The Establishment of Flemish Weavers in Manchester. AD 1363. Completed 1882. 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.]

This is the fourth in the sequence of the Manchester Town Hall murals. It was also the fourth to have been completed. According to Brown's grandson and biographer, Ford Madox Ford, this painting took longer than the preceding ones, only partly due to external distractions (see 352). It must have taken some extra thought from the very start: Manchester's prosperity was based on the cotton trade, and Brown wanted to celebrate this with some historical scene. Looking back, Ford tries hard to establish the link here. He explains that Philippa of Hainault, the Flemish wife of Edward III, had recommended the introduction of the weavers into England., and that she is said to have made yearly visits to them. Since some apparently settled in Manchester, and since her son John of Gaunt, had his seat of goverment at Lancaster Castle, what more likely than that she would have come to see them there? However conjectural, it is a charming scene, idyllic rather than heroic:

The season chosen is spring, still the finest part of the year in Lancashire, at which season Chaucer tells us the English people delighted "to gon on pilgrimages."

The Queen and her attendant ladies have been in the woods "maying," according to the old English custom, and each has broken a branch of flowering hawthorn, or may. They are habited in "Lincoln green" for the occasion. To the left, a Fleming, of somewhat careworn aspect, his Elemish beaver slung over his back, exhibits to the Oueen a piece of cloth the same in colour as that she wears. He is assisted to unroll it by his wife, their child, and a workman. Behind him stands his aged father, ready with a roll of cloth of a different shade. The Queen tries the texture and substance of what is submitted to her with scrutinising finger.

On the same side of the composition a row of street children have been tutored to kneel in presence of Royalty. One little girl, forgetting her baby's crying, all the same ventures to make faces at the Flemish girl with the wooden shoes to the right of the picture, while a ragged little boy, comfortably seated on the steps of the market cross, is admonished to go down with the other children.

To the right of the beholder an old weaver, by the name on his cloth, "Jan Van Brugge," is seated beside his apprentice at looms which are drawn out to the front of their small shop, under the shutters, raised pent-house fashion.

They are weaving, or pretending to do so, but the master is eagerly looking for the Queen, while the apprentice is as eagerly looking at his master's daughter: she, trifling with a kitten, affects to see no one. In the distance are three archers of the Queen's guard, and two burghers of Manchester on their knees.

The Queen's palfrey is held by a foot-page, hot with keeping up beside the horses.

The sun illumes all to the left of the spectator, the figures to the right being in reflected light. (Ford 353)

Not mentioned by Ford are other incidental and humorous touches that keep this medieval idyll on the ground: a wary cat objects to the Queen's hound in the middle, and a child's hornbook, school bag (complete with apple) and spring flowers lie neglected on the steps of what looks like a medieval village cross, behind the two little girls on the left. Most amusing, however, is the by-play on the right, much closer to the forground than the royal party, between the young weaver and the disdainful-looking young woman. May is not just the season of fresh greenery, May blossom and pilgrimage, but of young love. A royal visit is nothing to a youth in pursuit of his heart's desire. This may be an entirely "imaginary scene" (Treuherz 291), but there is plenty of truth in it.

Related Material

References

Ford, Ford Madox. Ford Madox Brown: A Record of His Life and Work. London: Longmans, 1896. Internet Archive. Web. 23 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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