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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
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Ford Madox Brown was a famous British artist from the 19th century whose work was closely related to the Pre-Raphaelite art movement. He was uniquely Hogarthian in many ways, but did draw in many aspects of the Brotherhood's style, such as bright colour and precise detail.

Brown's family would move constantly around Northern Europe and this allowed the artist to draw in a variety of artistic experiences from an early age. He was known to have studied the work of Hans Holbein, for example, in great detail and also took in the likes of Friedrich Overbeck and Peter Cornelius. His journeys carried on throughout his entire lifetime and took in artistic nations such as Italy, Belgium, Netherlands and France. The artistic style that he eventually settled on was most similar to two fellow British painters, in William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais.

These connections immediately draws him close to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, but he never in fact became a member of this respected group. He may have found some of their guidelines to have been overly restrictive but he was able to forge his own path successfully relatively independently. Besides Millais and Holman Hunt, the Brotherhood included several other notable creative minds such as William Morris, Gabriel Dante Rossetti and Edward Burne Jones. The artist managed to achieve relatively good sums for his work at the point at which he had peaked, reputation-wise, but it was not always an easy ride for him and he took many years in order to establish himself. It was once he had reached his forties that things started to become easier for this hardworking and dedicated artist.

The artist suffered considerable tragedy in his early years, losing his parents, sister and later on his wife. It was these incidents which eventually persuaded him to finally settle for an extended period, choosing the English capital city, London. He was brought up with continental art influences and studied under students of Jacques-Louis David for several years. The wills which passed to him did at least in a positive sense allow him to concentrate on his art without worrying too much about covering his financial overheads. Without this freedom he would likely never have been able to take on so many different mediums during his career and would have had to focus on sellable art instead. This is underlined by the fact that virtually no famous artists prior to around the 1950s were from working-class backgrounds, with this being very much a pastime for the priviledged and financial supported.

Brown may have worked on the fringes of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, and there were certainly some clear similarities between their work, but he seemed to desire a more realistic approach to his paintings. He would often use colours that clashed, if that is exactly what he viewed in real life. He did not use his artistic licence to the same degree as members of the Brotherhood, and felt a greater need in social commentary than them. Both held principles to be respected, but they were different, unquestionably. The females in his portraits, as an example, would be beautiful but more 'real' and down to earth than some of the models used by other artists in this period. This is a particularly significant point considering the fact that the women used to pose for artists in the Pre-Raphaelites would go on to become celebrities themselves, even those who were not directly related through marriage or friendship. Consider the likes of Lizzie Siddal and Jane Morris, for example. Art history is full of contrasts between artists who depict reality against those who provide an image of imagination or the ideal.

This was an artist who faced plenty of criticism during his career. His work was unique, and therefore it is inevitable that some would not appreciate the signature elements of his approach. His colour schemes shocked some, whilst his technical ability was even questioned by others. To be fair, few artists have ever avoided the wrath of criticism and the more important aspect to consider is how they are regarded today. For example, even the art and literary genius of William Blake was left unloved until many years after his passing - he has recently been voted amongst the most significant British people in history. The artist's influences were varied and perhaps we can add Thomas Gainsborough in this list, given his reputation for combining the beauty of figurative and landscape work together into the same composition.

Ford Madox Brown was senior in age to the main members of the Pre-Raphaelites and as such followed a different path of artistic discovery. They would see him more as a tutor than a colleague of equal status, with Rossetti even requesting technical advice from Brown early in his career. They had been tightly linked to the Royal Academy early on, where as Brown had learned much from his travels around Europe. Whilst proudly British, he was actually born in Northern France and soon went about learning his trade in cities such as Bruges, Ghent and Antwerp. These brought Flemish and Dutch artists to his attention before later trips took him to Italy, where he discovered the frescoes of Fra Angelico and Giotto di Bondone.

This was an artist who would focus on the hear and now. He would even comment upon it within his compositions. You won’t find the mythological references that were common in the work of Waterhouse, who would disappear into his own world of beautiful fantasy. He embellished his paintings with the lives or the ordinary, just as had Millet and Courbet in France. Brown offered the same from a British, manufacturing perspective, such as his works in London and Manchester which remain amongst his most famous. Some saw their art as aesthetic delight for the public, with no real meaning or message necessary, but Brown believed he had been given an opportunity to campaign for change by using opinions subtlety across his career. He would never use imagery violently or in a way that avoided allowing his depictions to stand on their own as pure artworks either.

Paintings such as Work, Chaucer at the Court of Edward III and The Bromley Family appear to flatten the hierarchy of content - which figures are most important? We would append activity and detail to clusters of figures in this style, leaving much to see time and time again. He also worked outdoors on some of these pieces, prior to the Impressionists famously coining the technique as En Plein Air. The exciting blend of multiple figures across a composition could have been inspired by the artist’s study of Netherlandish art, where we can draw similarities with Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights or various Bruegel depictions of local peasant life, such as Hunters in the Snow. Intriguingly, Ford Madox Brown would even develop backstories for many of his figures in order to set the right tone for each element of his scene which would help each painting to come to life in his own mind. The stories created would tend to be of living in trying environments, such as health problems or issues within the family.