[In this passage from Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Hunt describes encountering Ford Madox Brown's works that followed the so-called "Early Christian" school. — George P. Landow.]

To Rossetti's occasional expressions or unbounded enthusiasm for Brown's past works I could not always give unmodified approval. I had seen his cartoon of "The Body of Harold brought before William the Conqueror," and had greatly admired the artistic qualities of the work; the drawing was robust and nervous, and the costume was treated with manly taste, giving actuality to the historic scene; the colour as seen in the large study painted with wax was honest and acceptable, and although without mysterious charm of hue, altogether appropriate and sound. These merits were not alone powerful in fixing the design on the memory, but Brown had adopted a glaringly unreasonable reading of the fact that William went into battle with the bones of the saints round his neck, over which relics Harold had made his renunciation of the crown. Instead of painting a reliquary, he had hung femur, tibia, humerus, and other large bones dangling loose on the hero's breast, surely a formidable encumbrance both to riding and fighting. In the lower corner of the picture were a Norman and Saxon engaged in a final struggle, the uppermost biting the throat of the lower, while the latter, with both arms stretched around his foe, was drawing with all his force the blade of a huge dagger deep into his enemy's back. These grotesque incidents in the first of his works seen by me somewhat counterbalanced the merits I saw in the conception, and tended to puzzle spectators by no means narrow in taste. of about 14 feet in height, illustrating the Spirit of Justice; the upper portion of the composition was occupied by Justice and her attendant virtues personified; these were well designed and drawn gracefully. The lower part of the cartoon was devoted to the accused and the accusers, and in these much demanded admiration, but attention was distracted by the Gothic quaintness of the central design, in which figured four knights armed cap-a-pie, and arranged at equal distances symmetrically in a row across the picture, their faces covered by large tilting-helms inclined alternately to the right and left; but even to those who saw these peculiarities as defects, the whole design had the counterbalancing merit of grace and vitality.

I had neither the time nor the means of visiting stray exhibitions to follow up Brown's works, but somewhere I saw his earlier large painting of "The Execution of Mary Queen of Scots." There were parts in this justifying the early expectations of him, but it had lugubrious elements of tragedy without stirring an emotion of pity. The painting was burdened with black velvet robes and over-sized pearls. The surface had what, at the time, marked the Baron Wappers School, a greasy sheen rather than the crystalline lustre of varnish, and had to be accepted as a Continental big boy aspiration inspired by the fashion for such subjects as the executions of monarchs being then the rage even in England.

In the British Institution, where I also exhibited, I next saw Brown's picture of "Parisina." It had been painted, as was then usual on the Continent, for lamplight effects, with the subject lit up in an inner chamber, the canvas being outside in daylight, a condition which forced the artist to give a hot glare on the group much in excess of that observable when estimating the tone in the lamplight itself. The painting throughout was accomplished and facile; the drawing defied criticism as to correctness, but not as to grace and beauty. The surface was less unctuous in its sheen than was the earlier picture, but the gloom was without mystery or transparency; the style was a combination of that of Rembrandt and Rubens as interpreted by the then leaders of the Belgian School. The subject, objectionable even in verse, was incalculably more so when realised on canvas. From his Flemish manner he turned to that then nourishing in Munich, and, lastly, faced about to the opposite of his Antwerpian mode, to the new school under Overbeck and others, who set themselves to imitate all the child-like immaturities and limitations of the German and Italian quattrocentists. Brown, however, added quaintnesses which marked his strong vitality, but often did so without calm judgment, which left many of his true appreciators to wonder If he was not mocking them. There were in Brown two incongruous spirits, one, desire for combination with a power in favour with the world, the other in open defiance of sedate taste; with all his variableness it was certainly not then notable that he had become a seeker after new truths. It must be remembered that the originator of a new character of work does not attain to the perfection of his idea in a sudden revulsion from a previous practice, but, following a new conviction, he must test his way, advancing only by gradual steps until he reaches the new standard of excel- lence he has in mind. The early Christian style—the term used by himself—was first shown by him in two of his compositions, one an elaborate drawing some three feet in height and two in breadth, now entitled "Our Lady of Good Children," then known paradoxically as " Our Lady of Saturday Night," and a painting here reproduced from Rossetti's copy, " Cherub Angels watching the Crown of Thorns."

It will thus be seen that I had to form an estimate of Brown from much more meagre data than that which connoisseurs have at hand in our day. Rossetti's out- bursts of enthusiasm, tempered as they were by frequent merriment and volleys of laughter at his late master's eccentricities, were received by me with due reserve. [I, 120-22]

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References

Hunt, William Holman. Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. 2 vols. New York: Macmillan, 1905.


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Last modified 25 October 2012