Q&A: Cultural historian Robert Hewison on Effie Gray

Published 14 October 2014

Ahead of a special event at the RA, one of our panellists tells us about the figures behind a 19th-century love triangle that scandalised the art world.

  • This week we caught up with cultural historian Robert Hewison to find out more about the upcoming Victorian period drama Effie Gray and the complex relationship between Effie and her husband, art critic John Ruskin.

    The film, written by Emma Thompson (who also appears in it as Lady Eastlake, wife of the President of the Royal Academy Charles Eastlake) stars Dakota Fanning as Effie, Greg Wise as Ruskin and Tom Sturridge as John Everett Millais RA.

  • How did you become involved in the making of the film 'Effie Gray'?

    I was told about the idea by one of the producers, Donald Rosenfeld, some four years ago. A year later I was shown a copy of Emma Thompson’s draft script, and then Donald asked me to act as a historical consultant on the film. As it turned out, my main role has been to act as more of a sounding board than an historical advisor.

  • Tell us more about Effie, the central character.

    Ruskinians like myself have tended to dislike Effie, who we saw as intelligent, but manipulative. The great thing about the movie is that we are asked to look at the relationship from her point of view. It shows that both Effie and Ruskin were dominated by Ruskin’s parents, who are brilliantly played by David Suchet and Julie Walters, as the real villains of the piece.

  • David Suchet, Greg Wise and Julie Walters in 'Effie Gray'

    David Suchet, Greg Wise and Julie Walters in 'Effie Gray'

    © David Levinthal 2013

  • The demise of the marriage of Effie Gray and John Ruskin is shrouded in sensation and intrigue. Can you tell us briefly what happened?

    Boy meets girl, girl wants to get married. Boy wants to put off having children for a bit, and in the process discovers he is not in love with girl after all. Girl meets artist. Artist falls in love with girl. Girl leaves boy, marries artist. Has eight children. The end.

  • What do you think this film reveals about the art world at the time of Effie Gray and John Ruskin?

    That – as always – young artists have to struggle to get their ideas accepted, and that – as always – it helps to have a critical champion. Pity that Millais ran off with his champion’s wife, however… (Or perhaps not).

  • Video

    Watch a clip from 'Effie Gray' in which John Ruskin, played by Greg Wise, tells a meeting of artists at the Royal Academy about his views on his truth and beauty in art.

  • Effie Gray - Behind the scenes

    Effie Gray - Behind the scenes

    © David Levinthal 2013

  • The film portrays Ruskin as a complex and in many ways vulnerable man, yet his intellectual writings and philanthropic tendencies were hugely influential. In what way did he shape art as we understand it today?

    In terms of art, he championed first JMW Turner, and then the Pre-Raphaelites. But his influence was much wider than that, since he became as great a social critic as art critic. He reminds us, especially today, that ‘there is no wealth but life’.

  • How did the 'cult of innocence' play into Ruskin's relationships?

    I think it was probably pretty damaging – though Ruskin was not as innocent about women’s bodies as the endlessly repeated myth [Ruskin was said to have fainted at the sight of Effie’s pubic hair on their wedding night] suggests. It certainly affected his later relationship with Rose La Touche. But that’s another story…

  • Join Robert Hewison in conversation with screen legends Claudia Cardinale and James Fox and film producer Andreas Roald, as they discuss the mysterious relationship between Ruskin and Effie Gray and the making of the film in our special event on Saturday 18 October.

    Robert Hewison is an expert on Ruskin. He has published multiple titles on aspects of his work and ideas, and in 2000 co-curated the Ruskin centenary exhibition at Tate Britain.

    Amy Bluett is part of the Adult Learning Programme at the RA.

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