Now for something that everybody knows. Millais’ Princes in the Tower is less of a pictorial reference to Shakespeare or the representation of a well-known scene from English history than a reflection of his own time.
In this instance; Millais’ representation of the Princes embodies the Victorian tendency for the idealisation of childhood innocence and the supposedly inherent naturalness of unformed humanity- both of which developed as a response to the industrialisation of nineteenth century society and the influence that it exercised over the lives of adults and children alike.
The contrast between the children in the painting and known images of the working poor could not be more plain; and in this sense there are grounds to argue that Millais’ work provided the contemporary viewer with a pictorial refuge from the ugliness and inequality of Industrial Britain.
This habit of taking refuge in romanticised representations of the historical/literary past is a tendency that still exists today; but the contemporary symbolism of The Princes in the Tower does not end with the Princes themselves. The looming shadows in the painting could equally be seen to represent the sinister influence of a progressively industrial society- although it cannot be definitively ascertained that this view coincided with the intentions of the artist.
In relation to the play; the painting assumes a reasonably widespread familiarity with the historical past and key works of English literature, which in turn reflects the increased prosperity of those who benefited from Britain’s industrial growth – and it is a reasonably certain fact that, despite the availability of print culture, images of this kind would not have been widely seen in the mid to late nineteenth century.