Manchester Art Gallery

Ford Madox Brown: Pre-Raphaelite Pioneer

The first major exhibition of Ford Madox Brown’s work since 1964.

Manchester Art Gallery
Saturday 24 September 2011–Sunday 29 January 2012

£8 (£6 concessions); free entry for under 18s

This show brought together 140 works from public and private collections, including Brown’s epic paintings of Victorian life Work and The Last of England. This comprehensive survey of Brown’s work championed the pioneering role the artist played in the development of Pre-Raphaelitism, exploring how the artist’s rebellion against traditionally taught methods led to a completely new, radical and original style.

The exhibition was divided into 10 themes, starting with Brown’s family life and moving through his early career, his radical change of artistic direction, his work as draughtsman, painter of landscapes, portraits and scenes of Victorian life, storyteller and designer. It also covered the years Brown spent in Manchester working on the Town Hall murals.

Manchester Art Gallery was the only UK venue for the exhibition. It then toured to The Museum of Fine Arts, Ghent from 25 February to 3 June 2012. The exhibition was curated by Julian Treuherz, an independent art historian and curator, and an expert in Victorian art. A catalogue, published by Philip Wilson Publishers Ltd., accompanied the show and was sold in Manchester Art Gallery shop and online.

Exhibition themes

The Artist and his family

This section introduced the artist and his immediate family through a series of remarkable portraits, including two rare self-portraits and a number of delicate pencil studies of his children. Despite great sadness in his personal life and early disappointments in his career he was able to portray his closest family with great affection and sensitivity. He frequently used them as models for his paintings as can be seen in other sections of the exhibition.

The early period

Ford Madox Brown received his training at art academies in Bruges, Ghent and Antwerp where he learnt to paint portraits and history paintings following rigorous academic methods. This section explored how such training and exposure to European painting traditions affected his early style and choice of subjects. Shakespearean and literary themes that interested him throughout his career feature strongly as does his interest in civic art. In 1844 he entered the competitions for the murals for the new Houses of Parliament and one of his rarely seen designs, from Manchester Art Gallery’s collection, will be on display.

The change of direction

This section showed how Ford Madox Brown’s style changed following a trip to Rome via Basel and Florence in 1845-6. He saw and was impressed by the paintings of Holbein, Italian Renaissance artists and the German Nazarene group. Subsequently his style changed, from dramatically dark and shadowy to bright and evenly lit. He still painted historical and literary subjects but, influenced by early Italian art, in natural-looking, open-air light, anticipating the foundation of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1848.

Highlights included the Italianate Oure Ladye of Saturday Night from the Tate’s collection, a portrait of London silk manufacturer, James Bamford, influenced by Holbein and several complex history paintings focusing on English subjects, such as Geoffrey Chaucer reading the Legend of Custance to Edward III and his Court.

The draughtsman

Drawing played a fundamental role in Brown’s training and some of his best examples have been selected for this section to demonstrate his mastery of the medium. As well as studies for figures and compositional sketches he made numerous studies of costume details. The drawings are characterised by their energy, intensity, clarity and delicacy.

The landscape painter

His landscapes were amongst Ford Madox Brown’s greatest achievements and the selection of works on display here show his original approach and desire to capture different effects of light and particular conditions of weather in the open air. In works such as The pretty baa lambs where he sat out of doors to paint figures and landscape together for the first time, and the jewel-like Carrying Corn, he rejected landscape painting traditions carefully observing and recording the view and light-effects as seen. He experimented with unusual formats, scale and the inclusion of figures in modern dress as seen in An English Autumn Afternoon, Hampstead, which was a key work in this section.

The painter of modern life

Ford Madox Brown’s personal experience, social conscience and pursuit of detailed realism fused to create some of the most memorable representations of contemporary Victorian life we know. Characterised by minute detail, bright colouring, a range of light effects and unusual formats and compositions this group of works epitomised his ‘vigorous originality’. Alongside less well-known paintings on social and political themes, his masterpieces The Last of England and Work were explored in depth in this section. Work was displayed with all known preparatory studies including two drawings recently acquired by Manchester Art Gallery of the bull dog and terrier that appear in the foreground of the finished painting.

The storyteller

This section explored Brown’s facility for storytelling, showing how he combined his skills as a history painter with is love of literature. He was an avid reader and he often painted scenes from his favourite authors Byron and Shakespeare, King Lear being a particular favourite. Although he was not religious he painted a number of religious subjects inspired by the moral and literary content of the Bible. One of his most important and original religious paintings, Jesus washing Peter’s Feet, was included here.

The portrait painter

Although Brown took a keen interest in depicting individual faces in his subject paintings, he did not paint many independent portraits, and hardly any of them were commissions. Most of his portraits were of people he wanted to paint, his friends and family, and a selection of some of the best are shown in this section including the intimate portrait of William Michael Rossetti caught in the glare of gaslight. In the 1860s Brown painted a small number of ‘fancy portraits’, combining a specific likeness with a more generalised meaning. The best of these, The English Boy and The Irish Girl, were reunited here for the first time in twenty-five years.

The designer

A less well-known aspect of Ford Madox Brown’s career is his work as a designer. Believing in the equality of the fine and decorative arts he became one of the original partners in Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co, founded in 1861. His most important contribution to this pioneering company was in the area of stained glass and several examples are shown in this section of the exhibition. Examples of Brown’s remarkably austere and simple furniture designs from the collection at Kelmscott Manor were also on display.

The Manchester period

This final key section of the exhibition explored the culmination of Ford Madox Brown’s career – the commission to paint the Manchester Town Hall murals. Originally to be undertaken with Manchester artist Frederic Shields, Brown was eventually commissioned to complete all twelve of the murals depicting scenes from Manchester’s history. Original studies for nine of the murals were displayed including a series of atmospheric sketches of the Bridgewater Canal.

To complete the murals, Brown moved to Manchester from London in 1881, living and working in the city for around 6 years. The other works selected for this section reflect this time in his life; studies for his huge decorative paintings for the Royal Manchester Jubilee exhibition of 1887; portraits of friends and acquaintances, including one of Madeline Scott, daughter of the editor of the Manchester Guardian; and an autumnal view of Platt Lane painted when he was living nearby in Victoria Park.

Schools and Colleges Programme

Ford Madox Brown’s rebellion against traditionally taught methods of painting and his pioneering portrayal of contemporary subjects with social and political significance blazed the trail followed by the PreRaphaelites, and inspired this season’s workshops for schools and colleges.

Ford Madox Brown: Families, Memories, Bonds

Manchester Art Gallery worked in partnership with Manchester schools to make new work in response to Ford Madox Brown: Pre-Raphaelite Pioneer. Teachers and teaching assistants were invited to create artworks inspired by the exhibition themes. Their work was then displayed in the exhibition to provide a contemporary perspective on Brown’s work, and to provoke discussion and encourage reflection.

Working with artist Sarah Marsh, they connected their lives today in Manchester with Brown’s era. Collectively they explored thoughts, feelings and images, relating to family, memories and everyday events, to uncover the traces we leave behind.

The resulting display was a social commentary and visual map, that brings Brown’s influence to modern Manchester. Each artwork visualised the teachers’ personal discoveries, highlights the importance of memories in everybody’s lives, and connects us to one another.

The display was created by Jenny Brierley, Nicola Carr, Jenny Clare, Anna Fisk, Ness Heath, John Kemp, Neil Long, Julie McKeever, Lorraine Melia, Dee Palmer, Jill Spencely, Alice Tomlinson and Carrie Waxman, working with artist Sarah Marsh.

With special thanks to All Saints Primary School, Ashbury Meadow Community Primary School, Burnage Media Arts College, Charlestown Community Primary School, Holy Name Primary School, King David High School, Levenshulme High School, Our Lady’s RC High School, Pike Fold Primary School and St James’ Primary School, Rusholme.

Thank you to all of the schools and their wonderful teachers for helping us realise this exhibition.

Listen to the exhibition curator

In the audio clips below, curator Julian Treuherz talks about selected works from the exhibition. There’s also an extended conversation about the exhibition between Julian Treuherz and gallery curator Rebecca Milner.

Poems by Jean Sprackland

Acclaimed poet Jean Sprackland was commissioned by Manchester Literature Festival to respond to the exhibition. These poems were written in response to six works in the show.

The Manchester Murals

Originally to be undertaken with Manchester artist Frederic Shields, Brown was eventually commissioned to complete all twelve of the Town Hall murals depicting scenes from Manchester’s history.

To complete the murals, Brown moved to Manchester from London in 1881, living and working in the city for around 6 years.

Supporters of the exhibition

Charles Stanley is the headline sponsor for Ford Madox Brown: Pre-Raphaelite Pioneer.

The exhibition was supported by the Zochonis Charitable Trust and Manchester Art Gallery Trust.

Farrow & Ball are the official paint sponsor of Manchester City Galleries.


The Irish Girl, 1860, oil on canvas, Ford Madox Brown, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Fund (B1989.11) © of Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Fund.