John Everett Millais’ painting, The Boyhood of Raleigh, which dates back to 1870, is an important artwork in the Tate Gallery’s collection. The painting depicts English navigator Walter Raleigh and his younger brother on the Devonshire coast, listening to a Genoese sailor’s tales of wonder on sea and land. This painting epitomised heroic imperialism prevalent in late Victorian Britain and remained popular in British culture well into the mid-twentieth century.
Millais’ artistic career was characterised by a broad range of subjects – including social issues, portraiture and landscapes – but he gained particular notoriety for his religious works. His earlier work Christ in the House of his Parents generated controversy due to its naturalistic portrayal of Mary and Joseph. His painting Ophelia embodies the precise historical and nature focus that Pre-Raphaelite art sought to underscore.
In this painting, Millais uses several symbolic elements to suggest Raleigh’s future adventures as an explorer while also foreshadowing his ultimate demise at execution by Queen Elizabeth I. A toy ship stands out in the foreground between young Raleigh’s feet while sharp edges of an anchor rest prominently against one side – perhaps metaphorically referring to “strike, man strike,” Ralph Lane’s command against Native Americans which became Raleigh’s last words before he faced execution gripping both history with the symbolism used within this magnificent artwork.