Ford Madox Brown (16 April 1821 – 6
October 1893) was an English painter of moral and historical
subjects, notable for his distinctively graphic and often Hogarthian
version of the Pre-Raphaelite style. Arguably, his most notable
painting was Work (1852–1865). Brown spent the latter years of his
life painting the Manchester Murals, depicting Mancunian history,
for Manchester Town Hall.
Brown was the grandson of the medical theorist John Brown, founder
of the Brunonian system of medicine. His great grandfather was a
Scottish labourer. His father Ford Brown served as a purser in the
Royal Navy, including a period serving under Sir Isaac Coffin and a
period on HMS Arethusa. He left the Navy after the end of the
In 1818, Ford Brown married
Caroline Madox, of an old Kentish family, from which his middle name
was taken. Brown's parents had limited financial resources, and
they moved to Calais to seek cheaper lodgings, where their daughter
Elizabeth Coffin was born in 1819 and their son Ford Madox Brown in
Brown's education was limited, as
the family frequently moved between lodgings in the Pas de Calais
and relatives in Kent, but he showed artistic talent in copying of
old master prints. His father initially sought a naval career for
his son, writing to his former captain Sir Isaac Coffin. The family
moved to Bruges in 1835 so Brown could study at the academy under
Albert Gregorius. Brown moved to Ghent in 1836 to continue his
studies under Pierre Van Hanselaer. He moved to Antwerp in 1837 to
study under Egide Charles Gustave Wappers. He continued to study in
Antwerp after his mother's death in 1839. His sister died in 1840,
and then his father in 1842.
The Tate Gallery holds an early example of Brown's work, a portrait
of his father. He first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1840, a
work inspired by Lord Byron's poem The Giaour (now lost) and then
completed a version of The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, with
his cousin and future wife Elisabeth Bromley as one of his models.
He lived in Montmartre with his new wife and aging father in 1841.
He painted Manfred on the Jungfrau, inspired by Lord Byron's poem
Manfred while he was in Paris.
In 1843 he submitted work to the
Westminster Cartoon Competition, for compositions to decorate the
new Palace of Westminster. His entry, The Body of Harold Brought
before William, was not successful. His early works were, however,
greatly admired by the young Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who asked him
to become his tutor. Through Rossetti, Brown came into contact with
the artists who went on to form the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.
Though closely linked to them, he was never actually a member of the
brotherhood itself, but adopted the bright colours and realistic
style of William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais. He was also
influenced by the works of Holbein that he saw in Basel in 1845, and
by Friedrich Overbeck and Peter Cornelius, whom he met in Rome in
Brown struggled to make his mark in
the 1850s, with his paintings failing to find buyers, and he
considered emigrating to India. In 1852 he started work on two of
his most significant works.
One of his most famous images is
The Last of England, painted from 1852 to 1855, which was sold in
March 1859 for 325 Guineas (2010: £26,700). It depicts a pair of
stricken emigrants as they sail away on the ship that will take them
from England forever. It was inspired by the departure of the
Pre-Raphaelite sculptor Thomas Woolner, who had left for Australia.
In an unusual tondo format, the painting is structured with Brown's
characteristic linear energy, and emphasis on apparently grotesque
and banal details, such as the cabbages hanging from the ship's
side. The husband and wife are portraits of Brown and his second
Brown, at left, with William Holman Hunt.
Caricature by Max Beerbohm from Rossetti and His Circle.
Brown's most important painting was Work (1852–1865), begun in
Hampstead in 1852. Its completion was commissioned by Thomas Plint,
but he died in 1861 before Brown completed the work. and which he
showed at his retrospective exhibition in 1865. It attempted to
depict the totality of the mid-Victorian social experience in a
single image, depicting 'navvies' digging up a road, Heath Street in
Hampstead, London, and disrupting the old social hierarchies as they
did so. The image erupts into proliferating details from the dynamic
centre of the action, as the workers tear a hole in the road – and,
symbolically, in the social fabric. Each character represents a
particular social class and role in the modern urban environment.
Brown wrote a catalogue to accompany the special exhibition of Work.
This publication included an extensive explanation of Work that
nevertheless leaves many questions unanswered. Brown's concern with
the social issues addressed in Work prompted him to open a soup
kitchen for Manchester's hungry, and to attempt to aid the city's
unemployed to find work by founding a labour exchange.
Ford Madox Brown
Brown found patrons in the north of
England, including Plint, George Rae from Birkenhead, John Miller
from Liverpool, and James Leathart from Newcastle. He lost patience
with his poor reception at the Royal Academy, by the late 1850s, and
cease to show his works there, rejecting an offer from Millais to
support him becoming and associate member. He founded the Hogarth
Club in 1858, with William Morris, Edward Burne-Jones and his former
pupil Rossetti. After a successful periods of a few years, the club
reach over 80 members, including several prominent members of the
Royal Academy, but Brown resigned in 1860 and the club collapsed in
From the 1860s, Brown also designed
furniture and stained glass. He was a founder partner of William
Morris's design company, Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co., in 1861,
which dissolved in 1874 with Morris continuing on his own. He was a
close friend of the landscape artist Henry Mark Anthony.
Brown's major achievement after
Work was "The Manchester Murals", a cycle of twelve paintings in the
Great Hall of Manchester Town Hall depicting the history of the
city. Brown would be 72 by the time he finished the murals. In
total, he took six years perfecting the murals, which were his last
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