John Everett Millais regarded The rescue (or ‘The Fireman’, as the artist himself usually referred to it) as one of his best paintings. As his submission to the Royal Academy exhibition in London in 1855, The rescue was a startlingly modern subject for Millais, who in 1848 had been a founding member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Millais’s intention in executing this painting was, as he told his friend and fellow artist Arthur Hughes just before starting work on it, ‘to honour a set of men quietly doing a noble work – firemen’ (John Guille Millais, The life and letters of Sir John Everett Millais, Methuen, London, 1899, p. 248).
At the time Millais painted The rescue, fire was an ever-present danger and a major hazard of city life. The London Fire Engine Establishment was still a relatively new entity, having been formed only in 1833, by an amalgamation of numerous separate insurance company fire brigades (the Metropolitan Fire Brigade was not created until 1865). In 1834 a spectacular fire in the heart of London had struck Westminster Palace, burning down the old Houses of Parliament and highlighting the crucial role of the city’s fire-prevention services. Millais himself was personally acquainted with serving members of the London Fire Engine Establishment.
The artist’s son John Guille Millais noted of The rescue:
I heard him say that before he commenced the work he went to several big fires in London to study the true light effects. The captain of the fire brigade was a friend of his, and one evening, when Millais and Mike Halliday were dining with him, he said, after several alarms had been communicated, ‘Now, Millais, if you want to see a first-class blaze, come along.’ Rushing downstairs, the guests were speedily habited in firemen’s overalls and helmets, and, jumping into a cab, were soon on the scene of action. (John Guille Millais, The life and letters of Sir John Everett Millais, Methuen, London, 1899, p. 254-55).
Such first-hand encounters made Millais determined to capture with as much realism as possible his dramatic depiction of a fiery rescue.