Thursday, 29 September 2011

Ford Madox Brown: "Pre-Raphaelite Pioneer"?

It's a while since I last blogged about art works and it is perhaps not surprising that the occasion of my again doing so is an exhibition I recently visited at Manchester Art Gallery.The exhibition is the first full-scale display of the work of Ford Madox Brown in the UK since 1965 which was itself the centenary of Madox Brown's own retrospective of his work in 1865. I approached the exhibition with some excitement which I found difficult to explain to myself since, on the whole, my general view of Pre-Raphaelite art has not been favourable. This exhibition succeeded, however, both in altering my general view of this movement and in decisively introducing me to an artist who I now do not doubt was one of the most important of the 19th century. 

The exhibition's title stakes out a kind of claim that is, in some respects, insufficiently ambitious with regard to Madox Brown. The suggestion that he was a "pioneer" of the Pre-Raphaelites is true in a sense since he began producing serious paintings prior to the formation of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1848 and yet, after the Brotherhood was formed did find himself, to a certain degree, in alignment with it. However, one of the oddities of the presentation of him as a "pioneer" of the Pre-Raphaelite style is all that it does not address concerning the general comprehension of this style and the way in which this exhibition demonstrates how far away in many respects Madox Brown was from what that general comprehension would suggest. Putting it bluntly, and to quote Henry James (himself, unfortunately, no friend of the art of Madox Brown), Pre-Raphaelite art generally gets seen through the vein of its representations of young women who conform to a languishing type "with a strictness that savours of monotony". Alongside this representation of long, languid women with flowing curly hair we generally represent mythic, Arthurian images, occasional religious subjects and an idealised conception of the past age (as reflected in the very name "Pre-Raphaelite"). Perhaps it is time this whole image was, however, vigorously questioned.

This exhibition in presenting Madox Brown as perhaps the "original" Pre-Raphaelite certainly goes some way to showing a quite different side to their art than this popular image suggests. Madox Brown was unlike the figures who formed the Brotherhood in a number of respects. Firstly, he came from a different generation being older than they (which is where the "pioneer" notion comes from). Secondly, he was born and educated abroad which gave him a different type of induction into art than was given to the "classic" figures of the Brotherhood. Amongst other things it ensured that Madox Brown was imbued with some academic values that remained important for his artistic practice even though that practice belied in many respects his original training. Amongst other things this training culminated in the production of history paintings on a large scale and both the scale and this conception remained important for his later work. Thirdly and finally, Madox Brown presents rather more varied subjects than the classic figures of the Brotherhood and is most importantly more focused on reacting to the present around him, particularly in his key works.

The exhibition brings together 140 works divided between 11 themes and is curated by Julian Treuherz, a former curator of Manchester Art Gallery and author of the exhibition catalogue.  The initial sight on beginning to view the exhibition is a set of paintings that are devoted to the artist himself and his family with the striking original impression coming from his painting of the family of his first wife, The Bromley Family. This picture produces an immediate feel of immersion in a remote and perhaps somewhat quaint historical period and is an example of a kind of Biedermeyer portraiture. Madox Brown's wife is in the centre of the composition holding a set of flowers whilst behind her two men are engaged in conversation and in front of her two women sit in dark clothing, one of whom appears distant. Whilst it is in many respects a conventional portrait the immediate feeling of historicisation it accompanies does induct the viewer into the sense of a strange world that will require accommodations of a sort that may be unexpected. 

The second subject area is what is classed as Madox Brown's "early period" and includes the striking Manfred on the Jungfrau that I have often walked past on previous visits to the gallery. Whilst this composition shows a scene of Romantic agony the colouration is confusing given that Madox Brown (or FMB for short) altered it some decades after it was first exhibited. A more important indication of the early style is The Execution of Mary Stuart which, dating from the very early 1840's already shows an accomplished style and is, unsurprisingly, a form of history painting. The figure of the fallen Queen is presented with large hips. She looks down on a servant who has fainted and is being held up by another who is weeping. The Queen's finger is lifted to her lips, with a stern indication of the need to hush. This picture, whilst not striking in itself, is indicative of a formed talent which is surprising given the comparative youth of FMB at this point. The Body of Harold Brought Before William the Conqueror, by contrast, suggests an inclination to adopt the "Norman yoke" view of English history whilst, in its colour combinations, already appearing to point forwards in his career.

The second area of the exhibition signals FMB's alleged "change of direction" that emerges from his first visit to Rome and the death of his first wife and it is here that one gets one's first set of surprises since the alignment with the Pre-Raphaelite vision one is expecting to now emerge goes in a different direction than one would have anticipated relying on the stereotype one possesses of the notion of their style. For example Oure Ladye of Saturday Night belies its archaic title by showing the Christ child as modern English and as FMB himself put "powdered, combed and begowned" so that whilst it is apparently Mary who tends him she appears to be doing no more (as the title states) than giving her child his weekly bath! The child captivates with his frank and quite un-God-like stare and the angel who brings the bowl to wash the child in appears bored. The lack of fit between expectation and execution is matched by the elaborate frame the picture is presented in which includes the inscription "Our Ladye of Good Children".  Next to this striking and unexpected work is the portrait of the industrialist James Bamford subtitled by FMB A Holbein of the 19th Century and which shows an unidealised figure staring straight at the viewer as he holds a recently unsealed letter. The portrait of a basic typical figure of the 19th century already shows a commitment to the present that ensures this painting fits well with the homely mother and child engaged in 19th century bathing.

The section "the draughtsman" exhibits a series of sketches, mainly in chalk, intended to convey some sense of the ability of FMB to simply draw. Most striking to me here was the simple Life Study of Male Nude that captures a frontal view of a standing figure from the waist up and demonstrates an attention to muscular structure that we will see brought out in fuller detail in later works. The subsequent section on landscape painting contains a number of important surprises. The Pretty Baa-Lambs exceeds its somewhat fey title not just in its compositional success but also in being, at least partly, an example of a very early plein-air painting capturing, as it does, bright sunshine and having been executed, at least with regard to the landscape, in the open air. The mother and child figures central to the picture demonstrate a relation to the environment whereby education is enacted. The somewhat fearful and oddly proportioned child is being shown the lambs while a servant behind collects grass for some unknown purpose. The mother is, surprisingly, dressed in 18th century clothing but FMB himself claimed the main point was simply capturing the sunlight. 

By contrast to The Pretty Baa-Lambs, the slightly later painting An English Autumn Afternoon is presented in an oval and was apparently painted, at least initially, as a view from a window. At the front of the work are two figures, a man and a woman who look out on scenery from Hampstead in late October. Their view, and ours, takes in roofs, back gardens, sheds and orchards and culminates in a country horizon. As with The Pretty Baa-Lambs the major effect is the conveying of an impression of what was there then, under those conditions of light and reinforces the sense of FMB's pioneer status beyond that of any relation to the Pre-Raphaelites. 

The centre of the exhibition is taken up with the theme of the "painter of modern life", the phrase Treuherz borrows from Baudelaire and includes some of the most striking pictures in the exhibition. The Last of England is chosen to illustrate the cover of the catalogue and dates from the mid-1850s. It captures an emigration scene as two central figures prepare to leave England for other shores taking with them (wrapped in the woman's coat) a child. Behind them there are rowdy exchanges between other passengers and a strong presentation of a rather green sea. Dominating the visual field though is the magenta head-scarf of the female half of the couple, caught, as it appears, in the wind and which leads one back to the plain and yet central face of the woman in question. The man beside her is distinct in colouration, wearing brown to her grey but his lips echo the colour of her scarf as his expression contrasts with hers suggesting a more bitter experience or perhaps one less centred on the future generation. This very fine picture again concentrates on the present and the central woman in the work lacks all the idealised qualities of Pre-Raphaelite women.

Stages of Cruelty is similarly unexpected in giving us an image of a form of femme fatale but one whose sinister figuration lacks compensatory beauty and who is accompanied by a small girl intent on hitting a dog with a red flower. The woman is shown turned away from a somewhat crazed male lover who looks up at her from behind a wall. The whole effect conveys a different side of Baudelaire to that  which gives its name to this part of the exhibition.

The culmination both of this part of the exhibition and of the whole exhibition has to be given in the monumental Work, a piece on which FMB laboured for the best part of a decade. Any quick description of the work fails to do justice to its conception or its amazing success. The conventional comparisons attached to it connect it to either Courbet's realist works or to William Powell Firth's The Derby Day but neither of these works. The connection to Firth is obvious in terms of the scale of the composition and its crowded character. Work is also similar to The Derby Day in having no obvious central figure though there is one in Work who FMB picked out as its "hero", a position that could only be occupied by a small child performer in The Derby Day. The relation to Courbet is also clear if we take The Painter's Studio as our comparison. Unlike The Painter's Studio, however, the focus of Work is not the work of the artist but rather that of manual labourers and this central focus in Work also gives the latter a general focus that is much more inclusive in its account of present day life than is captured in Courbet.

The general idea of Work is to capture a day in Hampstead on which some manual labourers work in a trench whilst a representative sample of the life of the society passes by and around them. If there is a centre in the painting it is the figure of the workman downing a draught of beer in the midst of his labour and from him the eye travels either downwards to the trench in which the "hero" of the painting is shown standing or upwards to a rich couple on horseback in the shade whose journey has been interrupted by the work being undertaken. At the left side of the work-men are a number of figures, a lady who drops a pamphlet that is being ignored into the trench, another who walks shaded by a parasol and a peculiar male figure who is dressed in rags and carrying weeds in a basket. On the right of the workmen the eye travels from a beer-seller wearing a sumptuous jacket and sporting a black eye to a ragamuffin set of children, the eldest girl of which is busy scolding her mischief-making younger brother. At the far end of the right side stand two spectators engaged in conversation who are none other than Thomas Carlyle and the Reverend Maurice (a leader of the Christian Socialist movement). On the road below these two an election campaign is in progress, some sleep on a hillside and, pictured briefly, a policeman moves on an orange-seller.

The total effect of this painting is very difficult to convey. It requires close and repeated viewing to capture half of the figures in the work and even after giving it this it is further helpful to read deeply the literature that exists on the painting to capture further the number of motifs it conveys. The work is displayed with preparatory drawings, including of the navvy's arm which show well the study of musculature already apparent in the earlier male nude. The painting as a whole is an astonishing commentary on the society it captured and is a major piece of work which, presented as the centre of this exhibition receives an attention it is worthy of being given rather more often. Alone it shows the major quality of FMB's art and gives a feeling of the waste that his lack of recognition in his time and since represents. It also demonstrates at one fell swoop how much more important an artist he was than the reference to the Pre-Raphaelites alone would suggest.

The next section on FMB, the "story-teller", presents a set of narrative paintings, some of which, such as Jesus Washing Peter's Feet, appear conventional enough. However, as the works up to this point should have taught us, FMB is consistently surprising. So, for example, Elijah and the Widow's Son, in presenting a resurrection scene suggests some subversions both in its treatment and in its subject. The subject overturns the concentration on the resurrection of Lazarus as Elijah has here brought a boy back to life. The treatment shows vivid and odd combinations. The prophet is shown in a very colourful cloak, the boy's beauty conveyed through a careful concentration in his face and the mother's acceptance of his return demonstrated through a posture that points upwards to the shadow of a dove. The combinations in the picture suggest allegorical sense without much clue given as to how to take them and yet in the far front corner of the painting a farm-yard combination of hen and chick suggest something everyday in the miraculous occurrence. Whatever the story here is FMB has left much open to conjecture.

Cromwell on His Farm reminds one of The Pretty Baa-Lambs in its scale and does also include quite a few farm animals including a horse that appears to have a concentration quite different to its rider. The picture captures Cromwell in 1630, at a time of doubt, prior to the commencement of his life's mission and engrossed in reflection. This is to be interrupted, however, by the appearance at the gate beside him, of a servant calling him to dinner. The great man is also flanked by common labourers whose place both in the picture and the economy of the farm is given some prominence. Whilst the picture fore-fronts a kind of grand claim for Cromwell it is also urging a perspective on greatness surrounded as it is by an everyday life that it depends on and which it is required to pay attention to (as Carlyle and Maurice are shown doing in Work).

The section on portrait painting includes a number of vivid subjects. Perhaps most striking is the pair of pictures The English Boy and The Irish Girl, both dating from 1860. The portrait of the boy shows a contented figure who has a whip in one hand and a top in the other. He stares directly and disarmingly out at the viewer and has long locks that suggest a kind of archaic look particularly given his smock. By contrast the girl has her head to one side, is wearing strong lip-stick and holds a flower whilst draped in a red shawl. She appears distant and possibly troubled and also older than her years unlike the boy who rests easily in childhood. Another picture of a girl Mauvais Sujet shows again disturbance. This girl is caught in the midst of a lesson but is concentrating on biting an apple so that her teeth are on display and her face suggests, as in The Irish Girl, a far-away look that indicates unhappiness with her situation. If The Irish Girl has at least the compensation of her red shawl, this girl, by contrast, dressed in a spotty green top, can boast only an ear-ring and has a much more unkempt hair-style.

So many of the portraits are spectacular that it is almost unfair to select from amongst them but perhaps the finest is Iza Hardy, a friend of the family who is captured here in browns that are simply exquisite. Her head to one side, she again appears ill at ease and her seated posture in an arm-chair blends her into her surroundings visually in a way that her expression distances her person from. Almost everything in this picture is perfect and it would be worth visiting the exhibition simply to see it.

The final part of the exhibition proper features designs of FMB, including plate glass windows, cabinets and furniture, the latter a testimony to his failed attempt at engaging with William Morris and Burne-Jones. But perhaps the final surprise is that, round the corner from the gallery, in the Victorian Manchester Town Hall, there are a series of murals that FMB was commissioned to add to the central room of the place. These works are, again, unexpected as they are not simple exercises in medievalism at all but indicate a very playful side to FMB. Included here are The Expulsion of the Danes From Manchester which contrives to make the Danes in question very comical, John Kay, Inventor of the Fly Shuttle, which shows the inventor being bundled out of the room to rescue him from Luddites and The Opening of the Bridgewater Canal at which the Duke opening it is up-staged by a passing barge that contains two very large babies. The feel of these works, like much else in FMB's oeuvre, is of an unclassifiable talent who was certainly much more than a "minor" adjunct of the Pre-Raphaelites and whose major works exceed almost any presentation of the latter's style.

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