[Unless otherwise stated, all quotations are from the book under review, and all illustrations except for the first one come from our own website. Click on the thumbnails for larger images, sources and more information where available.]

Left: The front cover of the book under review, showing a detail from The Last of England (oil on panel, 1852-55). Right: Whole picture (source: Ford, facing p.100). The contrast between the two faces seems even more pronounced without the colour, the man's darker and more embittered, the woman's more wan and soulful. The brilliant magenta of the bonnet ribbon is a great loss, though. Magenta, as Angela Thirlwell explains here, "was a startlingly modern pigment, only recently invented and named after the Battle of Magenta, on 4 June 1859" (29).

Ford Madox Brown: Pre-Raphaelite Pioneer was published to accompany an exhibition of the artist's work that ran from September 2011 through January 2012 at the Manchester Art Gallery. This was the first major solo exhibition of his work for nearly fifty years, the previous one having been held in 1964-65, in Liverpool, Birmingham and Manchester. The new exhibition received overwhelmingly favourable reviews. But, as with the exhibition of William Powell Frith's work at London's Guildhall Art Gallery a few years before, no extravagant claims were made for Brown. The Telegraph's reviewer, Alastair Smart, put it like this: "Ford Madox Brown was by no means a great artist, but his engagement with Victorian reality certainly makes him an interesting one." Smart was not biased in favour of the fully paid-up members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, which Brown influenced; he said he disliked them. But he was still critical of the older artist's skills and taste, finding his figures awkward — "one toothy contortion after another." Since Julian Treuherz himself comments that "grimacing faces and bold composition ... were frequent features of his work" (180), it would be wrong to bristle at this. But anyone who studies the four informative essays and splendid catalogue in Treuherz's book will understand and appreciate Brown's work much better, and be far less likely to dismiss him as merely "interesting."

Treuherz's opening essay gives its title to the book, although he rightly points out that "Brown's oeuvre includes many contrasting styles and subjects: Pre-Raphaelite and aesthetic, historical and modern, grand and intimate, melodramatic and factual, tragic and comic" — all linked by that "vigorous originality" noted early on by Brown's Manchester friend, the picture-framer Charles Rowley (9). His works are linked in another way as well. Treuherz explains that Brown's upbringing in Northern France and training in Bruges contributed to his becoming a "history painter and a narrative painter at heart" (11). These formative experiences probably led him to reinvent these genres too. Seeing the early Flemish and Dutch paintings, Treuherz surmises, might well have "encouraged him to challenge the prescriptive rules, the ideal proportions and the hierarchical compositions he was being taught" (12), the results being the distortions or contortions that bothered Smart, together with a disturbance of accepted compositional norms, especially in the matter of perspective.

Work (1852), one of the best-known paintings of the period, which Treuherz describes as "a composite, an interplay of text and image which asks to be explored and enjoyed" (193).

Understanding all this makes it easier to "read" Brown's masterpiece Work, for example. Here, he subverts orthodox expectations of attitude as well as focus, by putting some children in the foreground, just right of centre. The dominant figure is that of a girl wearing cast-off, over-sized clothes. She is in sole charge of a smaller brother and sister and a babe-in-arms; the latter, apparently modelled on Brown's own dead infant, sports a black ribbon on his sleeve. This indicates that the children have recently lost their mother. Yet they are not objects of sympathy. Rather, Brown celebrates the girl's firm handling of her mischievous brother. Her head is tilted in the same attitude of concentration as that of the youth nearby, toiling usefully to lay sewers in the suburban street, and her arm is stretched out at the same angle as his, as she confidently restrains or disciplines the boy. There is no paternalism here, either — only respect. As elsewhere, and exactly as Treuherz suggests, Brown has not taken the street characters in this work as material for genre painting, but has instead "transformed them into something powerful and serious through exceptionally intense and vivid presentation" (12). Such pains did he take over every detail in this crowded canvas that the painting was thirteen years in the making.

Looking at the oeuvre as a whole, Treuherz places Brown in the context of the European realism of the day, and shows that he not only influenced but was influenced by the Pre-Raphaelites. One of the driving forces behind the founding of the Hogarth Club, he was clearly very much part of the cultural scene of his times, and was later admired in the Arts and Crafts circle too. Nevertheless, Treuherz is right to emphasize his continued independence, his inventiveness and individuality. He shows that the artist's anti-establishment stance was fired partly by his own personality, partly by poor treatment from the Royal Academy, and partly by his political inclinations, which he sums up as a "liberal, left-leaning humanitarianism" (21).

Two of the Manchester Murals. Left to right: (a) Crabtree Watching the Transit of Venus (1883). The draper's enthralment is palpable. (b) The Opening of the Bridgewater Canal (1892), another scene instinct with exuberant life. Ordinary folk take centre stage in the murals, even when, as in the inauguration of the canal, their "betters" (in this case the Duke of Bridgewater and his party) are present. Both pictures by kind permission of Manchester City Council.

Since Brown's interest in narrative painting persisted, all these qualities came together in the murals in Manchester Town Hall, which consumed so much of his later life. Treuherz's other essay here homes in on these, and is equally useful because the details of the commission and the evolution of the project were both so complicated. Prickly as he was, Brown had good friends, and these included another Pre-Raphaelite associate, Frederick Shields, who had made his home in Manchester. Shields and Rowley both thought highly of Brown and went out of their way to support the endeavour — it was only because Shields withdrew from his part of the original commission that Brown was able to paint all twelve panels. The roles of the architect, Alfred Waterhouse, and the antiquarian, William Axon, are also made clear, the former promoting the scheme and the latter involving himself much less helpfully in the choice of subjects — in which politics also played a part. As for the final verdict, for all his keen appreciation of the murals, here and in the catalogue entries, Treuherz finds them more successful in situ than when reproduced in a series, feeling that their "theatricality and eccentricity" comes out too strongly then (58). As an experienced curator, he must be right about this. But individually reproduced, they are surely very striking, as the two shown above demonstrate.

Only Angela Thirlwell dares to use the word "great" about them (25). A biographer, she has contributed a delightful commentary on a list of "Favourite Things" that Brown made for a parlour game in 1866. The list is shown in full on p.24, and ranges from light-hearted teasing ("Favourite Amusement: Flirting") to blunt honesty ("Favourite Occupation: Selling pictures"), but Thirlwell gets good mileage out of nearly all of his answers, even his pet dislike: "Onions"! For example, "Favourite Hero: Goliath of Gath" introduces a discussion of his bible knowledge, developing into comments on his agnosticism. Similarly, "Favourite Poet: Swinburne" leads to some paragraphs on his social and love life, because Swinburne seems to have encouraged Brown's current "painful obsession" with a beautiful Anglo-Greek student, Marie Spartali (27), with whom no doubt some of the "flirting" occurred. Particularly useful is Thirlwell's information about his palette, inspired by the answer: "Favourite Colour: Magenta." This, she suggests, "suited his new brio" as he emerged from the hard struggle of his early career into the rather brief period in middle age when he was more successful. Thirlwell's parlour-game device cannot prevent a sadder note creeping in, when she takes up his "Favourite Air: 'Blow, blow, thou winter wind.'" Perhaps one of his second wife Emma's favourite performance pieces, this song leads to a discussion of Brown's "mulligrubs" or melancholia (31), for which there would be more cause later. His declining years were blighted by the loss of the couple's third and last son, Oliver, a promising young man of nineteen, in 1874; his own illnesses; Emma's drinking too much; and her death in 1890. These years were scarcely cheered, either, by the enormous challenges posed by the Manchester Town Hall commission.

Left: Cromwell on His Farm (1874; source: Ford, facing p. 291). Notice the sow, right under the horse's hooves, followed by her piglets. Right: Elijah and the Widow's Son (1868; source: Ford, facing p. 202).

Somehow, though, Brown preserved his quirky sense of humour right to the end. This is the subject of the other essay in this introductory section, by the art historian Kenneth Bendiner, who brings out all sort of details that are easy to miss. One example is the featuring of homely cabbages and turnips in The Last of England. These undercut both the poignancy of that little hand peeping out of the woman's cape, and the momentousness of the voyage, written so plainly in the faces the two main figures. After all, the long journey will just be a another phase of the human struggle for survival, during which the same needs will have to be met, the same routines observed. Even the most intense works, like Elijah and the Widow's Son, share this kind of groundedness, sometimes amounting, as Beninder says, to comic relief. While a mother stretches out her arms to her newly resurrected son, a hen skitters past, wings a-flutter, with her chick on her back. Similarly, while an austere Cromwell rides through his farmland deep in thought, he fails to notice the sow nudging under his horse's hooves, or the maidservant, a protesting duck under one arm, calling him to dinner. The balance is perfect, as Beninder maintains: the emotion conveyed in the former picture is still intense, and Cromwell still towers above all distractions. But perhaps this sort of thing prevented Brown from being taken seriously enough. If so, Bendiner implies, Rembrandt, Dürer and others who have employed the same marginal humour should be less respected too.

Following these essays, which are themselves fully illustrated, come a detailed chronology, and the catalogue itself. The chronology is essential because Brown spent so much time on individual works, and they tend to overlap. Then the catalogue is divided into eleven sections, tracing his family life, development as an artist, and his work in different subject categories. After all, he painted some fine portraits and landscapes as well as biblical, historical, modern life and narrative scenes. Here (to give just a few examples), are a couple of unsentimental and therefore all the more moving pencil sketches of his newborn sons; a scene of rural Southend with docks on the estuary in the distance; and the most brilliant cornfield, seen at St Albans. Later come some dramatic designs for stained glass, such as the Shipwreck of St Paul for Llandaff Cathedral; furniture panels; and even some pleasing, surprisingly clean-lined furniture attributed to Brown, most of it probably designed for Morris's Red House. A separate section is assigned to the Manchester period, which includes not only the Town Hall Murals but, amongst others, five dramatic chalk designs for painted figure groups for the Manchester Royal Jubilee Exhibition of 1887. Treuherz's introductions to each section, and comments on the works, are thorough and detailed, and his discussion of Work, which he finds to be "without doubt one of the most important works of art of the Victorian age," is little short of a tour de force (193). He is excellent on the biographical, social, and historical background of this and the other paintings, in addition to explaining their more technical aspects. The whole production is altogether exemplary.

There is everything needed here for a well-informed "reading" of these works. All art benefits from such a reading, but perhaps, because of the host of figures and telling details in many of his canvases, Brown's benefits even more than most. This book is a valuable resource for anyone interested in nineteenth-century art, the Pre-Raphaelites, and specifically Victorian narrative painting. For those with a special interest in Ford Madox Brown himself, it is an indispensable one.

Source of greyscale and sepia images

Ford, Ford Madox (Brown's grandson). Ford Madox Brown: A Record of His Life and Work. London: Longmans, 1896. Internet Archive. Web. 1 May 2012.

References

Treuherz, Julian, with contributions by Kenneth Bendiner and Angela Thirlwell. Ford Madox Brown: Pre-Raphaelite Pioneer. London: Philip Wilson, 2011. 336pp. £29.50. ISBN: 978-0-85667-700-7.


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Last modified 5 May 2012