Ford Madox Brown: Pre-Raphaelite Pioneer

The name Ford Madox Brown is synonymous with the Pre-Raphaelite movement, but this major exhibition of the artist’s work since 1964 elevates Brown out of the Victorian shadows and reaffirms his position as one of the great treasures of British art.

The exhibition showcases an impressive body of 140 works of painting, drawing and furniture that communicate a vivid and sometimes jarring realism with an unwavering honesty — in narrative, approach and execution. Paintings such as Work (1852-63) and The Last of England (1852-55) demonstrate how aware Brown was of the struggles and triumphs of the working classes; portraying them in a realistic but gracious light despite such treatment being at odds with Victorian convention. It is the first time in more than 25 years that the paintings have been shown together. They are masterpieces with strong social messages as relevant today as they were then: a rejection of the ‘easy’ option, whether that is a politicised view, on changes in society or in not adopting the norm. The paintings, once perceived to have been unconventional, unattractive and perhaps verging on tasteless now seem appropriate, satirical and well-judged.

When asked on whether the timing of the show was significant, curator Julian Treuherz explains that “we all felt that a Ford Madox Brown show was overdue as all the other major figures in the Pre-Raphaelite movement have had major exhibitions in recent years. The decision to hold the exhibition and to invite me back to Manchester to curate it was taken by Manchester Art Gallery. They knew of my interest in the artist which dates back to when I was a curator at the Gallery {from} 1971-1988.”

Moving from room to room throughout the exhibition, you begin to notice that Brown is an historical yet unmistakably humorous storyteller and the story is often Brown’s recording of everyday life, of change occurring within his home and out on the street. The show takes the viewer from Byron and Shakespeare (depicted in Manfred on the Jungfrau, 1841) to the quiet beauty of the British countryside (illuminated in Carrying Corn, 1854) and splendour in the realist representations of children, viewed not as static characters with milky complexions but just as he saw them – unique and brimming with their own distinct personalities (Arthur Madox Brown as a baby, 1856).

According to Treuherz, the Victorian art establishment did not always support or indeed, understand the artist’s vision. Treuherz elaborates, “the art establishment did object to his work because he did not idealise or flatter, because he did not prettify. His tendency to use grotesque expressions, clashing colours, no dark shading and lots of tiny details went against prevailing standards of decorum and taste.”

The notion of challenging conventions of style is exemplified in two companion pieces that have not been shown together since 1964. The portraits The English Boy (1860), from Manchester Art Gallery’s own collection and The Irish Girl (1860), on loan from the Yale Centre for British Art, are an exhibition highlight and in true Brown style rather than portray his subjects with modified expressions and airbrushed complexions he painted them as he saw them. The results are arresting in their beauty; potent colours clash but seem appropriate and the portraits are unified in the defiant gaze they cast upon the viewer. Treuherz elaborates on the companion piece’s appeal; “they are very direct and very straightforwardly realistic. They look like real people with vivid personalities of their own. Most Victorian portraits of children are sentimental and chocolate-boxy. I would say that with Work and The Last of England they are the most memorable images he created.”

The gallery has acquired some truly special pieces for the show, such as The Seraph’s Watch (1847), which had been presumed lost until two years ago and has not been on public display since 1986; as well as an unusual portrait of a child on a tricycle. Madeleine Scott (1883) was the daughter of the editor of the Manchester Guardian, CP Scott. The former editor was a cycling enthusiast and the painting was created at the height of the tricycle’s popularity in theUK.

The exhibition’s placement in Manchester is pertinent because Brown’s murals in the Town Hall mark the artist’s eternal connection to the city. Although primarily based in London, the murals Brown created are the culmination of more than 12 years work. The murals add to the cultural richness of the city and fulfilled a life-long ambition for the artist; bringing his life experience and artistic beginnings full circle. A hidden gem that is rarely open to the public, Brown’s murals complement the show at Manchester Art Gallery and will be open to view every Sunday for the duration of the exhibition.

This is an exciting show from start to finish — full of suspense, of lost and found masterpieces, a beguiling take on themes of Christianity, employment, emigration and flickers of insight into Brown’s circle of family and friends. Most importantly, Brown communicates a rich yet unsentimental reality. There is a sense that a once underrated visual narrator has been brought to the public’s attention at a time when the artist’s work makes a lot of sense. Brown’s work resonates with the society we currently live in, also on the cusp of change and frustrated with desires for progress.

Brown was for most of his life an outsider, both in artistic sentiment and personal circumstances. British but brought up in Calais, the artist trained in the footsteps of the masters at the academies of Bruges, Ghent and Antwerp at a time when his contemporaries were the alumni of the Royal Academy schools in London.  These environmental factors are rooted in who Brown was as an uncompromising artist and added to a sense of displacement from his peers. Treuherz explains what made Brown such a pioneer, “he refused to compromise or to make his art conform to the established ideas of art; he quarrelled with the Royal Academy and even refused to join the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood although he was very closely associated with the members, especially Rossetti. He was a famously difficult and awkward character. That his art was also difficult is a reflection of this, and contributed to his being thought of as an outsider.”

The Ford Madox Brown: Pre-Raphaelite Pioneer exhibition is on display at the Manchester Art Gallery until 29 January 2012.