Ford Madox Brown (1821-1893), English painter, was born at Calais on the 16th of April 1821. His father was Ford Brown, a retired purser in the navy; his mother, Caroline Madox, of an old Kentish family. His paternal grandfather was Dr John Brown, who established the Brunonian Theory of Medicine. Ford Madox Brown was the only child of his parents, save for a daughter who died young. In childhood he was shifted about a good deal between France and England; and having shown from the age of six or seven a turn for drawing he was taken, when fourteen years old, and with meagre acquirements in the way of general tuition, to Bruges, and placed under the instruction of Gregorius, a pupil of David. His principal instructor, however, from about 1837, was Baron Wappers, of Antwerp, then regarded as a great light of the Belgian school. From him the youth learned the technique not only of oil painting but of various other branches of art. At a very early age Brown attained a remarkable degree of force in drawing and painting, as attested by an extant oil-portrait of his father, done at an age not exceeding fifteen.
His first composition, towards 1836, represented a blind beggar and his child; his first exhibited work, 1837, was "Job on the Ash-heap"; the first exhibited work in London (at the Royal Academy, 1840), "The Giaour's Confession," from Byron's poem. Both his parents died before 1840, leaving to the young painter a moderate competence, which soon was materially reduced. In 1840 Brown completed a large picture, "The Execution of Mary, queen of Scots," strong in dramatic effect and in handling, with rather sombre colour; from this time forth he must be regarded as a proficient artist, independent in his point of view and strenuous in execution. He contributed to the cartoon competitions, 1844 and 1845, for the Houses of Parliament - "Adam and Eve after the Fall," "The Body of Harold brought to William the Conqueror," and "The Spirit of Justice." These highly remarkable cartoons passed not wholly unobserved, but not one of them obtained a prize. The years 1840 to 1845 were passed in Paris, London and Rome: towards the middle of 1846 Brown settled permanently in London. In 1841 he had married his cousin Elizabeth Bromley, who died of consumption in 1846, leaving a daughter, Lucy, who in 1874 became the wife of William M. Rossetti. Not long after being left a widower, Brown took a second wife, Emma Hill, who figures in many of his pictures.
She had two children who grew up: Catherine, who married Dr Franz Hueffer, the musical scholar and critic, and Oliver, who died in 1874 in his twentieth year. All three children showed considerable ability in painting, and Oliver in romance as well. The second Mrs Brown died in 1890.
The most marked distinction of Brown as an artist may be defined as vigorous invention of historic or dramatic scenes, carried out with a great regard to individuality in the personages, expressions and accessories of incident and detail, not excluding the familiar, the peculiar and the semi-grotesque, when these seem to subserve the general intent. Owing, however, to his association with artists of the so-called "pre-Raphaelite" movement (which began late in 1848), and especially with Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who received some training in his studio in the spring of that year, he has been regarded sometimes as the precursor or initiator of this movement, and sometimes as a direct co-operator in it. His claim to be regarded as a precursor or initiator is not strong; though it is true that even before 1841 he had pondered the theory (not then much in vogue) that a picture ought to present the veritable light and shade proper to some one moment in the day, and his "Manfred on the Jungfrau" (1841) exemplifies this principle to some extent; it reappears in his very large picture of "Chaucer at the Court of Edward III." (now in the public gallery of Sydney, Australia), which, although projected in 1845, was not brought to completion until 1851. As to becoming a direct co-operator in the pre-Raphaelite movement, he did not join the "Brotherhood," though it would have been open to him to do so; but for some years his works exhibited a marked influence derived from the movement, not on the whole to their clear advantage.
The principal pictures of this class are: "The Pretty Baa-lambs"; "Work" (a street scene at Hampstead); and "The Last of England" (an emigration subject, one of his most excellent achievements): dating between 1851 and 1863. "Christ Washing Peter's Feet" (now in the National Gallery of British Art) comes within the same range of dates, and is a masterly work; here the pre-Raphaelite influence is less manifest. Altogether it may be averred that the conception and introduction of the pre-Raphaelite scheme, such as it appeared to the public eye in 1849 and 1850, belong to Millais, Holman Hunt and Rossetti, rather than to Brown.
Other leading pictures by Brown are the following: - "Cordelia at the Bedside of Lear"; "Shakespeare"; "Jacob and Joseph's Coat"; "Elijah and the Widow's Son"; "Cordelia's Portion"; "The Entombment"; "Romeo and Juliet" (the parting on the balcony); "Don Juan and Haidee"; "Cromwell on his Farm"; "Cromwell, Protector of the Vaudois": - covering the period from 1849 to 1877. "Sardanapalus and Myrrha," begun within the same period, was finished later. He produced, moreover, a great number of excellent cartoons for stained glass, being up to 1874 a member of the firm of decorative art, Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Co. He also executed, in colours or in crayons, various portraits, including his own. From 1878 he was almost engrossed by work which he undertook for the town hall of Manchester, and which entailed his living for some few years in that city - twelve large wall paintings, some of them done in a modified form of the Gambier-Parry process, and others in oils on canvas applied to the wall surface. They present a compendium of the history of Manchester and its district, from the building of the Roman camp at Mancunium to the experimental work of Dalton in elaborating the atomic theory.
This is an extremely fine series, though with some diversity of individual merit in the paintings, and is certainly the chief representative, in the United Kingdom, of any such form of artistic effort - if we leave out of count the works (by various painters) in the Houses of Parliament.
Madox Brown was never a popular or highly remunerated artist. Up to near middle age he went through trying straits in money matters; afterwards his circumstances improved, but he was not really well off at any time. In youth he followed the usual course as an exhibiting painter, but after some mortifications and heart-burnings he did little in this way after 1852. He held, however, in 1865, an exhibition of his own then numerous paintings and designs. He also delivered a few lectures on fine art from time to time. From 1868 he suffered from gout; and this led to an attack of apoplexy, from which he died in London on the 6th of October 1893. He was a man of upright, independent and honourable character, of warm affections, a steady and self-sacrificing friend; but he took offence rather readily, and viewed various persons and institutions with a degree of suspicion which may be pronounced excessive. He felt interest in many questions outside the range of his art, and, being a good and varied talker, had often something apposite and suggestive to say about them. On more than one occasion he exerted himself very zealously for the benefit of the working classes.
In politics he was a consistent Democrat, and on religious questions an Agnostic.
The life of this artist has been well written by his grandson, Ford M. Hueffer, in a handsomely illustrated volume entitled Ford Madox Brown (London, 1896). This volume contains some extracts from Brown's diary, extending in the whole from 1847 to 1865; and other lengthier extracts appear in two books edited by William M. Rossetti - Ruskin, Rossetti, Pre-Raphaelitism (1899), and Pre-Raphaelite Diaries and Letters (1899). See also the Preferences in Art, etc., by Harry Quilter (1892), and a pamphlet, Ford Madox Brown (1901), by Helen Rossetti (Angeli), applicable to a collection of his works exhibited in the Whitechapel Art Gallery.
(W. M. R.)