Not a Pre-Raphaelite History Painter: Ford Madox Brown 1855-60

Ford Madox Brown (1821–1893), The Last of England (1852/55), oil on panel, 82.5 x 75 cm, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, Birmingham, England. Wikimedia Commons.

By the mid-1850s, Ford Madox Brown (1821–1893) must have been getting increasingly frustrated. He’d tried several different genres and themes, from traditional history painting, literary narratives, sentimental genre, to landscapes. Although he had earned a great deal of respect as mentor to Dante Gabriel Rossetti, his paintings still didn’t sell well. His painstaking technique fulfilled the ideals of the Pre-Raphaelites, but limited his output considerably.

Jesus Washing Peter's Feet 1852-6 by Ford Madox Brown 1821-1893
Ford Madox Brown (1821–1893), Jesus Washing Peter’s Feet (1852-6), oil on canvas, 116.8 x 133.3 cm, The Tate Gallery (Presented by subscribers 1893), London. © The Tate Gallery and Photographic Rights © Tate (2016), CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported),

These came to a head in his major religious painting of Jesus Washing Peter’s Feet which he started in 1852 but didn’t complete until 1856. It shows the familiar Biblical story of Christ washing his disciples’ feet at the Last Supper. It has an unusually low viewpoint and compression of space. In keeping with one of the ‘secret’ techniques of the Pre-Raphaelites, Brown tried to paint this on a ‘wet white ground’ to make its colours more ‘luminous’, but this proved too difficult. It originally depicted Jesus only semi-clad, which caused an outcry when it was first exhibited and it remained unsold for several years until Brown had reworked the figure in robes.

The only sculptor among the Pre-Raphaelites, Thomas Woolner, had struggled when in England, so decided to emigrate to Australia, leaving Britain in 1852. Brown’s thoughts turned to India, and then painting emigrants in what has become one of his best-known works.

Ford Madox Brown (1821–1893), The Last of England (1852/55), oil on panel, 82.5 x 75 cm, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, Birmingham, England. Wikimedia Commons.

Brown’s original oil version of The Last of England (above) was probably started at the time of Woolner’s departure in 1852, and is one of his most subtle compositions. He painted a half-size replica for a patron using watercolour (below), whose colours haven’t survived as well.

Central to his imitation of a circular tondo is a middle-class couple who are not enjoying the fact that the ship is ‘all one class’. They both stare with grim determination at the prospect of sharing the next few weeks with the rowdy working class passengers behind them, eating the same once-fresh vegetables which are now slung from cords around the ship’s rail in front of them.

This isn’t just a couple, though: look closely at their hands, and the woman’s left hand is clutching the tiny hand of her baby, who is safely swaddled inside her weatherproof hooded travelling cape. Her right hand, wearing a black leather glove, grasps that of her husband, whose left hand is tucked under his heavy coat. Splashes of brilliant colour are supplied by the wind blowing the woman’s ribbons.

Brown and his family were the models: the husband is a self-portrait, the wife is Emma Brown, the artist’s wife, and the infant’s hand is claimed to have been based on that of their son Oliver (Nolly), who was only born in 1855, perhaps just in time for the completion of this painting. Adhering to Pre-Raphaelite ideals, Brown painted this largely outdoors, and had his models sit outside in all weathers, even during the winter. His aim here was to recreate “the peculiar look of light all round” which he considered prevailed when at sea, in particular.

Other small details lend authenticity and a little humour: behind are the white chalk cliffs of Dover, which is consistent with this ship having sailed from London, and there’s a paddle steamer working its way inshore, closer to the cliffs. A cabin boy is selecting some vegetables for cooking from the lifeboat in the background, and a smaller ship’s boat reveals the name of the migrants’ vessel to be Eldorado, the mythical city of gold in Colombia.

The Last of England 1864-6 by Ford Madox Brown 1821-1893
Ford Madox Brown (1821–1893), The Last of England (replica) (1864-66), watercolour on paper, 35.6 x 33 cm, The Tate Gallery (Purchased 1916), London. © The Tate Gallery and Photographic Rights © Tate (2016), CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported),

Although this work didn’t sell immediately, when it did it brought Brown the sum of 325 guineas, which is probably equivalent to around £30,000 today.

In the late 1850s, Brown set out to paint better landscapes using Pre-Raphaelite ideals, which we realise now posed him the impossible combination of fine detail and being painted in front of the motif.

Carrying Corn 1854-5 by Ford Madox Brown 1821-1893
Ford Madox Brown (1821–1893), Carrying Corn (1854–5), oil on mahogany, 19.7 x 27.6 cm, The Tate Gallery (Purchased 1934), London. © The Tate Gallery and Photographic Rights © Tate (2016), CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported),

The first of this series, Carrying Corn from 1854-55, is hardly rich in the truth of detail, and proved to need more than a month of painting every evening, when the light was reasonably consistent. His persistence paid off, though, when he sold this in June 1855, so he was back out painting with the harvest on 28 July that year.

The Hayfield 1855-6 by Ford Madox Brown 1821-1893
Ford Madox Brown (1821–1893), The Hayfield (1855-56), oil on mahogany, 24.1 x 33.3 cm, The Tate Gallery (Purchased 1974), London. © The Tate Gallery and Photographic Rights © Tate (2016), CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported),

It took him until late October to almost complete The Hayfield (1855-56), and even then he had to do some more work on the foreground and some other passages, which he didn’t finish until that Christmas. But it fetched more than three times as much as had Carrying Corn. Its foreground is noticeably less detailed than in his earlier landscapes, and in parts this painting looks quite sketchy. The moonlight has not dulled its colour, and its look benefits from the unreal lighting effect.

Ford Madox Brown (1821–1893), Walton-on-the-Naze (1860), oil on canvas, 31.7 x 41.9 cm, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, Birmingham, England. Wikimedia Commons.

The culmination of this series of landscapes is this most famous view of Walton-on-the-Naze (1860), which happens to be where I lived for much of my teenage years. Brown is believed to have started this when he visited this coastal village in north-east Essex, England, in late August 1859, but cannot have worked long at it en plein air before returning home. It incorporates two unusual features: ephemeral lighting effects by way of the rainbow, rising full moon, and setting sun, and inclusion of the artist and his family as its main figures.

With its flat landscape, distant detail, and complex lighting, it is an ambitious composition for even an experienced and adept landscape painter. Although Brown’s painting succeeds in the middle distance and beyond, his attempts at detail in the foreground are at best rather gauche, and at worst plain wrong: the foreground shadows are incorrect for the cut stooks, and absent altogether for the three figures.

Modern readings of this painting commonly concentrate on explaining the significance of each element within it, such as the Martello Tower at the right, a remnant from the Napoleonic Wars, and the distant beacon tower near the base of the rainbow at the left, with its even older origins. Few seem to have noticed how closely this view relates to the early tradition of Dutch landscapes, including its low horizon placing the emphasis on Brown’s superb sky, which is probably the most carefully-observed and best-executed part of the painting.

The following year, Brown was a founding member of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Company, and much of the rest of his career was devoted to design, rather than landscape painting.