They are, perhaps, the most famous fingers in Victorian art. Peeping out of her shawl, Emma Madox Brown’s bare hand grasps the little fingertips of her infant son Oliver, who is otherwise invisible. Her other, gloved hand clutches that of her husband, Ford Madox Brown, whose knuckles are a painfully raw red. (With Pre-Raphaelite fidelity to nature, their flesh had been painted out of doors and in winter, while there was still snow on the ground.) Last of England is one of three paintings on contemporary themes that Ford Madox Brown conceived in 1852, when, as he admitted, he was feeling “intensely miserable, very hard up and a little mad”. The subject is emigration, which Madox Brown himself was contemplating at the time.
Madox Brown was an independent-minded loner, who never really fitted into the Victorian art world. He spent his early life and received his training on the Continent. His teachers included two pupils of David, from whom he derived his tight drawing style. Early works like Head of a Girl suggest that he may also have looked at Géricault’s portrait heads. Madox Brown was the John the Baptist of the Pre-Raphaelite movement and in Last of England produced one of the masterpieces of the style. But he never belonged to the Brotherhood and was gradually overtaken and overshadowed by his protégés. Unfortunately, he fell out with Ruskin, who might have boosted his career greatly, and was forced to depend on a few loyal patrons. In 1878 he finally got the commission he had been waiting for all his life—to paint a mural cycle on the history of Manchester for the town hall, but it came too late. The result was ambitious, but awkward: “Full of all the vitality, oddities and brilliant immediacy of presentation characteristic of his paintings,” as Mary Bennett puts it.
In 1964 Mary Bennett organised a Madox Brown exhibition at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool—the first for over 50 years. With her subsequent shows on Rossetti and Holman Hunt, it was to play a key part in the post-war revival of interest in the Pre-Raphaelites. Accompanying the Madox Brown exhibition was a slim, but fact-full grey pamphlet of 36 pages. Fifty-six years later, she has finally delivered the long-hoped-for catalogue raisonné: two large volumes and a handsome slip case weighing in at five kilos. It covers not only the famous subject paintings and their related drawings and engravings, but also portraits, cartoons and designs (chiefly for stained glass for Morris & Co), book illustrations and prints, furniture and picture frames (the last section, written by Lynn Roberts and, like the rest, comprehensively and lavishly illustrated in colour). The entries on the major works comprise substantial essays, with all the catalogue apparatus you would expect, together with extensive extracts from his diary, letters and contemporary criticism. For the first time, we are able to see Madox Brown’s achievement in the round. His output was not huge, but it is complicated, because, like his friend Rossetti, he was wont to repaint earlier works and turn out replicas to pay the bills. Bennett is a sure unraveller of these knots, and it is difficult to see how her catalogue (published to Yale’s usual exemplary standard with the patient support of the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art) could have been done better. It joins the catalogues of Rossetti by Virginia Surtees and Holman Hunt by Judith Bronkhurst. All we now await are Malcolm Warner’s Millais and John Christian’s Burne-Jones, and the five major painters of the Pre-Raphaelite movement will have received the scholarly treatment they deserve.
The National Trust, Ford Madox Brown: a Catalogue Raisonné, Mary Bennett (The Paul Mellon Centre for British Art in association with Yale University Press), two volumes, 686pp, £125 (hb) ISBN 9780300165913
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'The Pre-Raphaelites: three down, two to go'