Over the last few weeks, I’ve been looking at Ford Madox Brown’s narrative and landscape paintings. In this final article, I’m going to try to set his work in the context of the painting of others in the middle of the nineteenth century, and ask those dangerously powerful words “what if?”
Brown’s purely narrative paintings compare favourably with those which met with approval in the exhibitions of the Royal Academy and the Paris Salon at the time, but don’t stand out particularly. If I had to select just a few of his works which are exceptional, they must be
- An English Autumn Afternoon, 1852-1853 (1852-54)
- The Last of England (1852-55)
- Walton-on-the-Naze (1859-60)
- Work (1852-65)
which I think are generally agreed to be his masterpieces.
He painted his intricate view over the suburbs of London in An English Autumn Afternoon, 1852-1853 during the whole month of October in 1852, and still needed a further two months work in the Spring of 1854. It combines two ideals of the Pre-Raphaelites in being painted from nature, and finely detailed, making it a truly Pre-Raphaelite landscape.
Brown’s first version of The Last of England was probably started at about the same time in 1852, but wasn’t completed until about 1855. It tells the story of a young middle-class couple and their infant who are migrating to a new life overseas on a ship which is ‘all one class’. Brown painted this largely outdoors, and had his models sit for him in all weathers, even in the winter.
His aim here was to recreate “the peculiar look of light all round” which he considered prevailed when at sea. It has a wealth of fine details which even add a touch of wry humour, in the name of the ship being Eldorado, the mythical city of gold in Colombia.
Work, often considered to be his greatest painting, was also started in 1852, but its first version wasn’t completed until 1865. This second version was started rather later, in 1859, and completed in 1863. It’s a crowded street scene into which Brown has crammed references to many contemporary aspects of Victorian society, for which the artist even wrote a detailed description. Its underlying theme is probably the philosophy of Thomas Carlyle, which praises the virtues of work, and is perhaps the closest that any of the Pre-Raphaelites came to social realism as the precursor to Naturalism.
After a series of landscapes during the late 1850s, Brown painted his famous view of Walton-on-the-Naze (1860). Brown is believed to have started this when he visited the coastal village in north-east Essex, England, in late August 1859, but cannot have worked long at it en plein air before returning home. In addition to fine detail, 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.
In the context of previous British landscape painting, Brown’s views were archaic.
Although John Constable’s oil sketches weren’t intended for his public, this Seascape Study with Rain Cloud or Rainstorm over the Sea from 1824-28 demonstrates how painterly he could be in his private sketches.
JMW Turner had no qualms in exhibiting his more radical paintings, such as Snow Storm, Steam Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth from 1842, a whole decade before Brown started work on his landscapes.
But Brown was entirely in keeping with other Pre-Raphaelites, including the movement’s leading landscape specialist John Brett, who like many British artists at the time was steered by the dominant critic John Ruskin.
John Brett’s Val d’Aosta (1858) was painted in close collaboration with Ruskin, and later Ruskin (an accomplished amateur watercolourist) had the gall to ask Brett to give him “some lessons in permanent, straight-forward oil painting.” Ruskin’s Academy Notes on the finished painting, when it was exhibited in 1859, begin with enthusiastic praise, before the critic starts to find fault:
A notable picture truly; a possession of much within a few feet square. Yet not, in the strong, essential meaning of the word, a noble picture. It has a strange fault, considering the school to which it belongs — it seems to me to be wholly emotionless. I cannot find from it that the painter loved, or feared, anything in all that wonderful piece of the world.
(John Ruskin, Academy Notes, 1859, in Cook ET & Wedderburn A (eds) The Works of John Ruskin, vol 14, pp 234-8.)
It could have been fortunate that Brown had trained in Belgium, and in the early years of his career, from 1841, he had lived and worked in Paris. However, he doesn’t appear to have taken interest in the plein air painting movement at the time, and when he visited Rome in 1845-46, he didn’t go out into the Campagna to sketch in oils, but was most influenced by the work of the Nazarene painter Friedrich Overbeck.
What if Ford Madox Brown had been inspired instead to go out into the Roman Campagna and paint oil sketches en plein air?
Or, when in Paris, had taken a liking to the landscape paintings of Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, perhaps?
Tragically for Brown and British landscape painting as a whole, instead of moving forward from Turner, it became stultified somewhere around the start of the nineteenth century, leaving Brown’s landscapes as fascinating anachronisms, and the Pre-Raphaelite movement as something of a magnificent cul-de-sac.