'The Coat of Many Colours', 1866, Ford Madox Brown

Scene showing men in period clothing showing a colourful coat to an old man, while a dog sniffs a red mark on the coat

Oil on panel, 108 x 103.2cm
Accession number: WAG 1633

Joseph, youngest and favourite son of Jacob was sold into Egyptian slavery by his jealous brothers who then pretended to their father that he had been killed - showing his bloodstained coat of many colours as evidence of his death.

George Rae of Birkenhead, one of Madox Brown’s few patrons, commissioned the work in 1863, and took delivery in 1866. The image is based upon one of Madox Brown|’s designs for Dalziel’s Bible of 1863-4. Because he was unable to visit the Holy Land, he copied a watercolour by his friend Thomas Seddon entitled ‘The Well of Enrogel’ (Harris Museum and Art Gallery, Preston) which had been painted from the hills above Jerusalem in summer 1855 on Seddon’s trip to the Holy Land with William Holman Hunt|.

Contemporary criticism was reserved. Curiously, despite all Madox Brown’s attempts at biblical fidelity in the landscape ‘the Athenaeum’ found the background ‘not essentially oriental’. Less slipshod criticism is evident in ‘The Saturday Review’ whose critic accurately suggests that the landscape ‘does not retire’, but most nearly represents a curtain or tapestry’. The Athenaeum critic did, however, accurately highlight the rather dull colouring seeing ‘a certain horny yellowness’ throughout the work.

The composition is crowded with some details not easily made out – in particular the figure of a camel eating figs from a tree, the most distant brother and the feet of a ladder visible beside Jacob. The ladder is probably an oblique reference to Jacob’s vision of the ladder at the top of which stood God when He gave to Jacob and his progeny the land of Israel.

Writing some thirty years after this painting was completed, George Bernard Shaw considered it together with other Ford Madox Brown works, and suggested that this painting and others had a rude, clumsy and grim oddity about them that was not so much a fault as their peculiarly realistic strength.

The painting was subsequently bought by William Coltart of Birkenhead, whose widow gave it to the Walker Art Gallery in 1904, as a memorial to her husband.