Art as advertising - Sir John Millais' 'Bubbles'


Art as advertising - Sir John Millais' 'Bubbles'

'Bubbles' (originally titled 'A Child's World') is an 1886 painting by Pre-Raphaelite artist Sir John Everett Millais. It is most famous for being used as an advertisement for Pears' soap over many generations.

The painting is one of many of Millais' child portraits, and was modelled by his five-year-old grandson William Milbourne James. Based on 17th-century Dutch precursors in the tradition of 'vanitas' imagery, it was designed to explore the transience of life - with the innocence of the child's fixation upon the bubble contrasting with the gloomy background and the fallen, shattered pot.

Sir William Ingram of 'The Illustrated London News' acquired the portrait for his weekly newspaper. The image was seen by the managing director of A & F Pears, Thomas J. Barratt - who purchased the painting from Ingram for £2,200. This allowed him exclusive copyright on the picture.

Barratt sought Millais' permission to utilise the image for Pears' advertising, but Millais was apprehensive at first. Once he had seen the proofs, though, he began to appreciate the idea - which modified the painting to present the child as using Pears' soap to make bubbles.

The advertisement proved a success, but Millais was the subject of attack by novelist Marie Corelli, who accused him of exploiting his talent for commercial purposes. Millais' son later claimed that his father had attempted to stop the advertisement being made, but had been advised that he had no legal power to do so.

William Milbourne James (the portrait's subject) later became an admiral in the Royal Navy, and was known as 'Bubbles' for the remainder of his life. A&F Pears' itself was later acquired by Lever Brothers, the soap-making giant now part of Unilever, and the painting is in their ownership. It has been in Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight, since 2006.

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