The old school approach to historical writing often led an author to ponder the woman behind the throne. Among the biographers of pre-Raphaelite artists, there is a similar fascination with the woman on the canvas. From Christina Rossetti’s 1856 poem “In An Artist’s Studio” and compiled family memoirs, to a new generation of scholarly writers, including Jan Marsh, Judith Flanders and Lucinda Hawksley, whose serious archival work has excavated genuine substance from the rumour-laden shadows, we have come to understand that the women of the pre-Raphaelite circle were much more than muses. In a study of the life of Ford Madox Brown, Angela Thirlwell, author of the excellent dual biography William and Lucy: the Other Rossettis (2003), looks at four more women from a perspective other than that of the painter at his easel.
Despite his enduring connection with the circle—as well as his essential contribution to the ideas behind pre-Raphaelite art—the literature on Brown is slim. His grandson Ford Madox Hueffer wrote the first biography in 1896, but almost a century passed until Virginia Surtees published an edition of his dairy (1981). In the present decade, Brown is receiving deserved attention, including John Walker’s in depth analysis of Work (2006), an exhibition of the “unofficial” pre-Raphaelite at the Birmingham Art Gallery (2008), and, at the end of this year, the expected publication of Mary Bennett’s catalogue raisonné. To take a fresh point of view, Thirlwell crafts her portrait of Brown through four relationships that had a powerful effect on his emotional life as well as on his career.
These four so-called “loves” span the whole of Brown’s adult life. His first wife Elizabeth Bromley (1818-46) was at his side as he launched his career. His second wife Emma (1829-90) appeared in his most famous paintings, including Last of England, 1855, and Pretty Baa Lambs, 1851-59. The lissome Maria Spartali (1844-1927), who George Bernard Shaw described as “a delicate spire above a skyline of city chimney pots”, was his student, his model, and the inspiration for a spate of sonnets in his middle years. The last “love” was writer and radical thinker Mathilde Blind (1841-96), a family friend who shared his unorthodox political and social views.
Through her extensive reference to primary documents, Thirlwell presents a nuanced portrait of Brown. Her account of his attachment to his mother and his sister in his youth provides a solid foundation for her assertion that his relationships with women—intellectual as well as emotional—were as important, if not more so, than those with men. Also, coping with early loss—his mother and his sister died within the space of a year—clearly shaped his intense compulsion for attachment. Brown’s presence in Thirlwell’s text has an unprecedented human dimension. He signs off as “Your affectionate hubby” in a letter to his first wife Elizabeth. His deep grief over the death of his children in both marriages counters the commonplace of Brown as a stoic contrarian. The real anguish of coping with his second wife’s alcoholism is powerfully yet poignantly conveyed by the reoccurring letters “E.D.” for “Emma drunk” in his diary.
The portraits of Brown’s “four loves”, however, are hardly as precise. The marked disproportion of documents that relate directly to these women offers a partial explanation. But, Thirlwell’s compensation for this is uneven, as is her analysis of Brown’s work. And, in some instances, the facts need checking. Thirlwell is right in her assertion that as a landmark in painting the figure in open air, Brown’s Pretty Baa Lambs precedes known French examples. But it was in 1866, not 1869, that Monet “brought his ladies out into the garden at Ville d’Avray”.
Ultimately, none of the women really comes out of the frame. The great strength of Thirlwell’s dual biography of the Rossettis was its focus; two are clearly company, but five may be too much of a crowd.
School of the Art Institute of Chicago
o Angela Thirlwell, Into the Frame: the Four Loves of Ford Madox Brown (Chatto & Windus), 304 pp, £25 (hb) ISBN 9780701179021
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Ford’s foursome'