As I admired the autumn landscapes Millais painted towards the end of his life in Perthshire, I thought of a casual remark made to me recently by the great pianist Mitsuko Uchida. Speaking about Brahms’s yellow-leaved late piano pieces, Uchida – with a kind of chill in her voice – said: “I have the feeling he never had a summer.” But Millais’s autumn doesn’t have the undertone of aching regret that sounds through the Brahms intermezzi.

The painting I spent most time with at the Tate Britain’s Millais exhibition was “Lingering Autumn”. It shows the mill-stream at Murthly looking south towards the river Tay, which gleams in the middle distance. In the right foreground, a young girl carrying a watering can walks away from the stream and the sluice-gate. There are purple hills in the distance, and a subtle pale blue sky. It must be late autumn, November, but the weather is set fair – winter and cold and storm are absent.

The last room of the show at Tate Britain gathers 12 large-scale Scottish landscapes – the biggest collection assembled, many of them in private hands and unlikely to be shown publicly again. They are autumn scenes in part because autumn was the season Millais liked to spend with his large family in Perthshire, the time of special light and extravagant colour and the time of the autumn salmon-run and the grouse-shooting. But that is not the whole story.

Millais precedes the title “Lingering Autumn” with a couplet from John Donne: “Nor spring nor summer hath such grace/ As I have seen in one autumnal face.” This is a well-known quotation, but probably few who know it remember that it comes from Donne’s most erotic sequence, the Ovid-inspired Elegies (including the spectacularly raunchy “On His Mistress Going to Bed”). Elegy IX “The Autumnall” is not really about autumn at all, but concerns the joys of loving a mature woman. It is certainly not the work of an old has-been, but of a young wit, rapier-sharp and primed for action: “Young beauties force our love, and that’s a Rape,/ This doth counsaile, yet you cannot scape.”

Here is the secret of great autumnal art: it doesn’t renounce love, in either Greek senses of philia (warm affection) or eros (sexual passion), but refines and suffuses it.

Another Millais autumn landscape that greatly attracted me was “Scotch Firs: The Silence That Is in the Lonely Woods”: not obviously erotic, perhaps, with its emphasis on Wordsworthian solitude, but full of excitement and delight in the textures and colours of autumn, a tingle of pine needles against an intense blue sky.

Some of the great autumnal art, though, focuses directly on eros. Just along the river from Tate Britain in the National Gallery, you can see Titian’s late, great, mysterious depiction of Diana and Actaeon. Two things stand out for me in this masterpiece, apparently painted when Titian was nearly 90: the absence of the obviously dramatic, as the horrible scene of the man-deer hunted by his own hounds blends seamlessly into an autumn landscape, and Diana’s blood-red nipples, the ultimate reward and price.

Autumnal erotic art need not shun drama. One of my most-played long-playing records contains the two string quartets that Leos Janacek composed near the end of his life when he had fallen in love with a young married woman, Kamila Stosslova. The first, inspired by Tostoy’s novella The Kreutzer Sonata, is dark and tragic; the second, Intimate Letters, which Janacek wrote in his last year, is the most passionately subjective work in the entire string quartet literature – and ultimately joyful. 

Now that old vinyl disc, played with idiomatic virtuosity by the Janacek Quartet, has been joined in my collection by a new version recorded by the Dante Quartet. I think the Dantes capture the ecstatic intensity of Janacek’s vision with an equally moving vulnerability. “In that work,” Janacek wrote to Kamila, “I’ll be always only with you…You know, don’t you, that I know no world other than you!” Janacek, aged 74, doesn’t seem to have learnt the lesson of Donne’s “The Autumnall”: “That was her torrid and inflaming time,/ This is her tolerable Tropique clyme.”

Millais in “Lingering Autumn” does not reach for romantic ecstasy (though he couldn’t help including a young girl in this supposed autumn scene). What struck me as I continued to absorb this magnificent painting was its comprehensiveness of view. In the clear autumn light, everything is held and has its beauty, without apparent drama or passion. But if the spending of passion is usually seen as a deficit, here you could say that compassion has taken its place. Lingering autumn may not have the promise of spring but it can be the time when a whole lifetime’s perception and experience – and love – is gathered together, the most precious time of all.

Millais’, Tate Britain, London, to January 13 2008. The show will also travel to Amsterdam and Japan, details on www.tate.org.uk/britain

harry.eyres@ft.com

www.ft.com/eyres

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