Crabtree Watching the Transit of Venus. AD 1639. Completed 1883. Ford Madox Brown (1821-1893). Gambier Parry method (see Introduction to the Manchester Murals). Downloaded and reproduced here from "Ford Madox Brown Murals" by kind permission of Manchester City Council. Commentary and formatting by Jacqueline Banerjee. [Click on the image for a larger picture.]

According to John Archer, this is the seventh in the sequence of the Manchester Town Hall murals, but the fifth to have been completed (81). Although, as Brown's grandson and biographer admits, it is "not a work of very great complication" (Ford 360), the detail, colour and composition are all rich and appealing. It may indeed be some people's favourite.

Set in the seventeenth century, the mural shows local linen-draper William Crabtree looking raptly at the transit of Venus across the sun, as seen with the aid of a telescope and home-made projection screen, in his dark attic room. His wife looks on, forgetting her knitting, holding their baby to her shoulder and keeping charge of their little boy. Crabtree's astronomical book and compass lie forgotten on the floor in front of his feet, his tape-measure trails from his pocket, and his pipe and perhaps a marker lie behind him. He must have leapt up from his stool in excitement, for it is there by his other foot, over-turned. He was meant to get some figures to corroborate his astronomer friend's prediction about the phenomenon, but he forgot (see Treuherz 297). Nevertheless he was able to confirm an error that this friend (Jeremiah Horrox) had found in Kepler's tables.

The composition is inspired. The shaft of light from the telescope in the top right-hand corner passes behind Crabtree's wife's head, reaching almost directly to his heart, before illuminating the little screen pinned up on one raised leaf of the wooden table in front of him. The draper's hands are fervently clutched over his heart, too. It does not matter that Crabtree was not an important astronomer, by no means as important as Horrox himself (the complaint made against this subject by William Axon, the local antiquarian who criticised this and other choices of subjects for the murals). Brown's vision of the incident focuses on the excitement of scientific discovery, its impact on even the most ordinary of folk, and of course its promise for the future of textile-producing Manchester.

This mural in particular brings to mind Sidney Colvin's earlier eulogy of Brown, even though the art critic gives an entirely different kind of painting (a highly dramatic scene from the Old Testament) as an example of the first qualities he mentions:

in much of his work there is immense and sincere beauty both of invention and of colour; there is the tenderest sweetness as well as the shrewdest originality of feeling ; there are dignity, pathos, learning, hard thought, and powerful execution all together, as in Elijah with the Widow's Son; there is a convincing truth as well as a stimulating novelty in the expression of character; there is sometimes a quaint and almost touching vein of humour, or rather of that peculiar temper which sees and reproduces a humorous adjustment of things, a situation of quaint or exaggerated character, without quite acknowledging the joke of it. (36)

Related Material


Archer, John H. G.. "Manchester Town Hall." Manchester. Pevsner Architectural Guides. London: Penguin, 2001. 71-83. Print.

Colvin, Sidney. "Ford Madox Brown." English Painters of the Present Day: Essays. By J. Beavington Atkinson, et al. London: Seely, Jackson and Halliday, 1871. 31-36. Internet Archive. Web. 25 April 2012.

Ford, Ford Madox. Ford Madox Brown: A Record of His Life and Work. London: Longmans, 1896. Internet Archive. Web. 25 April 2012.

Treuherz, Julian, with contributions by Kenneth Bendiner and Angela Thirlwell. Ford Madox Brown: Pre-Raphaelite Pioneer. London: Philip Wilson, 2011. Print

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Last modified 25 April 2012