Sir John Everett Millais Bt. PRA, William Ewart Gladstone

William Ewart Gladstone, 1881

After Sir John Everett Millais Bt. PRA (1829 - 1896)

RA Collection: Art

Thomas Oldham Barlow submitted this portrait of Gladstone as his Diploma Work (it was accepted 1 November 1881). It was one of several engravings Barlow made after his friend J.E. Millais over the course of a long working relationship which began when Barlow engraved Millais’ The Huguenot in 1856. Barlow engraved many important pictures by Millais, including some of the artist’s most notable late portraits including John Bright (1882), Cardinal Newman (1884), Henry Irving (1885), and The Marquis of Salisbury (1887).

Barlow was elected an associate engraver to the Royal Academy in on 28 January 1873, and became an Associate of the Royal Academy three years later. Following the retirement of Samuel Cousins in 1881, Barlow was elected Royal Academician—only the fourth engraver to have been so honoured.

Millais painted Gladstone in 1879 while he was leading the Liberal opposition, shortly before he became Prime Minister for a second time in the general election of April 1880. The portrait was exhibited at the R.A. in 1879 and purchased shortly after by Agnew’s for £1000. Still in 1879, Agnew’s sold the painting to Gladstone’s sympathizer Hugh Lupus, first duke of Westminster. The dealer’s arrangement with Millais included copyright (a standard practice of the day), which meant that even after selling on the picture Agnew’s was able to publish this mezzotint by Barlow in 1881. This print, T. Wemsyss Reid observed in 1888, went on to ‘form the popular adornment of thousands of Liberal homes’ (Reid, ‘Mr Gladstone and his Portraits’, Magazine of Art, 1888, p.84). As a recent engraving of a portrait exhibited at the RA, Barlow’s engraving of the Gladstone portrait was an obvious choice as his Diploma Work in 1881.

In 1885 the friendship between Barlow and Millais was reinforced when the engraver was portrayed twice by the painter: in a portrait exhibited at the RA in 1886 (now in the Oldham Art Gallery and Museum); and (sitting for the figure of the ornithologist John Gould) in the most ambitious painting of Millais’ later years, The Ruling Passion (also known as The Ornithologist). This picture was exhibited at the RA in 1885 and is now in Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow.

This before-letters proof, signed in pencil by the sitter, the painter and the engraver, was accepted as Barlow's diploma work at a RA Council meeting held on 1 November 1881. At a previous meeting on 14 July 1881 Council had rejected it as not fulfilling the requirement 'that a diploma work must be specially done'. It is not known for certain what allayed Council's concerns in the meantime - possibly it was realised that the previous decision was based on a misinterpretation of the laws (diploma works do not have to be produced with any prior intention of submission). In this particular case however there may well have been an underlying worry in Council over accepting a print that had been commissioned by a commercial publisher / art dealer. If so, it probably counted for much that this particular impression was demonstrably 'hors de commerce'.

Object details

William Ewart Gladstone
Engraved by
Published by
Object type
Mixed-method engraving

480 mm x 350 mm

Royal Academy of Arts
Object number
Diploma Work given by Thomas Oldham Barlow RA accepted 1 November 1881

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