The exhibition is divided into 10 themes, starting with Brown’s family life and moving through his early career, his radical change of artistic direction, his work as draughtsman, painter of landscapes, portraits and scenes of Victorian life, storyteller and designer.
This section introduces the artist and his immediate family through a series of remarkable portraits, including two rare self-portraits and a number of delicate pencil studies of his children. Despite great sadness in his personal life and early disappointments in his career he was able to portray his closest family with great affection and sensitivity. He frequently used them as models for his paintings as can be seen in other sections of the exhibition.
Ford Madox Brown received his training at art academies in Bruges, Ghent and Antwerp where he learnt to paint portraits and history paintings following rigorous academic methods. This section explores how such training and exposure to European painting traditions affected his early style and choice of subjects. Shakespearean and literary themes that interested him throughout his career feature strongly as does his interest in civic art. In 1844 he entered the competitions for the murals for the new Houses of Parliament and one of his rarely seen designs, from Manchester Art Gallery’s collection, will be on display.
This section shows how Ford Madox Brown’s style changed following a trip to Rome via Basel and Florence in 1845-6. He saw and was impressed by the paintings of Holbein, Italian Renaissance artists and the German Nazarene group. Subsequently his style changed, from dramatically dark and shadowy to bright and evenly lit. He still painted historical and literary subjects but, influenced by early Italian art, in natural-looking, open-air light, anticipating the foundation of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1848.
Highlights include the Italianate Oure Ladye of Saturday Night from the Tate’s collection, a portrait of London silk manufacturer, James Bamford, influenced by Holbein and several complex history paintings focusing on English subjects, such as Geoffrey Chaucer reading the ‘Legend of Custance’ to Edward III and his Court.
Drawing played a fundamental role in Brown’s training and some of his best examples have been selected for this section to demonstrate his mastery of the medium. As well as studies for figures and compositional sketches he made numerous studies of costume details. The drawings are characterised by their energy, intensity, clarity and delicacy.
His landscapes were amongst Ford Madox Brown’s greatest achievements and the selection of works on display here show his original approach and desire to capture different effects of light and particular conditions of weather in the open air. In works such as The pretty baa lambs where he sat out of doors to paint figures and landscape together for the first time, and the jewel-like Carrying Corn, he rejected landscape painting traditions carefully observing and recording the view and light-effects as seen. He experimented with unusual formats, scale and the inclusion of figures in modern dress as seen in An English Autumn Afternoon, Hampstead, a key work in this section.
Ford Madox Brown’s personal experience, social conscience and pursuit of detailed realism fused to create some of the most memorable representations of contemporary Victorian life we know. Characterised by minute detail, bright colouring, a range of light effects and unusual formats and compositions this group of works epitomise his ‘vigorous originality’. Alongside less well-known paintings on social and political themes, his masterpieces The Last of England and Work are explored in depth in this section. Work is displayed with all known preparatory studies including two drawings recently acquired by Manchester Art Gallery of the bull dog and terrier that appear in the foreground of the finished painting.
This section explores Brown’s facility for storytelling and shows how he combined his skills as a history painter with is love of literature. He was an avid reader and he often painted scenes from his favourite authors Byron and Shakespeare, King Lear being a particular favourite. Although he was not religious he painted a number of religious subjects inspired by the moral and literary content of the Bible. One of his most important and original religious paintings, Jesus washing Peter’s Feet, is included here.
Although Brown took a keen interest in depicting individual faces in his subject paintings, he did not paint many independent portraits, and hardly any of them were commissions. Most of his portraits were of people he wanted to paint, his friends and family, and a selection of some of the best are shown in this section including the intimate portrait of William Michael Rossetti caught in the glare of gaslight. In the 1860s Brown painted a small number of ‘fancy portraits’, combining a specific likeness with a more generalised meaning. The best of these, The English Boy and The Irish Girl, are reunited here for the first time in twenty-five years.
A less well-known aspect of Ford Madox Brown’s career is his work as a designer. Believing in the equality of the fine and decorative arts he became one of the original partners in Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co, founded in 1861. His most important contribution to this pioneering company was in the area of stained glass and several examples are shown in this section of the exhibition. Examples of Brown’s remarkably austere and simple furniture designs from the collection at Kelmscott Manor are also on display.
This final key section of the exhibition explores the culmination of Ford Madox Brown’s career – the commission to paint the Manchester Town Hall murals. Originally to be undertaken with Manchester artist Frederic Shields, Brown was eventually commissioned to complete all twelve of the murals depicting scenes from Manchester’s history. Original studies for nine of the murals are displayed including a series of atmospheric sketches of the Bridgewater Canal.
To complete the murals, Brown moved to Manchester from London in 1881, living and working in the city for around 6 years. The other works in this section reflect this time in his life; studies for his huge decorative paintings for the Royal Manchester Jubilee exhibition of 1887; portraits of friends and acquaintances, including one of Madeline Scott, daughter of the editor of the Manchester Guardian; and an autumnal view of Platt Lane painted when he was living nearby in Victoria Park.
Download the exhibition guide here.