The Coat of Many Colours

WAG 1633


This composition was first drawn in 1863 for Dalziel’s Bible, an illustrated volume of 1863-4. The story comes from the Book of Genesis. A quotation is given on the upper part of the frame. Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery and told their father Jacob that he had been killed by a wild beast. They showed his bloodstained coat of many colours as evidence of his death. Brown had never visited the Middle East so he copied the landscape from a watercolour, ‘The Well of Enrogel’ (Harris Museum and Art Gallery, Preston), painted near Jerusalem by his friend the artist Thomas Seddon (1821 - 1856). He took the costumes from illustrations of Assyrian and Egyptian examples. George Rae of Birkenhead (1817 - 1902), one of Brown’s few patrons, commissioned the work in 1863, and took delivery in 1866. Contemporary criticism was reserved. Curiously, despite all Brown’s attempts at biblical fidelity in the landscape, ‘The Athenaeum’ magazine 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. George Bernard Shaw (1856 - 1950) wrote about this and some other Ford Madox some 30 years after ‘the Coat of Many Colours’ was completed. He 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 (about 1829 - 1903) of Birkenhead, whose widow gave it to the Walker Art Gallery in 1904, as a memorial to her husband.