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Culture: Square peg in a new tradition; Visual arts Terry Grimley reviews an indepth exhibition devoted to the Pre-Raphaelites' odd man out.

Byline: Terry Grimley

It is difficult to think of a painting that would represent most people's idea of Pre-Raphaelite art more effectively than The Last of England by Ford Madox Brown - an iconic image of Britain at the midpoint of the 19th century and one of Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery's greatest treasures.

And yet Brown is the odd one out among the group of four major artists who are most closely associated with the movement (the others being William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti), in that he was never actually a member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Hence the title of Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery's exhibition, Ford Madox Brown: the Unofficial Pre-Raphaelite.

The exhibition draws on the museum's extraordinarily extensive collection of Pre-Raphaelite drawings, including quite a number which I have never seen before. They range from early training studies through preparatory drawings for various major paintings to book illustrations and some late large-scale portraits in pastel. The exhibition also touches on his stained glass designs for Morris, Faulkner & Co, of which he was a founder member, and for which he also designed furniture.

Brown was inevitably something of an outsider, having been born in Calais in 1821 and trained in Belgium. This cosmopolitan background continued with a visit to Rome in 1845.

There is a drawing he did there of a Roman copy of a Greek statue which demonstrates his command (in black chalk, the preferred medium for his early drawings) of academic draughtsmanship.

After this, the immediacy of a half-length male nude study done in a London drawing academy between 1846 and 1849 is startling.

The muscular model who seems to breathe before your eyes might just have walked in from a building site like the one Brown later painted in Work.

For me, Brown was at his best when dealing with the contemporary world in paintings like Work, The Last of England and An English Autumn Afternoon, rather than dressing up in historic costume. But in the late 1840s, just before the Pre-Raphaelite moment, he was already working on elaborate history paintings like Chaucer at the Court of Edward III and Wycliffe Reading His Translation of the Bible. Numerous studies for the many figures in these paintings feature here, together with a sheet of studies of costume taken from various textbooks on the subject. It is interesting to notice how Brown started with a nude study of a young man for the full-length figure of Wycliffe, later grafting on the old man's face which is the subject of a separate drawing.

The unexpected 18th century costume of Pretty Baa-Lambs, a painting which now seems most interesting for its rendering of a quintessential English landscape with what looks suspiciously like an industrial haze on the horizon, apparently regects an artistic vogue of the time. There is a large watercolour illustration to Sterne's Sentimental Journey which shows the fashion for 18th century literature.

But in 1852, on the early good-tide of Pre-Raphaelitism, Brown started work on his masterpiece The Last of England. An important ingredient was Emma Hill, who became his model in 1848 at the age of 19 (there's a tiny pencil portrait of her from that year, perhaps signihcantly dated "Xmas") and his wife shortly afterwards.

In the painting Brown shows Emma and himself as an emigrating couple, both staring anxiously into the distance, absorbed in their thoughts, with their small daughter Katty (eating an apple to the left of the painting) and baby son Oliver, whose hand can just be seen protruding from Emma's shawl. The painting was prompted by the sculptor Thomas Woolner emigrating to Australia but Brown, who described himself at this time as hard-up and a little mad, was also seriously considering emigrating to India.

As well as the painting, which took three years to complete, Birmingham has a pencil study of Emma's head and a drawing of the complete composition. While Birmingham has the main version of The Last of England, its version of Work is a smaller and later replica (from 1863) of the painting in Manchester City Art Gallery.

An elaborate "state-of-the-nation" painting inspired by the writings of social philosopher Thomas Carlyle and extolling the supposed ennobling qualities of honest labour, Work is a wonderful painting for absorbing close-up microscopic detail, including faithfully reproduced posters and even grafhti, in its busy scene of labourers at work in a still-recognisable street in Hampstead.

An interesting point about Work is that it is an early example of a painter making use of photography. Carlyle was too busy to pose for drawings, so instead popped into "Mr Thompson's Photographic Establishment" to have his picture taken in the loahng pose familiar from the painting. The albumen print shown here may be the one that Brown made use of in his studio.

Hampstead is also the location for An English Autumn Afternoon, in which Brown refreshingly relinquishes the social soapbox to revel in the colours of a semi-urban panorama in late October. It's a painting which, together with the small landscape Walton-on-the-Naze, should remind us that as well as being a fine draughtsman Brown was also an outstanding colourist.

Challenged by Ruskin as to why he had painted such an "ugly" subject, Brown responded "because it lay out of a back window", a realist attitude which suggests an unexpected kinship with his French near-contemporary Gustave Courbet.

Returning to the drawings, a French parallel also suggests itself for what is perhaps the single most startling image in the entire exhibition - a pencil study of a corpse made at University College Hospital, London, in 1856 which recalls the similarly gruesome studies made by Gericault for his masterpiece The Raft of the Medusa 40 years earlier.

The study is for an illustration to Byron's poem The Prisoner of Chillon, but the original drawing has far more impact than the cluttered hnal image.

As an illustrator (for example, for Dalziel's Bible Gallery) Brown was never less than guent or prohcient, but his drawing for Down Stream, a poem by his Pre-Raphaelite colleague Rossetti, shows how susceptible these Victorian artists were to prurient sentimentality.

It is the story of a young woman who, a year after an indiscretion on a boating trip, returns abandoned to the river to drown herself and her child.

Rossetti's questionable inguence can also be see in those late (1870s) pastel portraits, including one of Emma suffering what appears to be a severe illness. Like those of all the Pre-Raphaelites, Brown's career saw a long decline from the revolutionary peak of the 1850s, though he made a major contribution to the age of Victorian civic pomp with his murals for Manchester Town Hall, begun in 1879 and completed only in the year of his death, 1893.

Perhaps not surprisingly, no studies for these seem to have found their way into the Birmingham collection.

Ford Madox Brown - the UnofMcial Pre-Raphaelite is at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery until Dec 14 ( Mon-Thur 10am-5pm, Fri 10.30am-5pm, Sun 12.30pm-5pm; admission free).

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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Sep 2, 2008
Words:1173
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