In 1861, Ford Madox Brown (1821–1893) became a founding member of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Company, and from then until that firm’s dissolution in 1874, he appears to have been mainly concerned with the design and production of furniture and other objects inspired by mediaeval arts and crafts. His other major project during these later years were the Manchester Murals, showing the history of the city, for the Great Hall in Manchester Town Hall. He started that series of twelve paintings in 1879, and completed them shortly before his death in 1893.
The last of the twelve Manchester Murals shows Dalton collecting Marsh-Fire Gas. John Dalton (1766-1844) was one of the pioneer chemists and physicists who transformed chemistry into a modern science, in his case by introducing atomic theory. Indeed, it was he who first used the word atom for the smallest particle of matter. Dalton wasn’t a Mancunian by birth, but had spent almost his entire professional life in the city. The first eight of these paintings were made directly onto the wall, and Brown painted the final four onto canvas after he had returned to work in London.
Brown started work on Work, which is often considered to be his greatest painting, as early as 1852, as a commission for the collector Thomas Plint, who died in 1861, four years before it was completed. While still working on that original, now in Manchester, Brown was commissioned to paint a second, which is now in Birmingham. The original wasn’t completed until 1865, but Brown finished the slightly smaller second version two years earlier.
This is the Birmingham (second) version of Work, painted between 1859-63, which is rather lighter and richer in colour, making it easier to read.
This crowded street scene is set in Heath Street, Hampstead, one of London’s ‘leafy’ suburbs at the time, in which Brown has crammed references to many contemporary aspects of Victorian society, including an election campaign.
At its centre is a gang of navvies, that term originating with the word navigators, usually Irish labourers, who dug the canals during the previous century. Here they are engaged in digging up a road, probably to lay a sewer as part of the campaign to improve the hygiene of Victorian London. Inspired by the social satirical comment of William Hogarth’s many prints and paintings, Brown is effectively giving a meticulously detailed account of the breadth and depth of contemporary society.
A full description and explanation of all those details is given in the excellent Wikipedia article about these two paintings, which is based on Brown’s own description, and exemplified in the detail below. There are even cameo portraits of Thomas Carlyle and Frederick Maurice at the far right; Carlyle was a philosopher whose writings praising work were probably the underlying theme of the painting, while Maurice founded educational institutions for workers, in which Brown worked.
Although an elaborately constructed artifice, Work is probably the closest that Brown and the Pre-Raphaelites came to the Naturalism which was to develop in France over the coming twenty years.
Even before the original version of Work was completed, Brown returned to literary motifs in his Death of Sir Tristram from 1864. This shows an episode taken from Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, in the story of Sir Tristam and La Belle Iseult, but is perhaps more of a showpiece for a stained glass window which had been produced by Brown’s company for the entrance hall of a Bradford merchant’s mansion. Brown painted a watercolour of this in the previous year, before making this in oils for a commission.
The Coat of Many Colours (1864-66) is a religious story, based on the Old Testament account of Joseph and his jealous brothers. The brothers sold Joseph into slavery, then brought his distinctive coat, suitably bloodstained, to their father to convince the latter that their brother had been killed by wild animals. Brown packs many figures into his image, which is set against a background based on Thomas Seddon’s landscape paintings made in front of the motif in Palestine. In 1867, the artist painted a watercolour copy which is now in the Tate, London.
Brown returned to the literary in The Finding of Don Juan by Haidée from 1869-70, which is a watercolour version of a painting which exists in two oil versions, and a preparatory pastel study. This refers to Lord Byron’s poem Don Juan, and shows Haidée, a Greek pirate’s daughter, and her nurse discovering the apparently lifeless body of the hero on a beach. Brown had just completed an illustration for a collection of Byron’s poems edited by William Michael Rossetti, brother of Dante Gabriel.
This version was commissioned by Frederick Craven of Manchester, who paid just over £200 inclusive of its frame. It was then taken back in part exchange for the larger of the two oil versions, which is now in the Louvre in Paris.
At the same time, Brown was painting this interpretation of the balcony scene from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (1869-70). In a vertiginous composition, the couple are here alone, and squeezed rather incredibly onto a balcony smaller than a single bed.
I have already mentioned the eighteenth century British artist William Hogarth (1697–1764) in the context of Brown’s painting Work. Towards the end of his career, Brown drew from one of Hogarth’s best-known series of engravings, Stages of Cruelty. Hogarth had produced this series in 1751, based on the simple story:
Tom Nero, a boy living in the slums of St Giles in London, is one of many children who get entertainment from torturing animals. When he grows up and becomes a Hackney coachman, he beats and harms his horse too. He progresses to become a thief, and brutally murders his pregnant lover. He is arrested, tried, and found guilty of her murder. After his death by hanging, his body is handed over for dissection, and it too is mutilated.
Brown’s updated story appears in a single painting, Stages of Cruelty from 1890, when the artist was still working on the Manchester Murals. It is very unusual, if not unique, among Pre-Raphaelite paintings for using multiplex narrative, in which the girl and the woman are the same figure, seen years apart. This visual narrative technique had been popular during the Renaissance, but had fallen out of favour.
In the lower left, Brown shows the woman as a girl, hitting her bloodhound with a bunch of flowers, appropriately known as Love-Lies-Bleeding. The dog, whose face shows signs of previous injury, holds up a paw in response. Behind, the woman shows that childhood cruelty grown into an adult, as she shuns the pleas of her lover, who is being rejected into the lilac bush.
Brown had started this painting in about 1856, then left it unfinished until the late 1880s, when he completed it for a brewer.
Ford Madox Brown’s second wife, Emma, died in 1890, when he was still trying to complete his Manchester Murals. He continued to work after he had turned seventy, and died in Primrose Hill, London, on 6 October 1893. He had remained independent of the Pre-Raphaelites while painting in Pre-Raphaelite style, and had turned his back on the Royal Academy since the 1850s. He painted at least four works which by any measure are masterpieces of British nineteenth century art:
- An English Autumn Afternoon, 1852-1853 (1852-54)
- The Last of England (1852-55)
- Walton-on-the-Naze (1859-60)
- Work (1852-65).
His is surely a bicentenary worth celebrating.