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Book Review: Ford Madox Brown’s moment

This catalogue is the first comprehensive examination of the pre-Raphaelite artist’s career for half a century

This has proved to be Ford Madox Brown’s moment. The exhibition for which the present publication was the catalogue followed the appearance in the summer of 2011 of Mary Bennett’s catalogue raisonné, the result of a lifelong commitment to the artist. The present catalogue, Ford Madox Brown: Pre-Raphaelite Pioneer, accompanied the first comprehensive survey of Madox Brown’s career for half a century (the previous monographic exhibition at Liverpool, Birmingham and Manchester in 1964-65 had a very modest catalogue). It encompasses every facet of his output, beginning with conventional portraits and literary themes in the 1840s and ending with a final 1896 landscape of Platt Lane, near his home at Victoria Park in Manchester. Stained glass and furniture feature as well.

The Manchester Art Gallery owns Madox Brown’s social and political masterpiece, Work, completed after more than a decade of struggle in 1864. The discussion of this subject occupies 20 pages, representing Julian Treuherz’s long engagement with the painting, from his time at the Manchester Art Gallery and after. The setting for the work is Heath Street in Hampstead, where Madox Brown struggled to overcome the difficulties in painting workmen digging up the road in the open air. Passers-by from every level of society jostle past the obstruction: a lady with pamphlets, a man selling chickweed, uneasy farm labourers and a slum-dwelling girl in charge of younger children. Observing the scene are two immediately recognisable figures: Thomas Carlyle, the historian, and the philanthropic educator and clergyman, F.D. Maurice. Madox Brown worked obsessively on the detail to enlighten the public as to his purpose.

Born and trained on the Continent, Madox Brown was a pre-Raphaelite sympathiser, not an actual member of the Brotherhood. His vigorous creativity distances him from their more rarefied imaginative world: some of his figures grimace ferociously and the unwary are toppled by obstacles. He was considerably older than the impetuous founders and to be identified with revolutionaries could hardly be good for his career, which was to prove a roller-coaster affair. His closest alliance with the pre-Raphaelites was through his partnership in William Morris’s decorating firm and a section is devoted to his work as a designer.

Madox Brown is so various that it is hard to like all his works; those who look for the pre-Raphaelite adumbrated in the exhibition’s title, devotees of the exquisite landscapes and some of the minutely naturalistic modern life subjects, may struggle with Byron’s Dream or Cromwell on his Farm, but it is this pushing of genres that makes him such a considerable artist. He was incapable of considering his own best interests—a sharp retort to John Ruskin over the viewpoint of his Hampstead landscape, An English Autumn Afternoon, could hardly have been more inept—and his perfectionism meant that he spent far too long on each work.

Integral to this survey of Madox Brown’s work are the 12 mural panels in Manchester’s Venetian Gothic town hall, 1868, that great monument to the success of the cotton trade. A chapter in the catalogue on Madox Brown and Manchester is largely concerned with these striking works, which are illustrated and discussed in the catalogue entries. They were actually visible on most Sundays during the run of the exhibition. It was an act of faith to commission these murals, envisaged from the start by the architect of the town hall, Alfred Waterhouse, since a number of previous mural experiments in Britain had failed, largely through poor technique and the inability of the chosen artists to design large historical works to be viewed from afar. Madox Brown’s Continental art training from artists experienced in large public commissions had prepared him for this ambitious undertaking. Brown was already 72 years old when the paintings were finally completed in 1893 and they represent both the summit and the final decline of his career.

Perhaps it is provocative to describe this as an ideal type of catalogue, because in one way it is not ideal at all. Inevitably it was too heavy to take around the exhibition. Four introductory essays, two by Treuherz, one by Angela Thirlwell, who has published on the Madox Brown family, and one by Kenneth Bendiner, the author of a 1998 study of Brown’s work (on humour in the paintings), address questions germane to the exhibition. Although the reader is referred to Mary Bennett’s catalogue for the full provenance and literary references, the generous and informative catalogue entries are detailed and in some cases long; all in all it is an essential addition to the Victorian painting library.

Ford Madox Brown: Pre-Raphaelite Pioneer, Julian Treuherz, Philip Wilson Publishers in association with Manchester Art Gallery, 336pp, £29.50 (hb)

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Ford Madox Brown’s moment'