side of the roadway, to the left of which there was an uninterrupted view of the sea. The lower room on the ground floor was his studio, and in it he painted his Ralegh picture.

The canvas, 46 by 55 inches, depicts the figures of two boys and a sailor of the Elizabethan period. The latter, on the right, has his back to the spectator, and is seated on a balk of old ship timber, a rusty anchor lying close to it. He wears a slouch hat, wide red baggy breeches, and a coarse shirt ; and has bare arms and legs, which, with his face, are much sunburnt. His right arm is extended seawards, and he appears to be relating to the two boys whom he faces, some of his wondrous experiences during his voyages to foreign countries. The two boys are sitting on the ground ; one on the left has his hands clasped round his knees, and although his face is directed towards the speaker, his thoughts are evidently far distant ; the other, in the centre, rests his chin on his hands, and gazes at the sailor in a quiet listening attitude. A low stone wall extends across the background, and beyond it is the open sea, with a headland just peeping on the left; the foreground consists of sand and pebbles, and a tuft of thrift occupies the right hand corner. A toy ship and some articles of foreign origin lie scattered about.

In Notes on Some of the Principal Pictures of the artist, exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1886, and edited by Ruskin, is the following account of this painting, transcribed from The English School of Painting, p. 31, and there termed " The Youth of Raleigh " "The scene is laid on the sea-shore. Young Raleigh and his brother listen with eager attention to the wonderful accounts of a sailor who has touched at every port. He tells them of the regions of the sun, and of the lands of enchantment in the East ; he shews them some embroidered Indian work, and parrots' feathers, and they, in their childish imagination, wander in this world of fancy, traverse the Eldorado, enter the palace of the Aztec kings and the Inca temples ornamented with massive golden suns. They come upon secluded spots containing hidden treasures, where Indian captives seek concealment, and where spring the fountains of eternal youth. Raleigh little foresees the block and the scaffold awaiting him in the future. His one dream at present is to sail for the glorious land, Westward Ho."

There is a short account of the picture in the Life of Millais, by his son, J. G. Millais, 1899, and in it is recorded that the figures of the two boys were portraits of the writer's brothers, Everett and George (both now deceased); but for the sailor, who is entrancing them with romantic tales of the Spanish main, a professional was employed. The background was painted at Lady Rolle's place, on the Devonshire coast " (II., n, 474).

A few remarks on this statement are necessary. The younger boy, George, died of consumption at Cambridge, in August, 1878, aet. 19, so that he would be about eleven years old when the picture was painted. Everett was fourteen years old at that time, having been born in 1856; their portraits appear in the same volume (II, 92, 228).

The third figure is the portrait of an old sailor, a resident of Budleigh Salterton ; he had been many voyages, was afterwards in the coast-guard, and in 1870 acted as ferry- man across the river Otter at the end of the parade. He was a dark-visaged man named Vincent, a native of Jersey, and a well-known resident of the place. He frequently alluded with much pride to the circumstance of having had his portrait painted. My information was derived from the late Miss Gibbons, as well as from my friend, Dr. R. Walker, who saw the picture in progress on many occasions, was acquainted with Vincent, and knew he acted as a model to Millais. It is probable that the professional model noted by the painter's son (who informs me he was a Spaniard), was only employed when the painting was being completed in the artist's London studio, preparatory to its exhibition in the Royal Academy.

It is scarcely correct to say that the "background was painted at Lady Rolle's place."Budleigh Salterton is included in the Rolle estates, and after the death of Lord Rolle, in the early part of the century, they were inherited by the Hon. Mark Rolle, who still retains them. The stone wall shown in the background of the picture still remains, and is almost immediately opposite the lower right hand window of the painter's local studio. It acts as the boundary to the road, as well as to the termination of the brook on its passage to the sea. During the progress of the work, Sir John had some pebbles brought from the adjacent beach, and some thrift from the cliff, and placed them in front of the wall; these are depicted on the canvas. In a sketch of the figures contained in the Art Annual of 1885 (and reproduced in the Life of Millais, II, 17), that of the sailor is represented to be seated on a chair, but in the finished work this was altered piece of timber substituted. The left hand corner contains the artist's monogram, with the date, 1870, the year of its first exhibition in the Royal Academy. Being desirous of learning the authority for the scene he depicted, I wrote to Sir John, who courteously sent me the following reply:

Dear Sir,
The subject was suggested by Froude's "English Worthies." Raleigh's brother died young, he says, if I remember rightly.
Yrs very truly,

The only passage in Froude's writings that may have suggested the subject, is contained in this extract from his "England's Forgotten Worthies":

'At Greenway, near Dartmouth, Humfrey and Adrian Gilbert, with their half-brother, Walter Raleigh, here, when little boys, played at sailors in the reaches of Long Stream ; in the summer evenings doubtless rowing down with the tide to the port, and wondering at the quaint figure-heads and carved prows of the ships which thronged it ; or climbing on board, and listening, with hearts beating, to the mariners' tales of the new earth beyond the sunset." (Short Studies, I. [1868], 318). This article was first published in the Westminster Review, 1852. The second boy was more probably intended for one of the Gilberts, and not for Sir Walter's elder brother, Carew, who was known to be living as late as 1693 (we must bear in mind that Sir John's letter was written 23 years after he had executed the painting). However, the interest centres in the figure of Sir Walter, whose attitude in the picture serves to remind one of Kingsley's lines respecting him, as "looking down" from one of the Dartmoor heights "upon the far blue southern sea, wondering when he shall sail thereon, to fight the Spaniard, and discover, like Columbus, some fairy-land of gold and gems." (Works, XVI. [1880], 87-8, first published in the North British Review, 1839). There could not have been a more appropriate place for depicting Ralegh in his youth than Budleigh-Salterton, situated in the parish where he was born, and only a little over two miles, as the crow flies, from his birthplace. His father was in some way connected with the shipping interest, and both here and at Exmouth, young Ralegh probably listened to many tales of foreign climes and of the wonders to be seen there. It is a matter of great congratulation that the artist's great painting has found a permanent abiding-place in the Tate Gallery. The present account of it (many of the particulars were kindly furnished by the author of his father's Life) may fittingly close with the following lines, comparatively unknown, which fully embody the spirit of the painting.

On Sir John Millais' Picture:

Seaward he points across the sunlit bay
That western sailor with his rings of gold,
Whose gorgeous spoils, whose scars and gestures bold
Make real the wonder that his words convey.
And breathless on the jetty near him stay
Two boys ; one fired to win some treasure-hold,
One seeming, poet-like, in his heart to fold
Visions of sunset making western day.
But Gilbert perished in the Atlantic storm,
And others took his land; Raleigh in vain
Searched Orinoque for El Dorado's form.
Wealth fled and vision faded : yet again
Their sunset is our western sunrise warm,
Ours are the marvels of the Spanish main.
(The Grey friar. [1892], 98). L. H."