Saturday, April 16, 2011

The Last of England

‘Rain; so had out the picture of ‘Last of England’ & scraped at the head of the female, afterwards worked at it 2 hours without model & four hours with - using zinc white.’ This is Ford Madox Brown, a major British 19th century painter, associated with the Pre-Raphaelites, who was born 190 years ago today. Intermittently, he kept diary notes about his painting habits, though full of mundane details, they do give a vivid sense of his daily life.

Brown was born on 16 April 1821 to English parents in France, but then brought up and educated in Belgium. In the mid-1840s, he settled in London and began to associate with the Pre-Raphaelite painters, such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti who was his student for a while. Brown’s first wife, Elizabeth Bromley, died in 1846 aged 27, after giving birth to a daughter Lucy. He later married his model, Emma Hill, and they had one son, Oliver, who died as a young man, and one daughter, Catherine, who was the mother of Ford Madox Ford.

Brown’s two greatest paintings Work and The Last of England [as in illustration above] were both begun in 1852. During the 1860s, he was closely associated with William Morris’s developing business and worked as an illustrator and as a designer of furniture and stained glass. He is best known, though, for his historical and biblical paintings and frescoes. In 1878, Brown was commissioned to paint a series of 12 murals for Manchester Town Hall. They took up much of the last years of his life. He is credited with helping to found the Hogarth Club and the Working Men’s College. For further biographical information see the websites of Manchester Art Gallery or Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery, or Wikipedia.

Intermittently, through his life, Brown kept brief diary notes, mostly about his painting life. There are six extant exercise books, five covering the period from 1847 to 1855 (held by the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford), and one covering more then ten years from 1856 to 1865 (held by Pierpont Morgan Library in New York). The five earlier diary books were first edited by W M Rossetti (Dante’s br0ther) for his Pre-Raphaelite Diaries and Letters, published by Hurst and Blackett in 1900. This is freely available online at Internet Archive. In 1981, Yale University Press published The Diary of Ford Madox Brown, edited by Virginia Surtees. In this version, Brown’s diaries are reproduced more faithfully (i.e including Brown’s ‘distinctive’ spelling and punctuation) than they are in Rossetti’s grammatically-sanitised version.

Here are several extracts of Brown’s diary (taken from The Diary of Ford Madox Brown). See also The Diary Review article on William Holman Hunt - The might of genius

17 August 1854
‘Rose at 1/4 before nine - garden after breakfast. Shower Bath before work. To work by 11 till one at the view of Windermere. Dined, to work again by 2 till near six worked at sky & all over. Tea & then for a walk with Emma. An umbrella each for a threatening storm which caught us sure as we returned. This even I intended drawing but instead reflected on alterations made in the picture of Christ & Peter which I think of sending to Paris with the Chaucer, if the English Committee [of the Universal Exhibition, Paris, 1855] accept it (6 hours). The Christ in its present state I consider to be failure - too much melo-dramatic sentiment not sufficient dignity and simplicity of pose. What to do with it however I scarce know. To suite the public taste however it should be clothed! to suit my own, not - but then the action suits me not to alter which would be more trouble than to cloath the figure. Auriole they must all have. The St John is all right. The Peter would be perfect if the carnation were redder & deeper in tint & the cloak a better green, also a bit of the right arm should be shown; but how? Judas requires a fresh head of hair - his present one having been dabbed in from feeling in the last hurry of sending in. Memo, his garment to be a paler yellow. Four of the other apostles require more religious feeling which must be done. William & Gabriel Rossetti in particular require veneration to be added to them. The table cloath will require alteration & the tiles of the floor. Health & spirits tolerable to day, nerves quiet.’

19 September 1854
‘Rain; so had out the picture of ‘Last of England’ & scraped at the head of the female, afterwards worked at it 2 hours without model & four hours with - using zinc white. Afterwards retouched ‘Beauty’ which with constant wetting was much blurred - in the eveng fixed it in frame, lettered it, & pasted loosse drawing up in my big book (7 1/2 hours).’

20 September 1854
‘. . . After dinner, worked at drawing in the outline of the male head in ‘the Last of England’ - then reflected on it till near five, settled that I would paint the woman in Emma’s shepherd plaid shawl, in stead of the large blue & green plaid as in the sketch. This is a serious affair settled which has caused me much perplexity. After this I worked till tea-time at scraping away the ground of Zink white which I had laid myself for the picture at Hampstead. I found that the head of the man had cracked all over since I painted it, so had to scrape it out - his coat also has crack in it, a bad thing in a coat in particular, so I will have no more of this zink, confound it. There is nothing like tin for a foundation to go upon, in this system will I work henceforth. After tea I worked at altering the little laydy reading a letter in the ‘Brent’ which had rubbed in from Emma the other day, I have made it more sentimental. After this I cleaned my pallet & brushes & am now writing this. I must leave off to begin the lettering of the ‘Cartoon’ & painted scetch of ‘the Last of England’ - only did the scetch 11 pm (6 1/2 hours).’

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