Next summer, during and immediately after the Olympic Games, when London can expect record numbers of foreign visitors, the British artists showcased at Tate will be Damien Hirst followed by the Pre-Raphaelites. They are canny choices because the popularity of both has long intrigued but bewildered international audiences, possibly for similar reasons. For the most famous Pre-Raphaelite paintings – Rossetti’s sulky pomegranate-clasping “Proserpine Queen of Hades”, Holman Hunt’s beleaguered “Scapegoat” – share with Hirst’s equally beleaguered lamb “Away from the Flock” and his celebrated shark “The Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living” certain peculiarly English characteristics: staggeringly realistic detail applied to weird, fantastical compositions, an exploration of beauty in ugliness, a narrative impulse, as well as a loudly expressed obsession with death.
In the run-up to Tate’s blockbuster Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde, museums up and down the country are showing their own tasters. In the past year Oxford has presented the Pre-Raphaelites and Italy, Birmingham the largest ever exhibition of Pre-Raphaelite work on paper, and now Manchester is hosting a retrospective that subtly reinterprets the origins of the movement by claiming Ford Madox Brown as its pioneer.
Tate’s proposal for 2012 singles out Brown’s “Work” as a masterpiece in need of reintroduction. Manchester Art Gallery bought the piece in its opening year, 1882, judging the altar-shaped, gold-framed modern history painting a suitable cultural trophy for an industrial urban community. This social panorama of navvies digging up a road, market sellers, pamphleteers, an orphan girl yanking her ragged siblings into line, all surveyed by “brainworkers” Thomas Carlyle and Frederick Maurice, is a centrepiece here, accompanied by a room of preparatory sketches revealing Brown’s painstakingly slow working methods.
Carlyle’s belief that work was the basis of a just society was one inspiration, and is echoed in the painting’s form: rather than the traditional hierarchical composition of such epics, “Work” has no clear centre; incidents are spread across the canvas with no differentiation of focus, forcing the eye to rove over jumbled details and jarring colours as characters from every class equally claim our attention. A more pessimistic view, though, is that the road ripped up by the labourers, and the chaos created, symbolises the collapsing fabric of too-rapidly industrialising Britain.
Unemployment is the story behind Brown’s other iconic painting, “The Last of England”, a corollary to “Work” that embodies the mix of anxiety and hope, pride and regret, energy and defeatism, that defined the conflicted psychology of Victorian Britain. Presumably workless, an emigrating couple – portraits of Brown and his second wife Emma – gaze back at the receding English coast from the stern of a ship bound for Australia: bitter and brooding, he is cast in shadow; her passive features are sunnier. They huddle together within an oval canvas whose crammed format at once emphasises Victorian family values and suggests the prison-house of materialism and respectability.
Most of what we associate with Victorian art is condensed into this picture: story-telling, social nuance, naturalism down to the last detail (“all the red-headed boys in Finchley” took turns sitting for the tousled ginger-haired child, for example, who appears as a mere fragment), humour (the cabbages dangling from the boat’s edge) balancing sentimentality, with the whole animated by vivid, piercing colour – the woman’s brilliant bonnet ribbon, fuchsia, crimson, mauve, magenta, fluttering across the picture; the deep maroon skeins of the deck rope – set against the grey wintry light and swell of a dull green sea.
For the first time since this painting left Brown’s studio in 1855 it is shown here alongside a delicious preparatory oil sketch that reveals significant differences: the faces are finely featured, delicate as ivory and porcelain, rather than weather-beaten; textural details – an elaborate green and red embroidered shawl rather than the plain grey, for example – give a sumptuous surface sheen redolent of a Flemish miniature.
This jewel-like small painting holds a key to Brown’s strange, often awkward style and his influence on English 19th-century art. A little older than the Pre-Raphaelites, Brown was born in 1821 in Calais and trained in Bruges, Ghent and Antwerp. Settling in England in 1844, he brought with him a hard-edged northern European realism and a familiarity with mundane detail that was the traditional territory of Flemish and Dutch genre styles. Brown transposed these qualities to English narrative and history painting, injecting it with fresh vigour and a sense of the contemporary.
Aged 25, he painted a portrait of silk manufacturer James Bamford with a stark confrontational expression, and ambitiously entitled the result “A Holbein of the 19th Century”: it was rejected by the Royal Academy. The ornamental sketch “The Seeds and Fruits of English Poetry” recalls Renaissance triptychs; beneath Gothic arches, against golden backgrounds circled by putti, Brown portrays his favourite poets – Chaucer, Milton, Spenser, Shakespeare – like saints. Then Brown went to Italy and discovered the primitivism of the 14th-century painters.
On his way home, his first wife died in his arms as their carriage crossed Paris. In “The Seraph’s Watch”, subtitled “A Reminiscence of the Early Masters” and not seen in public since 1896, a seraph and cherub, depicted as natural-looking children, survey from heaven the crown of thorns and scourge that represent earthly suffering: an autobiographical painting relating to Elizabeth’s death, it is also, in its clear bright colours, simple expressiveness and Italian allusion, a Pre-Raphaelite work avant la lettre.
The young Rossetti saw this work and begged Brown to tutor him. Though Brown did not join when his pupil founded the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, he in turn was influenced by Rossetti’s and Holman Hunt’s high-key colour – the midsummer glare and the mother’s sunburnt face in “The Pretty baa-Lambs” and the high moon on a turquoise sky in “The Hayfield” have a near-surreal chromatic boldness.
Brown, who endured several more tragedies including the deaths of two sons and Emma’s descent into alcoholism, had scant success during his lifetime – he had to borrow money to pay for one of the children’s funerals. Inoculated by his early northern European roots against the languorous eroticism of Rossetti and Burne-Jones, he never achieved the posthumous success of their sexy stunners. Although his later work is illustrative and weak, this scholarly show, which coincides with rare public access to the murals he made for Manchester Town Hall, acknowledges his pivotal place in English art history.
‘Ford Madox Brown: Pre-Raphaelite Pioneer’, Manchester Art Gallery, from Saturday to January 29 2012, www.manchestergalleries.org; Museum of Fine Arts, Ghent, February 25-June 3 2012