Sir John Everett Millais was one of the original group of young artists who formed the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1848. He was a child prodigy, extraordinarily gifted as a draughtsman before going on to become an innovative painter of modern and historical or literary subjects delineated in vivid detail, as well as one of the leading portrait painters of the age.

This remarkable image titled The Race Meeting embodies many of those talents in the compact format of an illustration, not to a separate work of literature but simply representing an incident from contemporary life.

The Race Meeting (1853) by Sir John Everett Millais

He began as a virtuoso of the pen-and-ink outline, at first influenced by Neo-classical drawings illustrating the stories of the Iliad by the sculptor John Flaxman, then adapting his line to an angular “gothic” style, and in the 1850s expanding his range to accommodate full-blown Dickensian narratives like this one.   

In an impressive feat of sheer compositional organisation, Millais presents a confused scene in many varied aspects: the chaos of an undisciplined crowd at a race meeting — the Epsom Derby — while at the same time succinctly telling a poignant story.

As one of the races takes place in the background, a drunken race-goer sits in his open carriage, behaving outrageously. His top hat with a favour, a “Derby doll”, stuck in its band, has fallen over his eyes, and he’s declaiming, or maybe singing, something probably obscene while a group of equally inebriated men cluster round to mock him and encourage his degrading behaviour. A half-eaten lunch lies on a table in the carriage, while beside it a filthy child gnaws a chicken’s leg, presumably discarded from this or some other picnic.  

Behind the child, a woman is begging for money from the drunken toff’s female companion — his wife or mistress, who is trapped in the carriage, overwhelmed by the more than embarrassing behaviour of her partner, and buries her face in her gloved hands, too ashamed to count herself a part of the proceedings.

She’s a representative of all the sensitive souls before and since who have wished themselves anywhere but in the distasteful context of the coarse world they find themselves in. It’s a shocking scene and very like one that Millais had actually witnessed at Epsom and described to a friend. But there is another dimension to the miserable story. 

The year in which he made this drawing was the year Millais spent a holiday in the Scottish Highlands with the art historian and critic John Ruskin and his new wife Effie. During that holiday, Millais and Effie fell in love. He must have been particularly sensitive at that time to the vulnerability of women in relation to their husbands: we know that Ruskin had been repelled by the physical aspects of marital relations and was about to render his connection with Effie void.

He was no drunkard or ogre but, himself a victim of Victorian inhibitions regarding sex, couldn’t give her the husbandly attention any wife was entitled to. The ardent young Millais came to her rescue; Ruskin was relieved to let her go, and the couple enjoyed a long and happy marriage. (A beautiful portrait of Ruskin by Millais, also in the Ashmolean Museum, was another product of the Scottish holiday.) 

So we might see the wretched wife or mistress in Millais’s Derby drawing as exemplifying the helpless, put-upon and victimised condition of many Victorian women. A number of artists whom Millais knew personally kept mistresses and second families, usually unbeknownst to their wives (who took to the bottle and were condemned for intemperance).

His vision of the Derby Day is a kind of allegory of the plight of women in 19th-century society: the surrounding ring of men, predatory, intrusive and insulting, are types of male aggression. We can recognise a Victorian #MeToo protest. 

And I might add, a type of all the sensitive souls, in any age, who are revolted by the coarseness and dishonesty of what passes for acceptable conduct in the society they find themselves trapped in. Millais’s contemporary morality tale applies as bitingly today as it did in 1853. Plenty of food for modern thought, surely.

Andrew Wilton was the first Curator of the Clore Gallery for the Turner Collection at Tate Britain and is the author of many works on the artist.