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.