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About the artwork

Ford Madox Brown’s drawing of his son Arthur is both poignant and significant. It is one of the studies made by Brown as he worked out the design and detail of arguably his most important painting, 'Work '(now in the collection of Manchester Art Gallery). But, it is also an intimate portrait study of his 10 month old son who would not survive into his first year.

This delightful drawing of Arthur, was made as a study for Brown’s most important Pre-Raphaelite style painting 'Work'. The painting is an allegory for the spiritual and moral value of manual work. It shows the well-to-do, the navvies, the orphaned, the commentators, the religious in a single view around a busy building site where water pipes are being laid in Hampstead. The picture illustrates vividly the various manifestations of labour in mid-Victorian England.

Ultimately, the work celebrates the value of physical labour, a theme that was to be found in the work of a number of contemporary commentators such as Thomas Carlyle, John Ruskin and, later, William Morris. The subject was unusual for its time, a modern work about the modern situation and where everyday men are given the same attention as great heroes. Brown started the work in 1852 and continued to work on it until 1863. It was only in 1856 though that Brown received the support for the picture from T.E. Plint, the Leeds based evangelical philanthropist.

As Brown worked on the picture he followed the dictum ‘truth to nature’ in several ways. He wandered the streets looking for suitable labourers to draw from. He made studies of poor children cared for by an elder sibling and he made studies of his friends and family, including this study of Arthur, his fourth child. Arthur was born in September 1856 and was drawn for Work in July 1857 shortly before the baby’s death. The chalk drawing is a beautiful and sensitive work.

It is impossible to look at the work and think of it simply as a study for a painting; it is a father’s portrait of his young son full of appreciation and love. It is hard to imagine how Brown could carry on using his son’s image in the painting that was consuming him so greatly at the time of his death, but perhaps it was fitting that Arthur should be commemorated in what would turn out to be one of father’s greatest artistic achievements.  If you look at the painting today you can see that Brown makes public reference to Arthur’s death and his own grief; the brightly coloured ribbons have turned black.

The Pre-Raphaelites are most frequently described in terms of their beautiful women, their mystical stories, their intricate landscapes and their stunning colour. They are not so often noted for their portraits, but this small study and the other portraits displayed in this exhibition clearly show that this aspect of their work is just as stunning.

Ford Madox Brown was born in 1821 in Calais. His father served as a ship’s purser during the Napoleonic wars and then retired. Afterwards, the family led a nomadic existence so that Brown spent the majority of his life abroad until the age of twenty. This was no bad thing for the young boy with artistic leanings because it meant that he was exposed to a wide range of art and had the opportunity to train with some of the leading continental artists of the day. Brown studied in Belgium and then, after his marriage to his cousin in 1840, in Paris. By 1844 he had moved to London.

It was shortly after this that his art developed a distinctive style, becoming more fresco-like in colour, sharp and realistic. Brown had been working on cartoon designs for a decorative scheme for Westminster Hall in London. He had also seen the work of Hans Holbein, the German Nazarenes, and the Italian masters on a trip to the Continent in 1845. These two events had served to lead him in a new direction, a direction that would be greatly admired by the young Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

Rossetti and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood

In 1848, Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-82) decided to write to an artist he greatly admired. This was not an unusual tack for the exuberant artist who was in the habit of voicing his admiration through letters, but this correspondence was different. This time Rossetti asked the slightly older artist to teach him. Brown agreed and here began his exposure to the idealistic and energetic fraternity of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. The moment also marked the start of a lifelong friendship between Brown and Rossetti.

The relationship with Rossetti might have seemed rather strange to outsiders. Brown appeared taciturn, absorbed, and soulful to most, but to his friends and family he was known to be loving, warm-hearted and generous.  Even though great friends with Rossetti, Brown never joined the Brotherhood, he was on its periphery, but his advice, style and presence was an integral part of its development. Brown himself was influenced by the young artists and was sympathetic to their belief in truth to nature, colour and narrative.