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Ford Madox Brown: The Autumn Art Blockbuster

Jonathan Schofield loves the people and the stories in the pictures on Mosley Street

Written by . Published on September 27th 2011.

Ford Madox Brown: The Autumn Art Blockbuster

FORD Madox Brown (1821-1893) does eyes better than any other artist of the Pre-Raphaelite period.

He does eyes better, possibly, than any other British artist across the whole spectrum of our nation’s image making history.

He is one of the UK's more interesting artists both personally and for his distinctive vision.

In Manchester Art Gallery’s autumn blockbuster, Ford Madox Brown, Pre-Raphaelite Pioneer, there is a directness in the gaze of many of Brown’s subjects that catches you out, makes you start. It's an exaggeration that is disturbing, amusing and serious all at the same time. Brown packs all his emotional intensity into peoples' peepers.

Take The Last of England (1852-5), one of his best works and finished in 1855 - the main picture above. The painting is of emigration. Great Britain and Ireland shed ten million people in the century after 1820 largely to the colonies and the USA. The peak of emigration came during the ‘hungry forties’ and early fifties of the nineteenth century when huge unemployment at home, famine in Ireland, and gold rushes in America and Australia encouraged people to seek life abroad.

Here the male character, a self-portrait, is, as Brown himself described, ‘brood(ing) bitterly over blighted hope and severance from all he has been striving for. The young wife’s grief (modelled on Brown's live-in lover and future wife, Emma Hill) is of a less cantankerous sort...she carries the circle of her love with her’. Note how their baby's hand is entwined in hers in the full version of this in the gallery below. But the feelings of both are all in the eyes. 

The same emphasis on the eyes goes for the nasty lover and her rejected man in The Stages of Cruelty, in the many studies of King Lear, in the chalk portrait of Agnes Pyne, in the demented look on the face of the fallen Danish warrior in the mural called The Expulsion of the Danes for Manchester Town Hall, and in the eyes of the flower seller in Work, even in the half closed eyes of the woman behind him in the same picture, again modelled on Brown's second wife Emma Hill, whose 'only business in life, as yet, is to…look beautiful for our benefit'. Eyes are everywhere, revealing character, animating canvas and paper.

Work %281%29Detail from Work (1852-65)

To Brown they appear more than windows to the soul but capture all worldly and bodily joy and trouble as well.

Many of the best stares come from children. The English Boy and The Irish Girl are summed up by their eyes, but it’s the babies that hit you hardest.

In Ford Madox Brown’s vision they seem the wisest creatures of all. 

In among the forty plus characters in Brown’s masterpiece Work, the central figure is the noble navvy showing the value of morally good work, in this case physical, as opposed to the morally good mental work of the philosophers off to one side. The frame proclaims the theme with a Biblical quote: ‘Seest thou a man diligent in his business? He shall stand before kings.’

Work %282%29Work (1852-65)

But in the centre of the picture a baby, from a broken family and with a troubled present, according to Brown's notes, stares straight back at the viewer so frankly you feel almost judged, challenged. The baby is us. Us: waiting for it all to happen, to go right or wrong, to end up somewhere or nowhere.

WorkDetail from Work (1852-65)

Children were after all, as with so many Victorians, Brown's tragedy. All his three sons, died young. Two daughters survived him.

When his beloved son Oliver, on the brink of personal success, succumbed aged nineteen, Brown fell into one of his many deep depressions - he called them his 'mulligrubs'. As Angela Thirlwell memorably writes, 'After Oliver's death, he (Brown) would stare into desolation.'

Last year Holman Hunt, a founding Pre-Raphaelite artist, was featured in a Manchester Art Gallery exhibition – click here. While the man’s mastery of technique was plain to see, there was also an alien, cloying, frankly weird twist to the pictures. The Slaughter of the Innocents is an almost disgusting image. The dead babies, alive in the afterlife, become a freaky insight into the worst of Victorian sentimentality.

Brown’s babies and men, women and children appear weighted to the earth. His religious figures, his Kings and Queens, flowersellers, friends, children and just passers-by picked up as models, are painted warts and all.

Put simply Ford Madox Brown was a painter of people whether using them to tell stories, reveal history or as subjects for portraits - hence the emphasis on eyes.

What he doesn’t do well is landscape.

Windermere shown in the exhibition is dull – not usually a word associated with Ford Madox Brown’s painting. There are trees, hills, water and some cows. It requires thirty seconds to take it in, five to dismiss it.

Not that Ford Madox Brown couldn’t do landscape perfectly well, but he only does so as a background to humanity, as an incidential addition to the human action.

In An English Autumn Afternoon, Hampstead – Scenery in 1853 the interest lies in the relationship between the man and the woman in the foreground, and the human interventions elsewhere, less in the gloriously caught landscape behind.

The same goes for The Little Baa Lambs in that all-aglow light - a classic example of the dazzle effect of early Pre-Raphaelite art. The picture is all about the mother and the child and the maid. They are the focus, it’s a while before you even glance at the lambs.

1.-%26#194%3B%26#174%3B_BM%26#38%3BAG_%28Delete_After_Use%291956_P9_[1]Pretty Baa Lambs (1851-9)

Maybe there was something in Brown's background here. He studied art as a young man in the Low Countries, in Bruges, Ghent, Brussels and Antwerp.

There's something of sixteenth century Antwerp resident Pieter Breughel’s work about Brown's art (and also something of another Low Country artist, Rembrandt’s self portraits in Brown’s obssession with eyes). The art of Breughel (1525 (?)- 1569) is chocker with normal folk wandering through narratives of huge historical, religious or even folkloric content, oblivious to the big story taking place all around.

In Breughel's Fall of Icarus the ploughman in the foreground ignores the foolish hero plunging into the sea. In Brown's Cromwell on His Farm the main subject of the painting is wrapped up in big ideas while his cook calls him to dinner. 

Breughel's Children Playing includes scenes and characters that could slide straight on to Brown's Town Hall mural, Chetham's Life Dream - pictured below.

Bruegel5-1024X732Breughel's Children Playing

Chethams-Life-Dream-Ad1640Chethams Life Dream by Brown (1885-6)

Both artists, separated by three hundred years, shared a love of bathos, that enticing slip from sublime to ridiculous. They liked a laugh, often at the expense of the stuffy art establishment. 

This part of Brown's character, helps remove stuffiness out of his work. Kenneth Bendiner's chapter in the main exhibition catalogue is excellent on this key aspect of Brown's personality (the whole exhibition catalogue is generally superb). 

Ford Madox Brown was always an outsider. Born and turtored abroad, often in financial trouble, anti art establishment, prickly, resentful, amusing, handsome (known as 'the King of Hearts'), a lover of women, he is one of the UK's more interesting artists both personally and for his distinctive vision.

He was Radical politically and while working on the Manchester Town Hall murals he helped found a labour exchange to help unemployed workers in our city. Never a paid up member of the Pre-Raphaelite movement his individualistic style helped inspire the younger artists who shared a similar sensibility, and they inspired him in his use of colour and attention to detail. 

Ford Madox Brown comes out of Manchester Art Gallery's latest exhibition very well, in a show brilliantly curated by Julian Treuherz. 

The entrance fee of £8 is more than adequately re-paid.

The eyes to the right and the left, have it. Whether in paint, chalk or pencil.

Ford Madox Brown Pre-Raphaelite Pioneer is at Manchester Art Gallery, Mosley Street, City, M23JL until 29 January. £8 (£6 concessions). Free entry for under 18s and Manchester Art Gallery Friends. Gallery open every day except Mondays. 0161 235 8888. www.manchestergalleries.org


3._Cat_3_Emma_Hill_%28Cordelia%29[1]Brown's second wife Emma Hill as Cordelia

5._Cat_33_Chaucer_Reading_Legend[1]Chaucer Reading

6._Cat_37_Head_Of_Prince_Azo[1]Head Of Prince Azo

11._Irish_Girl[1]The Irish Girl

27._The_English_Boy[1]The English Boy

25_S2005-01247_Copy[1]Self-portrait 1850

2.-%26#194%3B%26#174%3B_BM%26#38%3BAG_Last_Of_England_[1]The Last Of England (1852-55)


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8 comments so far, continue the conversation, write a comment.

Anne EdwardsSeptember 27th 2011.

Very interesting Jonathan...I'll try my best to see it, armed with your info, makes it all much more understandable! I really enjoyed the tours on the last 2 Sundays...look farward to more, after the conference!

AnonymousSeptember 29th 2011.

Excellent and very interesting review. Everybody should go to this exhibition.

Dave MartinOctober 1st 2011.

Why can't Manchester's art galleries open later, at least once a week? Would go far more frequently if they did

AnonymousOctober 1st 2011.

Because Spaceman, they're mainly run by Council employees, i.e civil servants, and we all know civil servants work 9-5, anything else and it's flexi/overtime.....

James SpencerOctober 10th 2011.

actually Anon they have a licence until 1am so you can organise a party at a price.

1 Response: Reply To This...
AnonymousOctober 12th 2011.

Correct. Except he catering is run by private companies, not the Council. Spot the difference?

Kevin PeelOctober 11th 2011.

I am running a campaign to get the galleries to open later to cater to people who cannot make it during the day. I have had a couple of meetings and hope to see some progress on this in the new year!

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