In praise of work

Dinah Birch

  • Ford Madox Brown and the Pre-Raphaelite Circle by Teresa Newman and Ray Watkinson
    Chatto, 226 pp, £50.00, July 1991, ISBN 0 7011 3186 1

Ford Madox Brown’s greatest picture is called Work, and it depicts the laying of a sewer. It is not beautiful. But that is part of Brown’s point, for he was after qualities that counted for more than beauty. Its subject was carefully chosen. Brown knew that sewers mattered. The threat of cholera haunted Mid-Victorian England, and only efficient sanitation could remove it. Seeing a group of labourers excavating some of the first suburban sewers in Hampstead in 1852, he realised that what he was looking at was a proper subject for ‘the powers of an English painter’. It took Brown 13 years to finish this ambitious picture. He endlessly packed and re-packed the picture to accommodate more thought, more observation, further depths of conviction. It was a painting that became a manifesto, a text to be read and learned from.

The Carlylean hero of the picture is a youthful navvy, wielding a shovel with self-assured pride. Other emblems of work don’t look quite so dignified. A well-to-do couple on horseback are (the lesson can’t be missed) seen in deep shade, demoted to the background of the picture, their way barred by the crowded diggings. A young lady distributes tracts. A crazed herb-seller moves anxiously forward. Carlyle himself is there, on the sidelines, looking curiously furtive. Central to the picture is its heroine, her poised gesture reflecting that of the valiant workman who stands behind her. She is a ragged child in charge of an unruly brood of siblings. A thoughtful baby wearing a mourning ribbon on its sleeve gazes out at us over the girl’s shoulder. The mother of the family, Brown explained, has died; her daughter is trying to take her place.

The celebration of the girl’s loving work was crucial to what Brown wanted the painting to teach, for the beliefs that motivated Work, unlike those of his master Carlyle, were defined by his commitment to the life of the family. No Victorian artist painted children with more attention and intensity. It was typical of Brown to focus his magnum opus on a baby’s face. The model for the child was his own son, Arthur, born in 1856. Work became in part an elaborate memorial for the boy, who died before he was a year old. Brown, at a low point in his uncertain fortunes, had to borrow money to pay for his funeral. Throughout his long and laborious life, Brown remained a family man. He was never free from the anxieties and griefs which went with the responsibilities of having a dependent family. On the other hand, he never had to do without their unfaltering loyalty and support. They were the source of the sturdy confidence that enabled him to maintain his own lines of development in the face of discouragement and misfortune that would have swallowed a weaker man.

In this unpretentious and deeply affectionate biography, Teresa Newman and Ray Watkinson show how fiercely Brown maintained this independence. He was closely associated with the Pre-Raphaelite movement, but never as an insider. Nor was he included in the establishment of painters represented by the Royal Academy. Proud and prickly, he went his own way. This was partly because he was not altogether an Englishman, though his mature work was all done in England and his strongest painting claims a quintessentially English identity. His mother was from Kent, but his father was of Edinburgh descent, a naval officer living on half-pay in France. Brown was born in Calais, and his early life was spent on the French coast. He was not sent to school, learning to read and write (though never, reliably, to spell) from his mother. As his father descended into misanthropic ill health, Brown began to prepare to earn the family’s living. To this end, he trained as a professional painter from his early teens. At 14 he enrolled at the Academy in Bruges, where he was impressed by Flemish painting. Later he studied at Ghent and in the Antwerp Academy. Unlike William Morris, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, or Edward Burne-Jones, Brown profited from a broad and thorough education in the business of painting. Later, his art became a passion and a vocation. But it never ceased to be a job from which a living had somehow to be wrung.

Adult cares came early. His devoted mother and sister both died of tuberculosis in 1841, when Brown was 18. A year later, he married his Kentish cousin Elisabeth, and began to produce voguishly melodramatic and Byronic pictures in Paris. Within months, his ailing father was dead, very soon followed by his first child. Elisabeth, too, was consumptive, and within five years she too died. Brown had lost mother, sister, father, child and wife. Only Lucy, his second child, survived. A 25-year-old widower, he now settled in England for good.

He was painting as hard as ever. Brown’s first major picture was, like Work, in memory of the dead: it was to be ‘Elisabeth’s picture’. It had been planned with her, shaped by her love of English literature. From the first, poetry had provided the subjects of his painting. Elisabeth’s picture was called The Seeds and Fruits of English Poetry. Huge, assertive and patriotic, it represents Chaucer reading aloud to the assembled court of Edward III. On either side, Chaucer’s laurelled successors are grouped: Milton, Spenser, Shakespeare, Byron, Pope and Bums. It was a massive undertaking, and Brown struggled to finish it. There were doubts. New ideas were in the air, and Brown’s composition came to seem uncomfortably grandiose and old-fashioned. Another picture was begun – simpler, lighter in tonality, distinctly medieval in mood. Wycliffe reading his translation of the Bible to John of Gaunt, Chaucer and Gower present was started in 1847, a year before the foundation of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Nevertheless it has the feel of a Pre-Raphaelite picture.

Brown was never a member of the Brotherhood. But his steadfast professionalism earned him the respect and to some extent the emulation of the younger Pre-Raphaelites – especially of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who revered his ‘glorious works’ more than those of any other painter, and wrote fulsomely to tell him so. Brown’s first reaction was to assume that Rossetti’s unctuous adulation had been intended as mockery, and he marched round with a stout stick to sort him out: but he found his young admirer sufficiently beguiling to forget the cudgel and accept him as a pupil. The lessons were not a success Confronted with the disciplined programme of study demanded by Brown, Rossetti soon tiptoed away. But he continued to depend on Brown for encouragement and advice throughout his erratic life, and Brown never failed him. When his daughter Lucy married William Rossetti, Gabriel’s brother, in 1874, the tie was strengthened. One of the revelations of this book is the remarkable extent of Rossetti’s lifelong debt to Brown.

Rossetti was a protégé of both Ruskin and Brown, but Brown was his first and most enduring hero and mentor. This may have chilled the air between the two older men. They approved of the same people, but they could never bear each other. For Brown, the enmity was unlucky. In the 1850s Ruskin’s public applause was useful to a painter who needed to sell, and Ruskin would never consent to praise Brown’s work. The two men were close enough to be rivals. There are some odd parallels in their lives: they were much of an age (Ruskin was two years older), both had Scottish ancestry, neither went to school, both had parents convinced of their genius. Both were proud and easily angered. Eventually, they came to mirror each other as bearded grand old men. But Ruskin was sheltered by wealth, Brown was not. Ruskin did not need to sell pictures. He did not even need to sell books. Perhaps this was embittering for Brown. And perhaps Ruskin envied Brown’s ability to produce painting on a scale that was beyond his own powers. What is certain is that each thought the other ignorant and arrogant. Brown had not been to Oxford; Ruskin had not been to Antwerp Academy. They could never agree about what painting should be. Brown’s pictures seemed to Ruskin perverse and ugly in their examination of contemporary life, their social observation, their steady refusal to idealise the human face. Brown could not be doing with Ruskin’s insistence on forms of transcendence, or his claims for the primacy of the spiritual in art. Their politics were as diverse as their critical principles. Ruskin’s interest in the welfare of the labouring classes was always paternalistic. Brown, never quite secure in his status as a gentleman and constantly straining to pay his way, saw the issues from quite another perspective – moreover, he had fallen in love with an illiterate bricklayer’s daughter, and that made all the difference.

She was called Emma, and she was one of several women who found work as a model in Brown’s studio. Her quiet, light-eyed face looks out from many of Brown’s pictures – most famously from The Last of England, where she is calmly stationed next to a brooding and Napoleonic Brown as he takes a fantasy-leave of a thankless country. Emma was kind and cheerful, and she idolised Brown. Soon she was pregnant. There was no wedding, but no abandonment either. Instead, Brown hid Emma away in a cottage on the edge of Clapham Common, and started to teach her to read and write. She went, briefly, to school, while continuing to work as Brown’s model. In 1853 they were at last married, and in 1855 another child was born. A second family had taken the place of the one that Brown had lost.

A new family meant new obligations. Brown’s need for money became acute. This was a pressure that had some constructive results, for it forced him to evolve techniques other than the meticulously detailed and prodigiously time-consuming methods he had previously favoured. Landscapes from the late 1850s are among the most innovative and beautiful pictures that Brown ever painted – The Hayfield, The Brent at Hendon, the marvellous Carrying corn. None of this cheered Brown up. It was at this time that he was working on The Last of England, his bleakest picture. He was contemplating trying for a new life in India. But The Last of England sold for more than Brown had ever made from a picture before, and the price of earlier pictures also began to rise. He forgot about India. Instead, he took a larger house and made a determined bid for the life of a flourishing painter.

He succeeded, more or less, though it was touch and go. There was some gratifying recognition, especially in the industrial cities of the North, where Brown always found acceptance easier to come by than in London. Jesus Washing Peter’s feet, a meditative picture which fuses Christian doctrine with Brown’s idiosyncratic socialism, won a prize of £50 in Liverpool. Thomas Plint of Leeds commissioned Work for 400 guineas, far more than had previously come his way tor any picture. Yet Brown continued to run out of money regularly, and to the end of his life did not achieve the prosperity which seemed his due. Precarious finances were less wounding than public disregard, for Brown’s work never became fashionable. He was too uncompromising for that.

There were compensations, his children chief among them. Three reached adulthood: Lucy, child of his first marriage; Cathy, who married the German Franz Hueffer and is now mostly remembered as the mother of Ford Madox Ford; and Oliver – ‘Nolly’ – Brown’s surviving son. All grew into accomplished painters, taught by Brown in what became a busy family studio. Lucy and Cathy began to exhibit independently, to some applause. Brown took untold pleasure in the progress of his students. Less happily, he conceived a romantic passion for a weekly pupil called Marie Spartali, a talented Greek who did not return his feelings. Her marriage removed her from Brown’s circle, and left him melancholy for months.

Family, and work, could be depended on. Browns inventive days as a painter were over, and he was more and more bound up with what his children might produce. He settled all his highest hopes on his son. In 1871 Nolly wrote his first novel, a dramatic romance called The Black Swan. To Brown’s boundless joy, Smith Elder accepted it, and it was duly published. A second book began to take shape. But before it could find a publisher, Nolly contracted an indeterminate fever. Doctors could do nothing, and Emma and Brown watched helplessly through the miserable weeks of decline. On Guy Fawkes night Nolly died, to the sound of exuberant fireworks and celebrations outside his window. Brown wrote of it to Rossetti. ‘One of the last things he uttered was: “Courage, father, you’ll need it tomorrow.” ’

Courage was one thing Brown did not lack. On the day of Nolly’s funeral, he called Emma and Cathy to his side and forbade them to shed a single tear: ‘This is the funeral of my son and not a puppet show.’ As he had before, Brown set himself ‘to patch up what remains of hope in other directions and get to work again’. There was more to do than ever. He secured the job of painting mural decorations for Alfred Waterhouse’s Gothic Town Hall in Manchester. He tackled this mammoth assignment with undepleted drive, moving to Manchester while the paintings were in progress. The completed murals were vast and a little preposterous. But they have a heroic spirit.

The last years of Brown’s life were spent in London, surrounded by family. It was a comfort to discover that his grandson Ford Hueffer looked as though he might be a writer, as Nolly had been. He found much enjoyment in illustrating Ford’s first book, The Brown Owl. Brown died in 1893, still hard at work. It was Ford who published the first memoir of his grandfather’s life. He was as loyal to Brown as all those who knew him seem to have been. For all his notorious pride and grumpiness, Brown was and remains an immensely likeable figure. Newman and Watkinson are to be counted among his friends. Their book offers an engagingly partisan account of Brown’s career, prefaced by the claim that he is ‘the most underrated figure in British art of the 19th century’. The absorbing illustrations do not contradict this contention, though the authors are right to point out that the rich detail of the most significant painting (in Work especially) does not reproduce well. It would be good, after this book, to have the chance to see the pictures together.