When he turned thirty in 1851, Ford Madox Brown (1821–1893) was in an interesting position. He’d not become one of the ‘bad boys’ of British painting in the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, but his painstaking technique fulfilled their ideals and kept him on the right side of the increasingly influential critic John Ruskin. Brown had also taught Dante Gabriel Rossetti and was now acting as his mentor, something which earned him a great deal of respect.
But respect doesn’t sell paintings to pay the bills. Despite his forays into different genres, including traditional history painting, literary narratives, sentimental genre, and landscapes, Brown still wasn’t valuable in the market. This was compounded by the very techniques on which his painting relied: each took time and considerable effort, limiting his output. Like others who adopted the Pre-Raphaelite approach, each canvas could take him several months to complete. Most of all, his paintings needed value.
These problems 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 personal thoughts first turned to India, then to painting emigrants in what has become one of his best-known works.
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 increasingly stale 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 second 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 painting’s completion. 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 particularly at sea.
Other small details lend authenticity and a little humour: behind are the white chalk cliffs of Dover, 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.
Although this work didn’t sell immediately, when it did it brought Brown the sum of 325 guineas, equivalent to around £30,000 today.
In the mid-1850s, Brown set out to paint better landscapes according to Pre-Raphaelite ideals, which posed him the contradictory demands of fine detail and being painted in front of the motif.
The first of this series, Carrying Corn from 1854-55, is hardly rich in the truth of detail, but required over 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.
It took him until late October to nearly complete The Hayfield (1855-56), and even then he had still more work to do on the foreground and other passages, which he didn’t finish until 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.
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 most of my teenage years. Brown is thought to have started this when visiting 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 its rainbow, rising full moon, and setting sun, and the inclusion of the artist and his family as its main figures.
With its flat landscape, distant detail, and complex lighting, it’s 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 slightly gauche, and at worst plain wrong: its foreground shadows are incorrect for the cut stooks, and absent altogether for the three figures, for instance.
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 his later career was devoted to design, not landscape painting.