Exhibition: Ford Madox Brown: Pre-Raphaelite Pioneer, Manchester Art Gallery, Manchester, until January 29 2012
© Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery
When Victorian art critics first encountered Ford Maddox Brown’s luminescent take on English landscape painting, most of them rounded on it.
They hated its childish title and were bemused by its confused symbolism - in fact, The Pretty Baa-Lambs’ appearance at the Royal Academy in 1852 moved one critic to describe the work as a “facetious experiment upon public intelligence,” and another as a “fantastic and puerile production”.
Looking at it now it’s difficult to see what all the fuss was about. It’s a vivid portrayal of a woman and a baby in a landscape, but other than it seems a rather gaudy and hyper-real kind of painting. But peer at it for long enough and it all begins to make sense.
The devil is in the detail - and the revolutionary technique. Brown was one of the first to paint a constructed pastoral, figurative scene like this entirely outside. And although he later added the Thames Estuary to a vista originally conceived on Clapham Common in 1851, it is the truth to nature in every blade of grass and the way the light and shadow plays on colour that is ground-breaking.
This was a good 20 years or so before the French Impressionists popularised painting “en plein air” and, with its ruddy-faced woman, eyes lowered, inexplicably dressed in 18th century costume, it marked Brown out as a natural rebel against the traditionally taught techniques of the time.
There are other revolutionary landscapes that require a second, closer viewing in this fine exhibition, which is the first in more than 40 years to put the Pre-Raphaelite pioneer properly under the spotlight.
Among them, An English Autumn Afternoon, Hampstead (1852-5) offers an extraordinarily rich panorama which had the hitherto pro-Pre-Raphaelite sage John Ruskin using adjectives like “ugly”, and Carrying Corn (1854), which recalls the visionary pastoralism of Samuel Palmer.
Further luminescent scenes similar to these reveal a singular and misunderstood talent who is still often overlooked within the rich ferment of Victorian and Pre-Raphaelite art.
© of Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Fund
Brown was a decade older than the first triumvirate of Pre-Raphaelite brothers, but the three young guns of Millais, Holman Hunt and Rossetti were ardent admirers. In Brown they found a style that harked back to the fresco artists of the Renaissance and that championed a freshness and a primitive simplicity which to them seemed revolutionary. The fascination was mutual and today he is still assessed within the prism of Pre-Raphaelitism.
Born in France to British parents, Brown was, however, a perpetual outsider in the British art world whose styles and influences clearly took in everything from French Romanticism to social realism.
His early training at the Antwerp Academy instilled a grounding in mural techniques on a grand scale and exposed him to the dark, brooding narratives of French 19th century painting, but stylistically it seems he was always on the move.
An early work, Manfred on the Jungfrau (1841) is typically Romantic, with the Byronic hero throwing himself dramatically into the abyss. Originally cast against an ominously darkened sky, Brown retouched it in 1861 to make it brighter and more in keeping with the radiance of the Pre-Raphaelites.
Elsewhere there are some surprisingly direct and radiant examples of his portraiture, including a series of unsentimental depictions of his children and several informal studies, including two self portraits.
A lustrous James Bamford (1846) was painted after an inspirational journey to Italy in 1845-6. Brown was so pleased with it he gave it the subtitle “A Holbein of the Nineteenth Century.” It’s a rare moment of self-proclamation in a show that reveals a steady and unerring arc of creativity and investigation.
His attempts at rustic Arts and Crafts furniture (a roughly hewn wedding present for William and Jane Morris) sit next to examples of stained glass work. The latter seem to be the only artworks which adhere to the Pre-Raphaelite rubric of feminine beauty that was channelled through Rossetti and Burne-Jones into the aesthetic movement.
© Manchester City Galleries
But most powerful are the landscape paintings and his extraordinary scenes of modern life, in which Brown’s penetrating eye cuts through the sentimental vision of Victorian art.
The best among them is the central painting in the exhibition, the great masterpiece, Work.
Painted between 1852 and 1863, it was the first Pre-Raphaelite painting to be acquired by the gallery in 1852 and is here shown alongside a series of preparatory studies.
Together with The Last of England, Work stands out as one of the most political to emerge from a movement that became increasingly subsumed by beauty, symbolism and myth.
The painting evolved during a period of ten years, beginning in 1852 when Brown was living in Hampstead, where he saw a group of workmen digging a water drain. He made the labourers the central focus of his painting, something hitherto avoided in allegorical works of this kind.
It is essentially about the rich and the poor and boasts a vivid central tableau of navvies, beggars, and orphans. Brown used the idle rich and reformist thinkers – including Thomas Carlyle and Frederick Denyson Maurice, the founder of the Christian Socialist Movement – as a supporting cast.
More than 140 works are featured in this absorbing overview, including several paintings produced in Manchester while he was working on the Manchester Murals for the Town Hall – a bold commission that proved to be his last great undertaking.
The latter can be viewed, once a week on Sundays, as part of this exhibition. Although they reveal how Brown could play fast and loose with history, they also confirm him as an essentially modern English artist who at times seems more in tune with someone like Stanley Spencer than his Victorian and Pre-Raphaelite brethren.
This, then, is a welcome opportunity to rediscover one of the great originals of British art, who both influenced and learned from the movement that he is today associated with.
More paintings and pictures from the exhibition:
© Manchester City Galleries
© Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery
© Tate, London 2010
© Photograph by Alan Seabright
© Manchester City Council