Star rating – 8/10
You can visit Manchester Art Gallery at any time and be treated to some of the best of Pre-Raphaelite art. You can also wander into the magnificent Town Hall a few minutes’ walk away and look at the Manchester Murals of Ford Madox Brown. We are a bit spoilt here, and the danger is that you can take these treasures for granted, as I myself was inevitably guilty of doing when I worked at the Town Hall many moons ago.
So this great new exhibition at the Art Gallery about the life and work of Madox Brown pulls it all together and gives a context that is not usually evident about this fascinating and original artist’s work. He was, as the name of the exhibition suggests, a great influence on, and a lifelong friend of, the later Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood of Rossetti, Holman Hunt, and Millais, although he never actually joined them.
Many of the pictures here contain the trademark attention to detail and vivid colour that the Pre-Raphaelites are known for. But there is also a great array of pencil drawings and sketches from throughout his career that show off his skill and exacting standards to great effect. There are very touching pictures of his children, including two who died in infancy, and of his two wives. Family obviously meant a great deal to him, although as with many great artists, he never really benefited significantly from the great wealth that his works would later generate.
There are some lovely landscapes of scenery from London and the south of England, where he and his family lived. ‘The Hayfield’ shows an unusual night time scene from Hendon with beautiful colours, where the fields are moon lit and the harvest preparations stopped for the night.
And one of his most famous paintings, ‘Work’, which was one of the first to explore contemporary Victorian subjects and lay bare some of the more controversial social and political questions of the day, is dissected by also showing around it the careful drawings that Madox Brown made of its component parts, including some beautiful sketches of the dogs in the final piece.
In ‘The Last of England’ he shows a young family in a desperate attempt to escape the poverty of their life in this country, as emigrants on a boat to a bright new future, He captures their desperation very well. And in ‘Stages of Cruelty’ he depicts a woman carelessly disregarding her lover’s attentions, whilst her daughter is in the process of beating a defenceless dog. The two tone colour he achieves on the woman’s full velvet skirt is spectacular.
Although an agnostic, Madox Brown painted many beautiful biblical scenes, including one of Christ washing the feet of Peter. This can be seen as a sort of companion piece to ‘Work’, as Madox Brown makes his views known about the dignity of what was often viewed as menial labour. It’s amusing to note that he was forced to cover up the torso of the kneeling Lord with a tasteful green garment, as the sight of his bare chest was a step too far for Victorian sensibilities.
Madox Brown was an original and great artist, and also a principled man who used his talents to fight what he viewed as the injustices of his day, and his contribution to the city of Manchester is deservedly rewarded by this fascinating exhibition. Even if you don’t make it to this excellent collection, just have a peek at the Manchester Murals next time you are passing our Town Hall, and be glad that we live in a city with such a proud and rich cultural heritage.