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on 30 October 2011
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?
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on 19 December 2011
Very often we find good monographies about the most known Pre-Raphaelites: Rossetti, Burne-Jones, Hunt, etc. but it seemed that Ford Madox Brown was forgotten. This book arrives to fill that lack. Its quality, in text and illustrations, is excellent.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 25 November 2012
This, the first exhibition of Ford Madox Brown's work in the UK for almost 50 years, was held in 2011-12 at the Manchester Art Gallery. During this period the work of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, with whom he had close mutually-beneficial contacts without formally joining, has undergone a significant re-evaluation. The artist had close contact with Manchester (1878-1893), including commissions and the painting of murals for the Manchester Town Hall which were fraught with difficulty but are now seen as one of his greatest works.

This very impressive catalogue, presented in an order which takes chronology and thematic nature into account, includes 153 coloured plates, mostly full-page, and over 100 figures, including contemporary photographs. The descriptions of the works are scholarly but understandable. There are four complementary essays, two of which, by Angela Thirlwell and Kenneth Bendiner, are very unusual. Julian Treuherz, formerly a curator at the Gallery, describes the artist's relationship with the PRB and his strengths and weaknesses in "Ford Madox Brown - Pre-Raphaelite Pioneer" and highlights the personal and artistic difficulties of his last 15 years in "Ford Madox Brown in Manchester".

Thirlwell, who has written about the artist, uses Brown's answers from a Victorian parlour game to speculate on his character, attributes and temperament in "The Game of Life: Ford Madox Brown-A character study". Bendiner, who has written extensively about Victorian painting and Madox Brown, builds on earlier studies to consider "Ford Madox Brown's Humour" from a study of his paintings. This essay is so interesting that that the natural inclination is to go through the catalogue again looking at every reproduction to identify further examples. The catalogue also contains a chronology, bibliography and an index.

Brown the man, husband and father comes across very clearly from the four essays and from entries in his diaries, as does his tragic personal life (losing a sister, two wives, three children and his brother-in- law), his frequent financial difficulties, his attention to artistic detail which contributed to an inability to finish paintings to his satisfaction (so much so that, in "Stages of Charity", both his daughter and his grand-daughter sat as a model for the young girl),his readiness to take offence and bear grudges, the poor health of his first wife and the health problems that his second wife suffered as a result of her alcoholism, his own ill health in later years and his radical political and social thinking. This thinking was not merely theoretical, but was also active since he was ready to help the poor and the unemployed in a practical manner, supported a variety of charities, taught at the Working Men's College in London, gave one of his paintings (The Writing Lesson, 1862) to be raffled in aid of the Lancashire Relief Fund, established to support Lancashire cotton workers during the American Civial War, as well as employing women as assistants to decorate the gallery of his patron, Henry Boddington (1886). Significantly, his daughter, Lucy, was an active supporter of women's suffrage.

The artist's rigorous training in Antwerp, Bruges and Ghent, where this exhibition will be seen in 2012, emphasised drawing and researching the detail (fashion and materials) for historical paintings, and, after his return to England in 1844, made him something of an outsider and reinforced his suspicion of being poorly treated by the art establishment. He was initially influenced by the Nazarenes whom he met in Rome but later lightened and brightened his palette. His skill in drawing is best seen in his many paintings and studies of children which have none of the usual Victorian sentimentality. Brown's innovation is brought out very clearly - well before Monet and the impressionists, he was painting in plein-air and recording the effect of changing seasons or weather on landscape and other motifs, and he was the first painter to use colour when recording shadows. In order to reduce the tradition rectangular, "window" view of the motif he used tondos and lunettes, and he also designed his own picture frames.

His acknowledged masterpieces are examined in detail, including "The Last of England" (1852-5, can you find the baby?), "Work" (1852-1863, evidence of his slowness in completing work to his satisfaction) and "The Baa Lambs" (1851, 1852, 1853 and 1859, with being lambs "bussed in" to ensure that the whole picture could be painted, rather than completing the landscape and leaving spaces for the human and animal figures to be added in the studio. Such approaches to his art often made him ill and increased his frequent depression when climatic conditions prevented him from painting or caused him to scrape away earlier work. Perhaps he would have received more portrait commissions, and so improved his family's financial situation, if he had been inclined to flatter his sitters. As mentioned earlier, his portraits of children are particularly well painted.

The high point of the catalogue is undoubtedly the detailed analysis of "Work" which Brown called "the work of my life" and which is layered in meaning and suggestion, allegory and genre. This ana,lysis would form the basis of a very interesting talk for the public, in general, and for schoolchildren, in particular, to be delivered in front of the painting. The discussion of this example is illustrated with a number of enlargements of details in the painting which greatly assists understanding. However, on several occasions when referring to other paintings, the size of the reproduction is too small to see clearly the details referred to. This suggests that the text related to the experience of standing before the original picture rather than to seeing its reproduction in the catalogue. If this latter were the case, it would be very useful if the comments in essays or in the catalogue proper could be checked against reproductions in the book at the proof stage.

However, this is just one small adverse comment and I would urge anyone interested in Victorian or Pre-Raphaelite painting to read this book which sets a very high standard in its presentation, scholarly approach and language.
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on 2 January 2012
An excellent book for the casual and scholarly observer of the genre. A good way of enjoying the Manchester gallery exhibition particularly if you cannot get to view it.
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on 5 June 2015
Nice book, very good condition
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