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One of England's finest painters,
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This review is from: Ford Madox Brown: Pre-Raphaelite Pioneer (Hardcover)
Within a year of publication of Mary Bennett's magnificent Catalogue Raisonne Ford Madox Brown: A Catalogue Raisonne (2 volumes Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art) comes another book on this artist. This book is the catalogue of an exhibition at Manchester with the addition of four background essays. Madox Brown was not a formal member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB), but the theme of the book is that he is a Pre-Raphaelite pioneer. Brown (born 1821) was a little older than the Rossetti, Hunt and Millais, and was a respected precursor. Rossetti was so impressed by his early paintings, especially Mary Queen of Scots, that he asked Brown if he could be his pupil. From then onwards Brown continuously interacted with members of the PRB such that it is quite a challenge to identify the respects in which he was a pioneer. In his introductory chapter and throughout the book in his descriptions of individual works, Treuherz provides many examples of Brown's originality. He considers that three of his masterpieces, `An English Autumn Afternoon', `Work', and `The Last of England' turned upside-down the accepted norms of history painting and that nothing quite like them had previously been seen in British art. In his landscapes Brown followed Ruskin's advice `rejecting nothing, selecting nothing, scorning nothing' but when Ruskin asked him why he had selected such a `very ugly subject' for `Autumn Afternoon', Brown replied `Because it lay out of a back window.' Brown was a pioneer in the sense that, like the Pre-Raphaelites, he painted outdoor scenes out of doors and not in the studio but he went one stage further: while the others usually added the people to their landscapes in the studio, Brown painted them in situ, even if it meant discomfort for both sitter and artist. We learn from Treuherz that even a landscape like `Autumn afternoon' had added meaning: in the distance a Heath is shown that was under threat of development by the landowner and was a matter of some concern to local people in Hampstead.
A social aspect of Brown's work is present in many paintings and he can be considered as the Hogarth of the 19th century. But his paintings are much more than social commentaries: they are often deeply moving and none more so than `The Last of England' (1852-55). This oval-shaped work, inspired by the growing emigration movement in England at the time, is well-described by Treuherz, who quotes Brown: "Absolutely without regard to the art of any period or country, I have tried to render the scene as it would appear." This painting highlights, among many things, Brown's great skill in painting a person's eyes so that they express feelings. Perhaps this is what Henry James meant when he wrote in 1897: "This picture is surely one of the most expressive in the world."
Other particularly expressive paintings are to be found amongst the portraits. Here again, Brown's rendering of a person's eyes is amazing: just compare `The English boy' (in fact, his son Oliver) with `The Irish Girl'. Surely, two of the finest portraits of children in the century, ranking with Millais' portrait of Sophie Gray. Another extremely moving painting is the double-portrait of Henry and Millicent Fawcett, shown enlarged on p. 234. The blind Henry, who became an MP and Professor of Political Economy at Cambridge, is supported most tenderly and lovingly by his wife and you know, when you see this painting, that she devoted her life to supporting him.
The catalogue part of the book is organised into 11 thematic sections that are roughly chronological in relation to when the works were completed. This organisation is a success and makes reading the book a real pleasure, which is not often the case for catalogues. The extra chapters are essays, two by Treuherz himself, one by Angela Thirlwell and one by Kenneth Bendiner. Thirwell's is a brilliant chapter based on a document from a parlour game called `My Favourite Things' in which Brown has recorded his preferences. Thirlwell uses this to build up a description of Brown's character that nicely complements her book about his relationships with women Into The Frame: The Four Loves of Ford Madox Brown. Bendiner writes about comedy in Brown's painting and so adds a new dimension to the enjoyment of these works.
The book is recommended, but I must point out a down-side, which is not uncommon in books about art: the reproductions of the paintings, while generally faithful in colour and tone, though occasionally a bit dark, are sometimes much too small. You can see this if you turn to the each of the 15 pages at the start of the Chapters, on which a full-page detail from one of the paintings is reproduced. Here you can really see what Brown was trying to show: look at page 22 for a detail from `Autumn Afternoon' and compare with page 165 where the whole painting is shown reduced 8-fold. Why couldn't the publisher have rotated paintings like this by 90-degrees so that they could be printed larger? The worst examples come from the magnificent late works, the murals in Manchester Town Hall. Here the paintings are scaled down by almost 20-fold, which makes a mockery of what Brown was trying to do. It is of course necessary to show the whole work, but several extra illustrations of details (as on page 282) would have made this section of the book worth-while. As it is, you will simply have to go and see the murals in situ. Finally, why didn't the publisher give page references to the detailed reproductions when the painting was being described in the catalogue?