Introduction: a Pre-Raphaelite illustrator

‘Ford Madox Brown is [best] known for his work as a painter and relatively little has been written on his accomplishments as an illustrator’. So comments Laura MacCulloch in her extended study of the artist’s work on paper (p. 140). Brown was nevertheless an important contributor to the development of Pre-Raphaelite illustration whose style and approach is central to the movement’s aesthetics.

The Prisoner of Chillon

The Prisoner of Chillon. [Click on images to enlarge them.]

Brown produced only a few designs and several of these were directly linked to the Brotherhood. His first illustration, ‘Cordelia’, was an etching for The Germ (3, 1850) and he later produced what Goldman describes as a ‘sensual’ illustration (p.9) for Dante Rossetti’s poem, ‘Down Stream’ (The Dark Blue, 1871). Brown’s work also appeared in books where the Pre-Raphaelites were strongly represented, notably in R. A. Willmott’s The Poets of the Nineteenth Century (1857), to which he contributed a design for Byron’s ‘The Prisoner of Chillon’; and he was supposed to have contributed to the Moxon edition of Tennyson’s Poems (1857), working in conjunction with the leading Pre-Raphaelites. This project did not come to fruition, and is one of the great losses of the age.

Brown’s work was more generally informed by a Pre-Raphaelite emphasis on strong figure drawing, dramatic situations and the close observation of detail which is emblematic, real and symbolic at the same time. Fusing human nature and nature, he presents his characters in concrete settings which are clearly modelled on reality, and mediate, in the manner of Pre-Raphaelite sacramentalism, between the material and the intangible. In the words of William Michael Rossetti in his introduction to The Germ (1901), he fuses ‘first hand study of Nature’ and his ‘own powers of mind’ (p.6), so creating ‘the intimate intertexture of a spiritual sense with a material form; small actualities made vocal of lofty meanings’ (p.18). His work further embodies aspects of second-stage Pre-Raphaelitism, especially in his designs for Catherine Winkworth’s translation of poems, Lyra Germanica (1868).

The study of nature is exemplified by the factual approach of Brown’s most accomplished design, The Prisoner of Chillon. The image responds to lines mentioning a dead body, and Brown famously tackled his subject by studying directly from a corpse. His account, complete with errors of spelling and grammar, is preserved in his diary:

Out shopping, then to University hospital to ask John Marshall about a dead boddy. He got the one that will just do. It was in the vaults under the dissecting room. When I saw it first, what with the dim light, the brown and parchment like appearance of it & the shaven head, I took it for a wooden simulation of the thing. Often as I have seen horrors I really did not remember how hideous the shell of a poor creature many remain when the substance contained has fled. Yet we both in our joy at the obtainment of what we sought declared it to be a lovely & a splendid corps [qtd. Goldman, p.10]

This ‘splendid corps’ appears, with small alterations, in the illustration’s foreground. Presented in service of a Gothicising text, it intrudes an unusually direct representation of the stark facts of death, an effect amplified by its bold projection into the viewer’s space. Forrest Reid comments on the way in which the image ‘leaves an ineffaceable impression on the mind’ (p.49), and in a recent essay Lorraine Janzen Kooistra has linked it to mid-Victorian anxieties about mortality, the decay of the body, and the terrible emptiness of a purely material world (pp.101–106).

Brown’s Pre-Raphaelite observation is also put to less troubling purposes. In his three designs for the Dalziel’s Bible Gallery (1880/81) he creates what is essentially an antiquarian’s version of the settings of the Old Testament. Drawing heavily on text-books, he presents a notion of the past that enshrines ‘the latest archaeological and historical research’ (MacCulloch, ‘Fleshing Out’ Time, p.131) and is made as tangible as if his images were journalistic records of specific events.

Left to right: (a) Elijah and the Widow’s Son. (b) At the Sepulchre. [Click on these images for larger pictures.]

Produced in the early 1860s but not published for almost twenty years, the Gallery designs further read as prime examples of the Pre-Raphaelite emphasis on human nature. The most impressive illustration is Elijah and the Widow’s Son. This is made as tangible as possible – notably in the treatment of the coruscating light – but the engraving’s strength lies in its deeply moving representation of a dramatic moment where Elijah carries the resurrected child back into his mother’s protection. The three figures are sharply characterized, and the composition’s dramatic diagonal, leading our gaze to right to left, powerfully conveys the idea of the boy’s rescue from death as he is he re-connected with his physical life. Partly inspired by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld’s version of the scene in the famous Picture Bible (1860), Brown’s design is genuinely uplifting, and this effect is underscored by its deployment of symbolic details. A swift (or house-martin) returns to the house, a small symbol of the return of the boy’s soul; a candle-flame, the emblem of faith, burns in the upstairs room; chickens mill around; and fruit and bread are glimpsed in the dark interior. All of these are Pre-Raphaelite signs – real things that suggest the theme of life, generation, and simple, earthly pleasures.

Brown’s other religious works take other strategies, however. In his illustrations for Winkworth’s Lyra Germanica (1868) he moves towards a more abstract approach, depicting each of his scenes in a flat, linear style which is markedly different from the painterly, realistic idiom of the Gallery pictures. In ‘At the Sepulchre’ he combines touching portraiture and telling gestures with a dense interlace of swirling lines; each head is surrounded by a flat aureole in the manner of Early Italian painting, and the archaic effect is completed by labelling the saints’ names within their haloes. This device is also used in Rossetti’s first Pre-Raphaelite painting, The Girlhood of Mary Virgin (1849), and in Brown’s illustration, as in Rossetti’s oil, the aim is to invoke the spirit of the painters before Raphael.

This approach connects Brown’s work for Winkworth to the earliest stages of Pre-Raphaelitism, but his designs also prefigure the decorative style of the movement’s second stage. In ‘He that soweth to the spirit’ and ‘Abraham’ the style is still and heraldic; placed within narrow vertical frames, their linearity strongly recalls the artist’s designs for stained glass windows and can be meaningfully linked to his work in Troutbeck Church, Cumbria.

Three stained glass windows by Brown in Troutbeck Church, Cumbria. The panel at left contains work by both Brown and Burne-Jones, but the two at right are entirely by Brown. [Click on these images for larger .]

Positioned within the book’s elaborate Anglican iconography (which includes a High Gothic binding design by John Leighton), all three designs look like pieces of applied art produced under the auspices of Morris and Company, and were produced (1861–62) at the same time as the Firm was set up (1861).

Brown’s illustrations might thus be read as images signifying within the discourse of Pre-Raphaelitism. Produced mainly from 1848 to 1863, they change in response to developments within the idiom, moving from storytelling to a more decorative approach. This decorativeness can also be traced in his little-known designs for Byron’s Poetical Works [1871]. Small scale and congested, these steel-plate etchings create intricate, miniature, oppressive worlds to complement the epic scale of the wood-engravings in the Bible Gallery.

Works cited and Consulted

Byron’s Poetical Works. Ed. William Michael Rossetti. London: Moxon, n.d. [1870].

Dalziels’ Bible Gallery. London: Routledge, 1881 [1880].

Goldman Paul. Victorian Illustration: The Pre-Raphaelites, the Idyllic School and the High Victorians. Aldershot: Scolar Press, 1996, rev. ed. 2004.

Kooistra, Lorraine Janzen. ‘Science and Art: Vestiges of Corpses in Pre-Raphaelite Illustrations’. Reading Victorian Illustration, 1855 –1875. Eds. Paul Goldman and Simon Cooke. Burlington, V.T: Ashgate, 2012, pp.97–114.

MacCulloch, Laura. ‘“Fleshing Out Time”: Ford Madox Brown and the Dalziels’s Bible Gallery’. Reading Victorian Illustration, 1855 –1875. Eds. Paul Goldman and Simon Cooke. Burlington, V.T: Ashgate, 2012, pp.115–136.

MacCulloch, Laura. Ford Madox Brown: Works on Paper and Archival Material at Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery. Unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Birmingham, 2009.

Reid, Forrest. Illustrators of the Eighteen Sixties. 1928; reprint, New York: Dover, 1975.

Rossetti, William Michael. ‘Introduction’. The Germ: The Literary Magazine of the Pre-Raphaelites. Reprint of the 1901 edition. Oxford: Ashmolean Museum; Birmingham: Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery, 1979.

Tennyson, Alfred. Poems by Alfred Tennyson. London: Moxon, 1857.

Willmott, R.A. The Poets of the Nineteenth Century. London: Routledge, 1857.

Winkworth, Catherine (translator). Lyra Germanica. London: Longmans, Green, Reader & Dyer, 1868.


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Last modified 18 June 2013