Dalton Collecting Marsh-Fire Gas. Ford Madox Brown (1821-1893). Completed 1887. 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 by Jacqueline Banerjee.

This was the twelfth and last in the series, but the ninth to be completed. It shows the scientist John Dalton, whose fine statue by Sir Francis Chantrey is the entrance vestibule to the town hall. It may seem strange to see the great man stirring up muddy water in a swampy pool, with a boy helping him, and a gaggle of other children (and a cow), looking on — especially as this painting was intended to bring "the whole [series of murals] into touch with modern methods of thought" (Ford 377). But it was typical of Brown to show advance built on, and in the context of, ordinary folk. This is how he himself described the composition:

John Dalton, inventor of the Atomic Theory.... is represented as collecting marsh-fire gas, one of the natural and primitive forms of gas. The mode of getting it is the usual one of stirring-up the mud of a stagnant pond, while an assistant (in this case a farmer's boy) catches the bubbles as they rise in a wide-mouthed bottle, having a saucer ready to close up the mouth under the water when the bottle is full. A group of children are watching him, and the eldest, who has charge of them, is telling the little boy, who is bent on catching sticklebacks, that "Mr. Dalton is catching Jack o' Lanterns" — marsh-fire gas being, when on fire, the substance the '"Will o' the Wisp" is composed of. (379)

The town councillors preferred the subject of Dalton, like that of The Opening of the Bridgewater Canal, to the Peterloo Massacre At first, Brown had been doubtful about making an interesting picture of it. But when he found that Dalton had once been a schoolmaster, he warmed to it (see Teuherz 308).

The importance of Dalton's experiment is hardly obvious here, and it might seem rather a muted finale for Brown's own great project. However, the painting successfully connects scientific advance both with the rural past and the younger generation: the child waiting in the wings may also, one day, be "fishing" for something far more exciting than sticklebacks. Hints of the essential continuity and progress of life make a reassuring and also hopeful way of concluding the series.

Unlike the frescos painted earlier by William Dyce in the Queen's Robing Room at the Palace of Westminster, or by the Pre-Raphaelites in the Old Library of the Oxford Union, the Manchester Town Hall Murals are not from Arthurian romance and "hauntingly beautiful" (Lionel Lambourne's description of the Oxford ones, 51). As history paintings go, they are not sweepingly epic either, like Daniel Maclise's panoramic The Meeting of Wellington and Blücher at Waterloo and The Death of Nelson at Trafalgar (1865) in the Royal Gallery of the House of Lords. Except perhaps in Brown's depiction of the beleagured Wycliffe, there is little here of that "contagious heart-pulse of hero-worship" that Rossetti found in Maclise's masterpieces (507). But in their originality of perspective (in every sense), their collective impact and humanity, and the opportunities they give us to "read" their meanings for ourselves, these murals are second to none.

Related Material

References

Ford, Ford Madox. Ford Madox Brown: A Record of His Life and Work. London: Longmans, 1896. Internet Archive. Web. 27 April 2012.

Lambourne, Lionel. Victorian Painting. London & New York: Phaidon, 1999. Print.

Rossetti, Dante Gabriel. Collected Works. 2 vols. Vol. II. London: Ellis and Elvey, 1901. Internet Archive. Web. 27 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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