Monday, 23 May 2011

Glove and Romance

I’m in the middle of preparing a post on the Swedish painting Carl Larsson, after a particularly lovely holiday in Stockholm.  We spent a fabulously magical week in the Swedish capital and took a boat ride around the archipelago, on a splendidly bright and cold morning.  Sitting out on the deck, I borrowed one of the pile of Ikea blankets they offered us and wrapped myself and my daughter up in it.  As we pootled around in the glorious chill air, I turned to Mr Walker and said ‘Good God, I feel like The Last of England!’

Shortly before the blanket came out...

The Ford Madox Brown Pub,  next to the Rossetti Chemist...
The things I know off the top of my head about Ford Madox Brown could probably be written on the back of a stamp.  That is a disgusting thing to admit as he was connected to Rossetti before the Brotherhood, his work is interesting and quite distinctive and about the same subjects as the Pre-Raphaelites that I love.  Blimey, I know more about Arthur Hughes than I do about poor Ford Madox Brown.  When I realised this, I was amazed, as when I discovered my love for Pre-Raphaelite art, he was one of the painters I started with.  Plus he has a complicated personal life, well, fairly complicated, so why don’t I know more? Interestingly, there hasn’t been a retrospective of his work lately, unlike Rossetti, Millais or Waterhouse, so I haven’t managed to see his paintings in such great detail, but while thinking about me and Madox Brown, I found myself looking at The Last of England (1852-5).

It’s a curious picture, round in shape, as if you are looking out of a porthole or down a telescope at this pair of grim looking figures.  I’ve never particularly liked it as they look so very dour and miserable, but as I looked I realised perversely what a romantic picture it is in many ways, and how it reminded me of various other Victorian images.  The story goes that the scene was inspired by the emigration of Thomas Woolner, founder member of the PRB and sculptor, to Australia.  His story caught Brown’s imagination because, like Brown, Woolner had not received commissions for work and his money had run out.  Brown also knew of another artist, Benjamin Robert Haydon, who had committed suicide in 1846 after his career had failed and he obviously feared the same destiny, describing himself as a ‘regular Haydon at pawning’.

Detail of the hat-string
Despite the painting being inspired by Woolner’s flight, the picture is a portrait of Brown and his wife Emma.  The usual reason given for it being a self-portrait is that by the time Brown got round to painting, Woolner had gone, but what if the picture wasn’t actually about an event that was happening, but actually Brown’s projected fear and comfort for the future?  It is easy to understand Brown’s own projected dread at having to leave his home and friends and travelling to the other side of the world on the vague hope of getting some money.  The face of the man in the picture is grim, not hopeful, the set of his face hard and resigned.  I love the little detail of the string that attaches his hat to his coat, hinting that he has already lost so much that he is hanging on to the things he has left.   

They do not look at each other, but hold hands
As if to emphasise this point, we see his wind-bitten hand holding the gloved hand of his wife, sat beside him.  The woman also looks out, her face determined, but her expression seems to hold a different kind of resignation.  To me, it seems that the man looks resigned to travelling where he has to in order to support his family and himself, but the woman’s face has a more peaceful set, as if she is not in control of the things she is resigned to, but her fate is in the hands of her husband.  The husband’s other hand is hidden in his coat, but it clutches the handle of an umbrella, shielding his wife from the wind that whips her bonnet ribbon across him. 
The horizontal of the ribbon, drawing us back to her face

There's that leg again...
Despite the fact that they do not look at each other, the husband, wife and baby are a little unit, joined by the wife, who I believe is the focal point of Brown’s composition.  In space terms, the husband and wife are given equal amounts, but the husband’s dark garments make him recede from us, whereas the woman’s pale grey cloak brings her forward.  Even when our gaze strays to the man, we are drawn back by the pink horizontal line of the ribbon, leading our eye in a similar way to the brother’s kicking leg in Millais’ Isabella.

Lifeboat filled with cabbage, by the look of it
I began to wonder if Brown was up to something in his composition, if he had mixed messages swirling in his picture.  At first look this is a simple picture of a young couple apprehensively watching their homeland disappear as they sail away to their new life, and the name on the lifeboat behind them, ‘Eldorado’, refers to Woolner’s choice to become a gold prospector in Australia.  However, the concept of Eldorado also can stand for an ultimate prize of a more esoteric nature, sometimes true love and happiness.  It could be that Brown is saying that their journey is to seek physical wealth, but because of their linked hands, they are already rich in love.

That pink ribbon bothered me, I was sure it reminded me of something.  It certainly draws the gaze back to the woman and I think that Brown is trying to make the viewer consider the role of the wife in her husband’s decision.  She is there for comfort and support, much like the woman in George Hick’s Woman’s Mission paintings.  Then it came to me, I had seen a ribbon as pink as that in Millais portrait of Emily Patmore, with of Coventry Patmore.  

Companion of Manhood (1863) George Hicks
Mrs Coventry Patmore (1855) J E Millais

  Emily was the model for the poem Angel in the House, how a perfect wife should be.  Could Brown be hinting that the wife in The Last of England was a perfect wife, supporting her husband’s difficult decisions?  Or possibly he is hinting that little credit is given to the wife who has to follow her husband through poverty and emigration?  I could be that Brown felt guilt for considering making Emma leave her home, not being able to support her and their children, both of whom are seen in the picture, with little Cathy eating an apple behind the main figures.

Cathy Madox Brown
Oliver Madox Brown, owner of the little hand

Nice day to emigrate....
It is not as picturesque as other images of emigration, such as Richard Redgrave's The Emigrant's Last Sight of Home, but in its grimness I think there is love.  The family are together, not just sat together, but holding hands.  They are a team against whatever life has to throw at them, and she is his Angel on the deck of a ship bound for Australia.  This is not so much a picture of idealised romance, as real, grim, determined love in adversity.

 It does make me smile that although she holds her baby’s hand in hers, her husband gets a gloved hand to hold.  It’s like she saying ‘I’ll follow you through uncertainty, poverty, and to the other side of the world, but if you expect me to take my glove off in this weather, you’ve got another thing coming!’


  1. I have recently joined your blog and I love it. I am very interested in the PRB in all its aspects. Have you found the Newlyn School I think you would like them. I really like narrative painting ,they were the telly of the times.They were like documentaries dealing with moral and social matters of the day. I look forward to your Larsson post, the Larssons ideas and work have been a great influence in my life as has William Morris. Please visit me at Bright Star and I would love you to join my followers !!

  2. I love Newlyn! I have a side project I indulge in, collecting images of truly pathos-laden, knuckle-biting paintings and the Cornish school offers some corkers. I am a big fan of Walter Langley and Thomas Cooper Gotch - Coincidentally, I was just have a conversation on the subject with Mr Walker at the weekend...


Many thanks for your comment. I shall post it up shortly! Kx