We’ve been last week to the magnificent Ford Madox Brown exhibition at the City Art Gallery in Manchester. It has now closed. The first comprehensive showing of his work for 40 years, the exhibition vividly shows both Brown’s contribution to Victorian painting and the range of his work.
Celebrated in Manchester for his murals in the Town Hall, which were painted in the 1880s in the last years of his life, Brown was a big influence on the Pre-Raphaelites and can now be properly seen as a significant British 19th century artist with a strong social commitment obvious in his work.
He is best known perhaps for his painting Work, (opposite) created between 1852-1863 and based on a street scene in Hampstead in London where the road is being dug up by navvies, who are surrounded by a cast of Victorian city dwellers – flower sellers, drunks, bonneted young women, horse riders, porters as well as social reformer, Thomas Carlyle.
An excellent guide to the exhibition was available free to visitors, but it failed to note a significant date. Work was bought by Manchester’s City Art Galleries in 1885, the very same year in which they acquired another major painting, Hard Times, by the social realist and Bavarian born artist, Sir Hubert von Herkomer (see detail below).
This shows an unemployed navvy with his tools, accompanied by his nursing wife and exhausted son as they rest during their tramp through the country lanes in search of work.
1885-1886 were two years of high unemployment in Manchester, with demonstrations and rioting, mirroring similar unrest in London’s Trafalgar Square. This was causing panic in high circles with Joseph Chamberlain, President of the Local Government Board exclaiming on 26 March 1886 at a dinner party with Albert Grey, Arthur Balfour, MP and Lord Rothschild: “the look-out is alarming … if this goes on for three more years we may find ourselves en pleine revolution.”
The Manchester City councillors were similarly exercised. They wished to show they were in touch, that their collections strategy involved the purchase of paintings, which reflected the problems affecting the working classes. This was an issue of concern to Brown as well, who personally supported a bureau for helping the unemployed in the city.
My favourite painting in the exhibition is Brown’s The Last of England, painted between 1852-55 and now in the Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery collection. It’s a moving and colourful picture of a husband and wife with their children. Windswept and staring ahead, they are seated on the deck of a ship. They have just set set sail for Australia, a foreign land, where they are looking to find work.
Painted about the time that the crofters were forced to leave their lands in the Scottish clearances, the picture reminded me of the deserted crofts at Calgary on the Isle of Mull, which are shown on our Rooftop Buildings of the World photo gallery. The crofters too had been forced to leave their homes and land to seek a new future in America.