Chill October

John Everett Millais, Chill October, 1870, oil on canvas, 141cm x 186-7cm, Private Collection

This bleak scene of boggy ground beside the river Tay at Kinfauns near Perth in Scotland was admired by Van Gogh as ‘not the least beautiful’ of the works he had seen by the British artist Millais, a painter he told his brother Theo ‘I like very much indeed’.[1] We might indeed view Millais’s picture as already exploring something of the sense of the mood and atmosphere of peatlands that was to fascinate Van Gogh in his own work some years later at Drenthe in Holland (see Women on the Peat Moor However, unlike Women on the Peat Moor, and in contrast also to his own earlier ‘Pre-Raphaelite’ work, Millais makes the landscape as such the bearer of feeling and emotion. The painter’s implied presence is the only human element, as reeds, cotton grass, and alders or willows bend and sway in the wind, and birds scatter faintly against the damp sky: autumn has arrived, and with it a sense of decline, decay and loss. 

We are, however, less remote from cities than might at first be supposed. The scene portrayed lay next to the Perth-Dundee railway line, that Millais knew well from visits to his wife’s family in Perthshire. He had a special ‘platform’ constructed on which to place his easel on the unstable terrain, and explained that ‘The traveller between Perth and Dundee passes the spot where I stood. Danger on either side – the tide, which once carried away my platform, and the trains, which threatened to blow my work into the river….I painted every touch from Nature, on the canvas itself, under irritating trials of wind and rain…’.[2]

John Guille Millais, the artist’s son, recalled that ‘While the work was in progress he [Millais] kept the picture at the stationmaster’s hut close by….and every morning and evening the railway porter, a well-known character, used to help him to and fro with his canvas and easel’; this porter himself later described how ‘“Mr. Mullus wud sit heer a’ day, jist titch titch wi’ they bit brushes. A’ dinna ken how the man cud dae it, it was that cauld”’.[3] When the painting was sold in 1871, the porter could in turn not believe that ‘Mr. Mullus had got a thoosand poonds for yon picture he painted heer…it’s a verra funny thing, but a’ wudna hae gien half-a-croon for it mysel’.[4] This astonishment is a telling reflection of the radical nature, at the time, of Millais’s motif: here is a chill dank bog, not a sunny Italian landscape, nor even a Highland moor under the drama of storms, as captured in our pictures by Turner and Wintour. Millais believed, however, that there was ‘more significance and feeling in one day or a Scotch autumn than in a whole half-year of spring and summer in Italy’.[5] And also, surely, in the bog’s inner life of insects, plants, and micro-organisms – what we would now call its biodiversity. A corner of wilderness, patiently observed at the year’s fag-end, is more important, this picture seems to suggest, than the traditional geographies and seasons of beauty, to which, of course, the railway, was widening access in the nineteenth century.  

Clare A.P. Willsdon

[1] Vincent Van Gogh, letters to Theo Van Gogh, no. 122, Amsterdam, Sunday, 15 July 1877 ( ) and no. 017, London, beginning of January 1874 ( See also (all accessed 12.10.2021).

[2] From label by Millais on the back of the painting, cited in Alan Bowness et al, The Pre-Raphaelites, exh. cat., The Tate Gallery 1984, p. 219.

[3] John Guille Millais, The Life and Letters of Sir John Everett Millais, Vol. 2, New York 1899, pp. 29-30.

[4] Ibid., p. 30.

[5] Marion H. Spielmann, Millais and his Works, 1898, quoted in ibid., p. 219.