Some of those Pre-Raphaelite ideals still impress.

Work (1852-1865) by Ford Madox Brown. Manchester Art Gallery.

In case we are ever tempted to think of those arty Pre-Raphaelites as mere fey decorative artist intellectuals, we should think of Ford Madox Brown (1821-1893), the painter who stood on the fringes of the “Brotherhood” but who shared many of their socialist ideals whilst also adding a bit of muscle. Last weekend I was at Tate Britain’s Pre-Raphaelite exhibition, “Pre-Raphaelites, Victorian Avant-Garde” and the pictures have refused to leave my blogs all week.

Ford Madox Brown’s epic painting, Work humbled me into a fit of guilt at my own arty life so different from the central figures in his painting and so near, maybe, to some of the less productive members of society depicted here with Hogarthian scorn. I wouldn’t dare to, or want to, compare myself to the sneering philosopher Thomas Carlyle leaning against the fence in a rather jaunty brown hat on the right hand side foreground and looking decidedly pleased with himself as he talks, presumably, about the ethics of hard work with the then well-known cleric the Rev. Frederic Denison Maurice, Christian Socialist and founder of the Working Men’s College. The two intellectual moralists are not the centre of attention, the starring roles in this picture are definitely the heroic navvies busy digging a hole in the road on a hot summer afternoon. There is nothing fey about these men who, in Ford Madox Brown’s opinion, are putting some muscle into man’s highest destiny, finding salvation through hard work and a well-earned flagon of ale.

Some of the others in the picture will have a harder time getting to Brown’s Heaven which is not a place for the shadowy aristocrats on horseback or the do-gooding lady distributing anti-alcohol literature to the workers or even, in the far distance, hyprocritical politicians canvassing for safe seats in Parliament or even me, an innocent blogger struggling with his guilt. All levels of Victorian society are displayed on this Hampstead street but our sympathies are with those hard working guys in the centre – not the usual heroes in 19th Century paintings and not always respected even today.

The Last Of England (1855) by Ford Madox Brown. Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery.

Ford Madox Brown sympathised too with all of his countrymen and women who, in the early 1850s, took the brave, often perilous and definitely uncertain path of emigration overseas as the way to a better life. I found out recently that several of my relations made just such a journey in the early 1850s to Australia, as in this picture, and also to the United States. The painter’s sensitivity to the state of the central couple with their tiny child hidden in its mother’s shawl, stands as a memorial for all those lives uprooted in fear and hope during the middle years of the 19th. Century. Being the quirky man that he was though, the couple’s anxiety, all joined hands and fearful eyes, is framed by that bizarre row of strung up vegetables, turnip, beetroot and cabbage, in front of them and a crowd scene of varied social types behind. Ford Madox Brown continually delights with his sensitivity to humanity in all its guises.

Finding of Juan by Haidee (1873) by Ford Madox Brown. Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery.

Some of those brave voyagers must have feared the fate of Juan in Lord Byron’s satirical epic poem Don Juan. Ford Madox Brown’s painting shows the unfortunate Juan shipwrecked and washed up naked and near death on the shore of a Greek island where he is spotted by Pirate captain’s daughter, Haidee and her maid. Haidee appears to behave like all nice young unmarried ladies were meant to behave in the presence of a young naked man. She stands back but no so far back that she can’t see if Juan will respond to her maid’s touch. Male and female are exposed here, he quite literally in his vulnerability and she in the acknowledgement that even Victorian ladies had sexual desires. Madox Ford’s paintings are lessons in unadorned humanity that refuse to turn into sermons. It gives me a chance to revisit Byron’s wonderful poem too. Here is the relevant passage with its breathless eroticism delivered with Byronic tongue-in-cheek:

And as he gazed, his dizzy brain spun fast,
And down he sunk; and as he sunk, the sand
Swam round and round, and all his senses pass’d:
He fell upon his side, and his stretch’d hand
Droop’d dripping on the oar (their jurymast),
And, like a wither’d lily, on the land
His slender frame and pallid aspect lay,
As fair a thing as e’er was form’d of clay.

How long in his damp trance young Juan lay
He knew not, for the earth was gone for him,
And Time had nothing more of night nor day
For his congealing blood, and senses dim;
And how this heavy faintness pass’d away
He knew not, till each painful pulse and limb,
And tingling vein, seem’d throbbing back to life,
For Death, though vanquish’d, still retired with strife.

His eyes he open’d, shut, again unclosed,
For all was doubt and dizziness; he thought
He still was in the boat and had but dozed,
And felt again with his despair o’erwrought,
And wish’d it death in which he had reposed;
And then once more his feelings back were brought,
And slowly by his swimming eyes was seen
A lovely female face of seventeen.

‘T was bending dose o’er his, and the small mouth
Seem’d almost prying into his for breath;
And chafing him, the soft warm hand of youth
Recall’d his answering spirits back from death;
And, bathing his chill temples, tried to soothe
Each pulse to animation, till beneath
Its gentle touch and trembling care, a sigh
To these kind efforts made a low reply.

From Don Juan (Stanzas 111 – 114, Canto 2) by Lord Byron (1819).

Jesus Washing Peter’s Feet (1852-1856) by Ford Madox Brown. Tate Britain, London.

Victorian Christian piety is difficult to take seriously these days but religion was very important to even some of the most radical of the Pre-Raphaelites including Ford Madox Brown, who later lost his faith. He and some of his colleagues tried to create images for a realism in religious painting based on a new “scientific” theology where the figures from the Bible were to be real human being of flesh and blood still with us in the world around us. In their day, these pictures got their creators into trouble. Dickens hated Edward Burne-Jones’ painting of the Virgin Mary in Christ in the house of his parents (also in the exhibition) “she would stand out from the rest of the company as a Monster, in the vilest cabaret in France, or the lowest gin-shop in England”. (Dickens, Charles. “Old Lamps for New Ones.” Household Words 12 (15 Jun. 1850), 12-14.). That says more about Dickens’ narrow view of feminine sanctity than Burne-Jones’ poetic realism. Ford Madox Brown got into trouble too for his portrait of the semi-naked Jesus washing an embarrassed Peter’s feet in front of his confused but fascinated disciples. Brown wanted to show Jesus as a real human being, vulnerable and frail, humiliating himself in an act of loving humanity. 

 Jesus Washing Peter’s Feet (1876)  watercolour copy by Ford Madox Brown. Manchester City Art Gallery

Reluctantly, with no sales in sight, he was persuaded to dress Jesus in a loose slip but he liked his original image so much that he painted a watercolour copy which, I think, proves that his first idea was much more effective with its human message that transcends its theology.

The Light Of The World (1851) by William Holman Hunt. Keble College, Oxford.

The most famous of all the Pre-Raphaelite paintings in the 19th Century was William Holman Hunt’s The Light Of The World. An extraordinary study in the effects of candlelight and moonlight in the open air but loved by the Victorians for its gentle Northern European Jesus. I had never liked William Holman Hunt (1827-1910) as much as the work of the other Pre-Raphaelites, finding his openly didactic religious paintings a touch too, well, Victorian.  I know that his pioneering realism is much admired but I find those famous images of lost sheep and erring shepherds a bit too close to Sunday School lectures. Looking at his work in context with the other Pre-Raphaelites, I saw The Light Of The World in a different, er, light. Hunt’s Jesus is not so very different to Ford Madox Brown’s after-all. He is not Brown’s manly Nazarene carpenter’s son, in his golden frock and embroidered cloak but he is, for all his androgynous physicality, a vulnerable if slightly spooky human being. Over a century and a half later, we can see him less as Queen Victoria’s ideal Protestant icon and more as some freaky hippie a-coming knocking on the door to invite you to an all-nighter… and none the less “spiritual” for that.

The Scapegoat (1854-56) by William Holman Hunt. Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight.

As much as I dislike Hunt’s lost sheep, I had to stop and stare at his weirdly unsettling image of the Biblical Scapegoat, the landscape painted on location by the Dead Sea to the South of Jerusalem. Just as I am not expecting Jesus to come knocking on my door, similarly I can admire this picture without  sympathizing with  Hunt’s symbolism of atonement and sacrifice. Not many people, I suspect, would go along with the idea of stranding a goat in the desert so that God can watch it die a lingering death and turn its red wooly crown white as a sign of forgiveness. We can see, though, a prophetic vision of T.S.Eliot’s Waste Land (1922) as well as more modern images of the world’s current ecological crises.  Victorian critics had a problem with Hunt’s use of a dumb beast as a religious symbol, we are more open to identifying with this forlorn, blood-splattered and abandoned creature lost in a ruinous landscape.

The Lady of Shallot (1905) by William Holman Hunt. Wadsworth Athenaeum Museum, Hartford, Connecticut.

Coming to the final room in this exhaustive and exhausting exhibition last weekend, I thought I had seen everything and was looking forward to a cup of tea and a buttered scone until I came across the  final picture in the show, Holman Hunt’s The Lady Of Shallot, based on Tennyson’s famous poem about the lady cursed to spend her life locked in a tower weaving scenes from life that she can only see reflected in a mirror. She lives this nightmarish existence until she sees handsome Sir Launcelot and breaks the curse’s rules, cracking the mirror and finding her death floating in a boat towards Camelot.

She left the web, she left the loom,
She made three paces through the room,
She saw the water-lily bloom,
She saw the helmet and the plume,
She looked down to Camelot.
Out flew the web and floated wide;
The mirror cracked from side to side;
“The curse is come upon me,” cried
The Lady of Shalott.
From The Lady Of Shalott by Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1832)

The neurotic, erotically-charged hot-house story was the perfect Pre-Raphaelite theme and Tennyson had long been one of their “List of Immortals.” The quality and originality of the colours which literally gleam in psychedelic frenzy when seen in “the flesh” make this a must-see even if you are not also turned on by William Holman Hunt’s symbolism. When I saw this piece I just whispered “wow!” It was half a century in the making and finally completed in 1905 at a time when Picasso was already creating a new avant-garde but revisiting these artists in this fascinating exhibition, I was continually surprized and challenged by the original and provocative work of these unconventional and very hairy painters. The show more than justifies its subtitle “Victorian Avant-Garde.” Try to catch it before it finishes on 13th January 2013.

Ford Madox Brown (1821-1893)

William Holman Hunt (1827-1910)

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