Ford Madox Brown, Manchester Art Gallery, review

imageA new show captures the brilliance of Ford Madox Brown, says Richard Dorment

Ford Madox Brown is the odd man out among the Pre-Raphaelites. Born in 1821 to English parents in Calais, he learnt to paint in the academies at Antwerp, Ghent and Paris. But from the beginning Brown was a paid-up member of the awkward squad. He rejected the academic systems and conventions he’d been taught at these institutions in favour of the archaic purity of line he found in the work of the German Nazarene painters, and although he shared the ideals of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, he never felt the need to became a member.

He’s a difficult artist to pigeonhole. Yes, he could handle paint with the meticulous precision of the Pre-Raphaelites at their most obsessive, and he was the first among them to integrate figures painted from life in his plein air landscapes. But his rigorous training on the Continent equipped him with the ability to build up complex compositions using the working procedures of academic history painters such as Paul Delaroche. And among his contemporaries only Gustave Courbet has anything like Brown’s imagination, ambition and moral authority.

Each of these facets is on display in Manchester Art Gallery’s splendidly realised survey of Brown’s work. The detailed naturalism of An English Autumn Afternoon, Hampstead – Scenery in 1853 looks to us like a typical Pre-Raphaelite landscape. Yet this bird’s-eye view over nondescript rooftops, garden sheds, orchards and dirt tracks represented a radical departure from the Ruskinian ideal of truth to nature. Ruskin thought the view “ugly”. When the critic asked why Brown chose to paint it, the artist replied “because it lay out of a back window”.

The idea that an artist could pick a subject virtually at random, and then spend weeks or months painting it was new in art. Brown painted exactly what happened to be there, without first seeking the view out or rearranging it to make it pretty. In his refusal to impose a pre-existing formula on his rendering of the landscape, he raised the horizon almost to the top of the picture, and dispensed both with a single point of focus and aerial perspective. He even used an oval-shaped canvas, because a rectangular one is simply another artistic convention – an artificial device for framing a natural vista and thereby turning it into a “view”.

As a literal transcription of the scenery around the periphery of north London at a certain time of day in late October, you might think that An English Autumn Afternoon contains little in the way of content. That would be wrong. In fact, the green patch we see in the middle distance is Hampstead Heath at the very moment when it was under threat of development. Conservationists were agitating to prevent the building of suburban villas on land that was then open to public access. Brown’s painting declares that this land is precious, this view must be preserved.

Seen in this light, one word in the picture’s title stands out: “English”. Apart from Hogarth, few other British painters have put England and Englishness so firmly at the heart of their work. From The Body of Harold Brought before William the Conqueror (1844) and paintings of scenes from Shakespeare and Byron to his late historical murals for Manchester’s town hall (1890s) Brown returned again and again to England’s history, literature, landscape and society.

His love of the country is evident everywhere in the show. In his jewel-like landscape Walton-on-Naze, Brown paints a self-portrait with his wife and daughter on a visit to the Essex coast. The child’s wet hair and the rainbow appearing over the rain-washed fields tell us that a shower has just passed, while the newly risen moon suggests a moment in late afternoon that has been frozen in time. But once again, buried within an apparently featureless view is the picture’s real subject. The Martello tower, the Union flag and the ship in full sail on the horizon are all evidence that Britain had just emerged from a tense period when for the first time since the Jacobite rebellion of 1745 the country had braced itself for invasion – this time by Napoleon III.

Among the supreme achievements in 19th-century British art, Brown’s best-known paintings, Work and The Last of England, are indebted to a genre invented by Hogarth, the “Modern Moral Subject”. Both refer specifically to British social issues, and both draw on a rich tradition in Britain of elevating caricature to the level of high art. Each could be described as a “state of the nation” picture because each looks at a country divided by inequality of wealth and class attempting to deal with overpopulation, immigration and unemployment.

The first thing to say about Work is that it is crowded – claustrophobically, irritatingly, elbow-in-your-ribs, grinding-to-a-halt crowded in a way that feels all too familiar today. The scene is a small street in Hampstead that workmen digging a new water main have closed to horse-drawn vehicles. Pedestrians are shunted into what you might call single-lane traffic on a temporary wooden walkway.

Work is not a good-natured picture. The muscular blond navvy at its centre is a fine specimen of English manhood. His hard-working mates have already started to drink beer brought in by a “pot boy” whose brutally battered face vividly attests to the link that has always existed in this country between alcohol and violence.

What the motherless waifs in the foreground are doing is not clear. The eldest may be begging for money, or beer, or perhaps pleading with their father not to drink himself senseless before he is paid.

And that’s just the natives. Brown lets us know (by the posters on the wall behind him) that a furtive, half-witted boy of mixed race carrying a tray of plants at the left was raised in an orphanage and will end up in jail, while to the right immigrants from Ireland are carefully differentiated between a stereotypical drunk and a young family who have come in search of work.

Then, as now, the English police are useless and the middle classes well-meaning but ineffective. A “peeler” in the background at the right manhandles a harmless orange seller, while a lady of gentle birth distributes improving pamphlets to people who can’t read. Mounted on horses at the back of the picture, an MP and his daughter look down on the congested scene as a source of inconvenience, while two intellectuals whom the artist admired, the historian Thomas Carlyle and the social reformer Frederick Maurice, comment on England’s future like a two-man Greek chorus.

Work is a celebration of the working class and a rebuke to police, politicians, and the leisured classes. The Last of England, on the other hand, speaks of resignation and defeat. Painted between 1852-55, it takes the circular form of a tondo, and shows a young couple on an immigrant ship seeking a better life in Australia. These are the kind of educated, respectable immigrants who 21st-century viewers know will do well in Australia. But Brown – and more importantly his characters – did not have this knowledge. In addition to the husband’s look of bitter humiliation and the wife’s tears, both fear for the future of their infant child.

Brown was a designer of stained glass and furniture for Morris, Marshall and Faulkner, and worked for two decades on the murals for Manchester town hall, but it is as a painter of modern life that his place in art history rests.

Since Manchester Art Gallery comprehensively messed up their big Holman Hunt exhibition two years ago, I’m delighted to report that this show couldn’t be better. They’ve borrowed all the showstoppers and spared us the duds. The installation is dignified and the catalogue by Julian Treuherz, Angela Thirwell and Kenneth Bendiner first class.

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