Dictionary of National Biography, 1901 supplement/Brown, Ford Madox
BROWN, FORD MADOX (1821–1893), painter, was born at Calais, where, because of their narrow circumstances, his parents were then living, on 16 April 1821. His father. Ford Brown, a retired commissary in the British navy, in which capacity he had served on board the Saucy Arethusa of that day, was the second son of Dr. John Brown (1735–1788) [q. v.] At Calais Ford Madox, who owed his second name to his mother, daughter of Tristram Maries Madox of Greenwich, a member of a reputable Kentish family, showed, even in childhood, strong artistic proclivities, which his father assisted by placing the lad successively under Professor Gregorius in the academy at Bruges, under Van Hanselaer at Ghent, and finally with Baron Wappers, a very accomplished and successful teacher, though an indifferent artist, who was then at the head of the academy at Antwerp. It was at Antwerp that, during a sojourn of nearly three years, the youth, who was already producing portraits for small sums and otherwise testing his skill, acquired that sound and searching knowledge of technical methods, from oil-painting to lithography, which distinguished him in after-life. So early as 1837 a work by Brown was exhibited with success at Ghent, and in 1839 he sold a picture in England. In 1840 he married his first wife, his cousin Elizabeth, sister of Sir Richard Madox Bromley [q. v.] Pursuing his studies with extreme zest and energy, Madox Brown was able to exhibit at the English academy in 1841 'The Giaour's Confession,' a Byronic subject treated in the Byronic manner, but powerfully and with sympathetic insight of a sort. He worked at Antwerp and, later, in Paris till 1842. About this period he executed on a life-size scale the very dark and conventional 'Parisina's Sleep,' which, before it was shown at the British Institution in 1845, had the strange fortune of being rejected at the salon of 1843 because it was 'too improper.'
In 1843-4 Madox Brown was still in Paris, diligently copying old masters' pictures in the Louvre, studying from the life in the ateliers of his contemporaries, and ambitiously devoting himself to the preparation of works intended to compete at the exhibition in Westminster Hall. There, in 1844, Brown laid the foundations of his honours in artistic if not in popular opinion by means of a cartoon of life-size figures representing in a vigorous and expressive design the 'Bringing the Body of Harold to the Conqueror;' he also exhibited an encaustic sketch, and a smaller cartoon. In 1845 he was again represented at Westminster by three works, being frescoes, including a figure of 'Justice,' which won all artistic eyes and the highest praise of B. R. Haydon. Nothing was then rarer in London than a fresco. Dyce alone had produced an important example of the method.
Induced by his wife's bad health to visit Italy in 1845, Brown studied largely at Rome from the works of Michael Angelo and Raphael, and thus enhanced his appreciation of style in art. After nine months the breaking down of his wife's constitution compelled their rapid return to England; but she died while they were passing through Paris in May 1845. She was buried in Highgate cemetery. In 1846, and somewhat later, Brown was in London collating authorities as to the compilation of a portrait of Shakespeare, in which, as the result attests, the artist went as near as possible to success. This picture, after being long in the possession of the artist's friend, Mr. Lowes Dickinson, was acquired by the Manchester Art Gallery in 1900. In Rome Brown had made a design for a very important picture of 'Wycliff reading his Translation of the Bible to John of Gaunt,' which in 1847 was completed in London and publicly shown at the 'Free Exhibition' in 1848; owing to its brilliance, extreme finish, and delicacy of tint and tone, as well as to a certain fresco-like quality, it attracted much attention, but it was an artificially balanced composition, and a certain 'German' air pervaded it.
This picture elicited from Dante G. Rossetti a somewhat juvenile letter, earnestly begging Brown to accept the writer as a pupil, and Brown generously took the somewhat unteachable young student under his charge. By this means Brown was brought into close relations with the seven artists who had just formed themselves into the Society of Pre-Raphaelite brethren. Three of the six artists—Millais, D. G. Rossetti, and the present writer—at once formally approached Brown with an invitation to join them; but Brown declined the invitation mainly because of the very exaggerated sort of 'realism' which for a short time at the outset was affected by the brotherhood. But until death parted them he was on very affectionate terms with five of the brethren—James Collinson and Mr. Holman Hunt in addition to the three already named—and upon the art of all of them his influence, as well as theirs upon his art, was not small. But in 1848 he was far in advance of the Pre-Raphaelites in his accomplishment as an artist, and their influence on him developed very gradually. Through 1848, the year in which the brotherhood was formed, it was not apparent at all. None of Brown's pictures, in fact, exhibited with signal effect that sort of realistic painting which is ignorantly supposed to have been the ne plus ultra of the Pre-Raphaelite faith, until the brotherhood was beginning to dissolve. In 1848 Brown painted 'The Infant's Repast,' which was simply a brilliant study of the effect of firelight, and was void of those higher and dramatic aims which distinguished the contemporary paintings of Millais, Rossetti, Collinson, and Mr. Holman Hunt. Brown's most realistic and 'actual' achievement was his 'Work' of 1852, and his 'Last of England' of 1855. It was highly characteristic of Brown that he carried into execution in these fine pictures the original principles of the brotherhood he refused to join. He had already made himself, however, so far an ally of the society that when their magazine, 'The Germ,' was published in 1850 he contributed poetry, prose, and an etching illustrating his conception of Lear and Cordelia's history.
Meanwhile, continuing in his own course. Brown produced 'Cordelia at the Bedside of Lear,' 1849, a wonderfully sympathetic, dramatic, and vigorous picture brilliantly painted; and 'Christ washing Peter's Feet,' 1851, partly repainted in 1856, 1871, and 1892, and now one of the masterpieces in the National Gallery at Millbank. 'Work,' which is now conspicuous in the public gallery at Manchester, was begun in 1852 and finished in 1868; it was painted inch by inch in broad daylight, in the street at Hampstead, and is a composition of portraits the most diverse. It illustrates not merely Brown's artistic knowledge, skill, and genius, but the stringency of his political views at the time, and is a sort of pictorial essay produced under the mordant influence of Thomas Carlyle and the gentler altruism of F. D. Maurice; it comprises likenesses of both these thinkers. After 'Work' was well advanced. Brown's masterpiece, the immeasurably finer 'Last of England,' took its place upon the easel. This type of Pre-Raphaelitism at its best is now a leading ornament of the public gallery at Birmingham. It has been said of it that 'Brown never painted better, and few pictures represent so well or so adequately the passionate hopes and lofty devotion of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood when it came into being.' Its two figures are exact and profoundly moving portraits of Brown himself and his second wife, while the incident it immortalises was witnessed by the painter while going to Gravesend to see Thomas Woolner [q.v.], then a Pre-Raphaelite brother, embark on his way to the Australian gold diggings. The immediate subject of his great picture may have been forced upon him by this incident. At the time the work was undertaken Brown's own pecuniary circumstances were much straitened and a collapse was threatening.
In succeeding years Brown's more important paintings were 'The Death of Sir Tristram,' 1863, the grim grotesqueness of which emphasised the artist's dramatising power. But it did not show those less favourable elements of his art which are marked in such designs as 'Jacob and Joseph's Coat,' where the ill-conditioned sons of the patriarch present to him the blood-stained garment of their brother, and a dog is made to smell the stain! Then came 'King René's Honeymoon,' 1863, where the amorous queen caresses her gentle spouse in a charmingly naïve manner; the vigorous and powerful 'Elijah and the Widow's Son,' where the prophet carries the boy down a flight of steps (the finest version of this design is at South Kensington); 'Cordelia's Portion,' which belongs to Mr. Albert Wood of Conway; 'The Entombment of Christ,' a composition worthy of a great old Italian master, 1866-9; 'Don Juan found by Haidee,' an inferior work in every respect, which, unfortunately for Brown's fame, has found a place in the Luxembourg at Paris; 'Sardanapalus,' 1869, a noble design, disfigured by some questionable drawing; and 'Cromwell on his Farm,' 1877, a somewhat overrated picture.
In 1878 Brown began to paint in panels on the wall of the town hall at Manchester, and, as a commission from that city, a series of works designed to illustrate the history of the place. These are twelve in number, and as a completed series they are unique and unrivalled in this country, though indeed the examples, compared with each other, are not a little unequal; the best of them is 'The Romans building Manchester,' in which Brown's quaint vein of humour is manifest in the incident of the centurion's spoilt little son kicking at the face of his guardian; the same vein appeared in another panel at Manchester of 'The Expulsion of the Danes,' where little pigs escaping get between the legs of the marauders and upset them. 'Crabtree watching the Transit of Venus,' 1882, has, despite some awkwardness in its technique, a singularly expressive and original design. The face and figure of Crabtree are worthy of Brown's best years.
Proud and sensitive, Brown was always keenly resentful of neglect or injury, real or imaginary. In fact, he was by nature a rebel, and his influence upon not a few who became eminent made him a sort of centre for many varieties of discontent. A lifelong quarrel with the Royal Academy began in 1851, when room equal to that of ten ordinary works was given in the exhibition of that year to his huge canvas, 'Chaucer reading the Legend of Custance,' but its position caused Brown dissatisfaction, which never left him. He ceased to send his pictures to its exhibitions after 1855, cherishing thenceforth antagonism against all constituted artistic societies. His quarrel with the academy marred the effect which his genius and great technical resources might have produced upon the art of his contemporaries. In 1865 Brown made a numerous collection of his pictures, and exhibited them in Piccadilly with some éclat. He gained two prizes in the Liverpool Academy, by awarding which the artistic members of that society so greatly offended their lay patrons as to induce a revolution in its history. He contributed to the Paris exhibitions in 1855 and 1889; to the Manchester Art Treasures of 1857, and to various galleries in Edinburgh, Liverpool, Birmingham, and Manchester. Brown was one of the founders of the original Hogarth Club in London, which included among its members W. Burges, Sir F. Burton, Lord Leighton, Rossetti, G. E. Street, and Thomas Woolner; and at the little so-called Pre-Raphaelite exhibition in Russell Place, Fitzroy Square, there were several pictures of his.
Desiring to develop a love for art in England, Brown was one of the first of English artists who, at Camden Town, many years before the Working Men's College in Great Ormond Street was founded, helped to establish a drawing-school for artisans. At the Working Men's College, which was constituted in 1854, he was from the first among the soundest teachers, giving his time, knowledge, and skill without remuneration. For some years—from 1861 to 1874—he was a leading member of the firm of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner, & Co., decorative artists and manufacturers of artistic furniture, which was founded by William Morris [q. v. Suppl.] and his friends in Red Lion Square, and ultimately—after 1874—became Morris's sole concern. The firm's influence upon decorative art has been revolutionary and of the greatest value. Many of its best works in stained glass and other methods of design were by Brown.
In 1891 a number of artists (including many royal academicians) and amateurs subscribed about 900l. in order to secure for the National Gallery a picture which should adequately represent Brown's art. This compliment, paid mainly by painters to a painter, is unique, and of the highest kind. Death intervening, the commission thus offered was never completed, but with a portion of the money 'Christ washing Peter's Feet' was bought for the National Gallery, where it now is, the large cartoon of 'The Body of Harold brought to the Conqueror' was secured for the South London Art Gallery, and a number of designs, which are chiefly decorative, were bought and distributed among the art schools of England.
Late in his life Brown had a full share of domestic troubles. In November 1874 his mind and heart were convulsed by the death of his son Oliver, a youth upon whose future he had founded ambitious and splendid hopes [see Brown, Oliver Madox]. His friend Rossetti died on 9 April 1882, and in October 1890 Mrs. Madox Brown, the painter's second wife. It was then manifest to his friends that his own powers were failing. But he lived until 6 Oct. 1893; five days later he was buried in the cemetery at Finchley, where the remains of his second wife and son were already laid. He was, except perhaps Millais, the most English of the English artists of his time.
Brown married his second wife, Emma Hill, the daughter of a Herefordshire farmer, in 1848; she was only fifteen at the time, and her mother's opposition to the marriage led to an elopement. Brown's elder daughter, Lucy, married Mr. William M. Rossetti, the younger brother of the artist [see Rossetti, Lucy Madox]; his younger daughter, Catherine, married Franz (or Francis) Hueffer [q. v.], and their son, Mr. Ford Madox Hueffer, published in 1896 a biography of the painter, his grandfather.
Besides the portrait of himself which Brown introduced into his 'The Last of England' (now at the Birmingham Art Gallery), there is a second portrait by him, of himself, which was exhibited in the New Gallery, London, in 1900; a reproduction is given in Mr. F. M. Hueffer's 'Memoir.' Several of his pictures, including 'The Last of England,' 'Work,' 'Sardanapalus,' 'Elijah and the Widow's Son,' 'Cordelia,' and 'Christ washing Peter's Feet,' have been engraved.
[Personal knowledge; Memoir of Madox Brown by his grandson. Mr. F. M. Hueffer (1896); two articles in the 'Portfolio' (1893) by the present writer, which were seen in proof and approved by Madox Brown.]