Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Ford Madox Brown: Pre-Raphaelite Pioneer

The rumours are true, I do get around. This weekend I managed to hit both the Etty in York and the spectacular Ford Madox Brown exhibition in Manchester. I love going to Manchester for two reasons: firstly I get to see Helen and Rob, who are marvellous, and secondly they have some insanely beautiful pieces of Victorian art, like Hylas and the Nipples and Astarte Syriaca. On Sunday, I combined the two best things in Manchester by meeting Helen and Rob at the Art Gallery and it was marvellousness itself.

So, for those unable to go, or just because I like talking about art and no-one has told me to stop yet, here are my highlights from the exhibition:

1. Head of a Girl (c.1840)

I couldn’t believe this was Brown, as the style is so different, but it is such a beautiful picture. It felt quite Rembrant-y in the use of dark and light and I adore how the light catches the curl of hair on the side of her face. The colours are quite muted and the dress is a lovely golden mustard colour. It feels at once much older than Victorian, but if you told me it was painted this year I wouldn’t be surprised as it has a quite modern feel too. Gorgeous.

2. The Hayfield (1855) and Carrying Corn (1854)

I have a photograph somewhere of my grandfather up a hayrick during a harvest in the early years of the twentieth century. I adore the landscape in both pictures and even though there is a moon showing in The Hayfield, I still adore the image. I have a problem with images of the moon, or more specifically when the moon is disproportionately large, as occurs in ‘the moon illusion’ when it appears nearer to the earth. This moon is fine and entirely proportionate. It’s very Thomas Hardy in a rural-idyll kind of way, and I find the golden peace of the images very soothing. I love the way the light plays across Carrying Corn, making the corn bright and gold, while the turnip lady is in shadow. The moonlight of The Hayfield reminds me of being back in Wiltshire, when the moon was so bright it wasn’t dark anymore. I remember running around a field at night as a child, even though I was scared of the dark because it was like a strange daylight and absolutely magical.

3. Stages of Cruelty (1856-90)

Well, you know how I like a strange picture and bar Take your Son, Sir!, this has to be the weirdest one he did. A woman ignores her pleading lover with a smile while a little girl beats a dog with some love-lies-bleeding. It’s a rather sledge-hammered point about punishing loyalty and women’s cruelty with love, but look how splendid the foliage is! Plus I’m a sucker for the meaning of flowers so we have the geraniums pinned to her heart (either ‘deceit’ or ‘preference’, but I like to think deceit), morning glory growing up the handrail meaning ‘love in vain’ and the love-lies-bleeding, which cannot have any good meaning with a name like that. Awful and fascinating in equal measure.

4. Byron’s Dream (1874)

I thought the figure of Mary, the object of Byron’s passion, was reminiscent of Fanny Cornforth. She’s a lovely looking woman with hair and skirts flowing everywhere and she vaguely holds the hand of the smitten but nervous looking Byron, who hides his club foot under the rug. In the distance you can see the small figure of the man Mary pines for and will eventually marry. What I didn’t realise was that Brown and Marie Spartali had been romantically involved and this work was painted around the time she had married William Stillman and may reflect Brown’s sadness and bitterness at being the Byron figure in the romance. Mainly I just want to flounce around in a big red skirt and break men’s hearts, but I digress...

5. The Irish Girl (1860)

Gorgeous, no wonder she is the poster girl for the exhibition. The simplicity of the image, the use of red and brown, highlighted with that vivid blue is utterly beguiling. She reminds me of Rossetti’s later works, particularly something like Regina Cordium. I love her distracted gaze, her little hand and her shawl. Just gorgeousness itself.

6. Thinking (1869)

I have a weakness for coloured chalk, and this is a lovely pastel of Emma Madox Brown, not least because she’s not showing her teeth which always seems to make her look a bit like a bulldog. It’s nice to see Emma in almost a straight portrait, rather than the many, many images of her as all the different characters she played for her husband. Emma is 40 in this picture and I wish I looked this good. My favourite bit is the way the orange ribbon just seen in her hair matches the burnt colour of her dress.

Obviously, in this exhibition you get to see the well-known works too. It was staggering to see Work up close, and see the preparatory sketches, and also Last of England and Pretty Baa Lambs. Part of the joy of Pretty Baa Lambs has to be spotting the enormous sheep in the background. That is one huge sheep...

So, my friends, if you are able, make your way to Manchester before 29th January 2012 and enjoy what is a unique experience. I was only moaning about the lack of retrospective for Brown recently and here one is. Perhaps I should moan more often if the results are this stunning....


  1. Wonderful review. So many thanks. I believe there is an alternative explanation for Byron's Dream:

    I like Madox-Brown though he didn't always help himself. He fell out with BJ, but BJ organised a benefit for him when he fell on hard times.

  2. Thanks for sharing this ,I would love to have gone to that exhibition but thanks to you I have had a day out!

  3. I had a fabulous day hanging with the Walkers, thank you for inviting us to come with you to see the exhibition. I especially liked the one with Chaucer (such cool hats) and, of course, the Pretty Baa Lambs. The man crawling out of the shrubbery in Stages of Cruelty is very very creepy...

  4. Thanks Chaps and thanks especially to the lovely Helen for the company and chat. There were some impressive hats on show, and who else could I make the bulldog face with in the middle of a busy gallery? :)


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