1Though he never actually belonged to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Ford Madox Brown (1821–1893) was very close to the founding members of their artistic circle: Rossetti studied painting under his guidance, and he remained faithful to their initial ideal for a much longer period than any of the actual “Brothers”. Being slightly older than them, Brown started painting a decade before 1848, the year when the PRB was officially created. His own adoption of medievalism therefore predates the programme embraced by Millais, Hunt and a few others. His long career allowed him to change styles several times, and also to modify his approach of medieval beauty.
2In Britain, the debate about the rejection of “classical” art in favour of a more “primitive” style of painting was rife long before the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was created in September 1848. Ford Madox Brown, who lived on the Continent, was immersed in the controversy in 1844, when he came back to England in order to take part in the competition for the decoration of the new Houses of Parliament. The fire which had destroyed the old Palace of Westminster in 1834 was a godsend for British artists, who were allowed to submit cartoons for possible frescoes in the various chambers. Like most of his contemporaries, Brown contributed several projects, within the conceptual framework which had been suggested by Edward Edwards, one of the founders of the Art Union:
The appropriate decoration of the Houses of Parliament now in the course of erection would afford a noble opportunity for the employment of the genius of our best artists on historical and national subjects. When we observe what has recently been done in this department in France, and still more strikingly, in the magnificent capital of the small kingdom of Bavaria, we may well blush for Britain, if this opportunity, like so many preceding ones, should be altogether neglected.1
- 2 Punch 1848, quoted by Bendiner, 12.
3For the building proper, Charles Barry’s project had been selected. The Perpendicular Gothic was judged eminently suitable for the new Houses of Parliament, being a picturesque and, above all, national style. It was the first secular public building in the Revival style and was sometimes mocked as a “middle-age building for modern senators, with middle-age decorations for modern debates”.2
4While the Gothic had soon come to be perceived as a typically English style of architecture, medievalism in painting seemed suspect for many reasons, notably because it was equated with the assimilation of the foreign influence of German art, whose introduction was favoured by the action of the German-born Prince Albert. Munich, “the magnificent capital of the small kingdom of Bavaria” in Edward Edwards’ words, was the stamping ground of the Nazarenes, a group of German painters who had decided to go back to a certain kind of “primitive” purity. Most of them had spent several years in Rome and they were very much influenced by Raphael’s predecessors. In his desire to emulate Ludwig I’s patronage of the arts, Prince Albert had invited Peter Cornelius as an advisor for the decorations of the new Parliament, and Ludwig Grüner had been appointed as a supervisor for the frescoes painted in the garden pavilion of Buckingham Palace.
5This foreign influence was strongly resisted by the indignant British art world. “High art”, inspired by the Late Italian Renaissance, was seen as the answer to German medievalism. The Fine Arts Commission even found a historical justification for this preference:
- 3 Quoted by Vaughan, 227.
The Tudor Style of Gothic (the style of the Palace of Westminster) is coeval with the highest developments of art in Italy; and the buildings erected in the time of Henry VII or Henry VIII might have been decorated by the hand of Raphael, had he accepted the invitation of the last-named monarch to visit England.3
6Strangely enough, though the new Houses of Parliament included Richard II’s Great Hall, one of the few remains of the original building, no one seems to have had the idea of imitating the style of the truly English frescoes which had been revealed thanks to reconstruction works in 1819, in Henry III’s well-named “Painted Chamber”. Attributed to Master Walter of Durham, they had been carefully copied in watercolour by Charles Stothard. They all disappeared in the 1834 fire, and only a few isolated fragments have resurfaced. Even older were the frescoes of St Stephen’s Chapel, duly copied before they were destroyed. The interior of the chapel had in fact been destroyed in 1800 when more seats were needed in the House of Commons: architect James Wyatt ripped the existing furnishings of the Chamber: Edward III’s frescoes were thus exposed, and immediately destroyed, without arousing much outrage, except from a few angry antiquarians. Ironically, Wyatt proceeded to replace the real medieval decoration by false Gothic elements (crenellations on the oustide, tracery in the windows, etc.). Such examples of true medieval painting had very few supporters among the Victorians, as one can guess from a text published in 1850, “A Dialogue on Art” by John Orchard, written under the guise of a Socratic dialogue. Four characters named Kosmon, Kalon, Sophon and Christian discuss, among many other things, the merits of Hellenic versus “Mediæval” art. Kosmon, who must be taken to express the opinion of the world at large, declares:
Most remarkable among these unnatural peculiarities are gilded backgrounds, gilded hair, gilded ornaments and borders to draperies and dresses, the latter’s excessive verticalism of lines and tedious involution of folds, and the childlike passivity of countenance and expression: all of which are very prominent, and operate as serious drawbacks to their merits; which—as I have freely admitted—are in truth not a few, nor mean.4
7In the absence of any interest for the actual look of medieval painting, medievalism triumphed in the choice of “historical and national” subjects for the new decorations. In 1844, Ford Madox Brown submitted two cartoons: a literary subject, Adam and Eve, inspired by Milton’s Paradise Lost, and a historical one, The Body of Harold brought before William the Conqueror. This was the most ambitious composition ever attempted by the 23-year-old painter. Both failed to attract the jury’s attention. The Adam and Eve was immediately destroyed by the artist himself. From what we know of his Harold at Hastings, Brown had not yet converted to medievalism. Though the subject dates back to the early days of Norman Britain, the work relates to Late Renaissance art, with its dramatic lighting, intense animation and muscular bodies. It has been said that Brown was inspired by Delacroix, but we may more generally classify him among the “Michelangelesque” artists, according to a categorization prevalent at the time. Brown was soon to change style, and we might almost take the caricature published in Punch in 1848 as an illustration of the artist’s passage from one school of painting to another.5 In 1845, for the following Westminster competition, Brown would adopt a more archaic style, in a stylised composition devoid of any perspective effect.
- 6 Quoted in Mancoff, 241.
- 7 Hunt I, 121.
8When a new set of subjects was suggested to decorate the Lords Chamber, medieval values were even more dominant: for the north wall, “personifications or abstract representations of Religion, Justice, and the Spirit of Chivalry” were imposed by the Fine Arts Commission. To these abstractions corresponded three other frescoes, “expressing the relationship of the Sovereign to the Church, to the Law, and, as the fountain of honour, to the State . . . The Baptism of Ethelbert; Prince Henry, afterwards Henry V, acknowledging the authority of Chief Justice Gascoigne; and Edward the Black Prince receiving the Order of the Garter from Edward III”.6 Six artists were initially selected for those six frescoes, but as the competition was later opened to outside submissions, Brown’s Abstract Spirit of Justice was exhibited among the 116 works by 39 artists publicly displayed in Westminster Hall, in July 1845. It was distinguished by various critics but it was rejected by the jury, who may have shared the doubts expressed by the young William Holman Hunt: “attention was distracted by the Gothic quaintness of the central design, in which figured four knights armed cap-à-pie, and arranged at equal distances symmetrically in a row across the picture, their faces covered by large tilting-helms inclined alternately to the right and left”.7 The Chamber was eventually decorated by four of the six artists originally selected by the Commission. William Dyce, who painted the first of the six scenes, was presented as a model to be followed: his services were also secured in 1848 for a series of Arthurian frescoes in the Robing Room.
9Brown was not discouraged by this new failure: on the contrary, he started reading history books in preparation for the following year’s competition. He hesitated between two possible subjects: “The First Naval Victory” and “The Origin of our Native Tongue”. A passage of Sir James Mackintosh’s “History of England”, in Lardner’s Cyclopedia, helped him to make up his mind:
“I fell upon a passage to this effect as near as I can remember ‘And it is scarcely to be wondered at, that English about this period should have become the judicial language of the country, ennobled as it had recently been by the genius of Geoffrey Chaucer.’ This at once fixed me, I immediately saw visions of Chaucer reading his poems to knights & Ladyes fair, to the king & court amid air & sun shine”.8
10This moment was decisive, as it determined the course of Brown’s career for the years to come, which would be almost exclusively devoted to the elaboration of what would become The Seeds and Fruits of English Poetry.
“At first I intended calling it the ‘seeds of the English language’, and putting Wickliff on one side as a wing and some one else on the other but I could find no one to suit, Gower was too poor a Caracter & John of Gaunt for the harmony of ideas would not suit, it being inappropriate to put the patron on one wing & his protégées one in the center & the other on the other side compartment. I then changed my idea to that of The seeds & fruits of the English Language but I soon found that in doing so after having given a place to our greatest poëts there would be none left for the prose writers”.9
11It was also in the summer of 1845 that the artist had to leave England to seek some warmer climate for his consumptive and, indeed, dying wife. They went to Italy (while the members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood had no actual knowledge of the art they supported, Brown had seen works by Giotto, Masaccio and Fra Angelico in Florence). In Rome, Brown continued his research: “from the library of the English Academy I procured the works and life of our first poet and fortunately found that the facts known respecting him perfectly admitted of the idea I had already conceived”.10
12This was indeed a happy accident, since the subject imagined by the artist was initially no more than a castle in the air. In an article published in February 1850 in the Pre-Raphaelite magazine The Germ, Brown formulated some advice “On the Mechanism of a Historical Picture”
The first care of the painter, after having selected his subject, should be to make himself thoroughly acquainted with the character of the times, and habits of the people, which he is about to represent; and next, to consult the proper authorities for his costume, and such objects as may fill his canvass . . . By not pursuing this course, the artist is in danger of imagining an effect, or disposition of lines, incompatible with the costume of his figures, or objects surrounding them.11
13This is the programme which Brown fixed for himself: he took many ideas from a volume published in 1837, Knight’s Pictorial History of England. He spent a lot of time on the different costumes, and one might almost think that this was at first the dominant element in this painting: the artist’s diary is full of references to silk bodices, furred caps, satin cloaks, velvet draperies, etc. “25th [September 1847] Got up Early—& got to work late, fumbled till 12 o’clock over the Hood of the left hand corner figure of the “knight” made a lirlipipe for it . . . 26th Finished the drawing of the Hood & a drawing of the cloak for one of the Men next him, “the chamberlain”. 27th drew in the other cloack next it & the cloak of the back figure conversing with the knight”.12 For the furniture, we know that Brown also consulted Pugin’s book Gothic Furniture in the Style of the 15thCentury.
14On her deathbed, Brown’s wife enjoined him to complete this ambitious project, combining allegory and historical scenes, which had soon taken the medieval shape of a triptych. He started working at it in September 1847: twelve feet tall, with some forty figures, the painting would have been monumental, but he still intended to have it finished for the Royal Academy’s Show in April of the following year. Brown never could redeem his pledge to his late wife, but the elaborate sketch which was preserved shows that he had gone a step further in the inclusion of truly medieval elements: the panels of the triptych are included within a sort of Gothic tracery, with vines running along the structure. This inner frame constitutes the first truly medieval element used by Ford Madox Brown.
15“In 1851 I finished the centre compartment of the “Fruits of English poetry” having determined to abandon the wings”.13 The title then became Chaucer reading the Legend of Custance to Edward III and his Court, at the Palace of Sheen on the Anniversary of the Black Prince’s Forty-fifth Birthday. This is what Brown wrote in the catalogue of his 1865 exhibition:
Chaucer, along with Dante, is one of the only two supremely great mediaeval poets who have come down to us, at least by name. But Chaucer is at the same time as much a perfect English poet—I am almost tempted to say a modern English poet—as any of the present day. Spelling, and a few of the minor proprieties apart, after a lapse of five hundred years, his delicate sense of naturalistic beauty and his practical turn of thought, quite at variance with the iron grasp of realism, the deep-toned passionate mysticism, and super-sensual grace of the great Italian, comes home to us as naturally as the last volume we hail with delight from the press.14
The vertical superposition of horizontal planes refers to the time when art was not yet ruled by the laws of perspective.
- 15 Surtees, 17.
- 16 Hueffer, 45.
16On 29 November 1847, just as he realized that Seeds and Fruits would never be completed for the 1848 exhibition, Brown had a new idea. “Thought of a subject as I went along. Wycliff reading his translation of the bible to John of Gaunt, Chaucer & Gower Present—arranged it in my mind”.15 During his continental journey, Brown had spent some time in Basle, where he had been very impressed by the work of Holbein. In Rome, he had met the German Nazarene painters Overbeck and Cornelius (among other things, he would later remember that Overbeck “bore exactly the appearance of some figure of the fifteenth century”16). Their influence, strongly supported by Brown’s friend the painter William Cave Thomas, is obvious in Wycliffe Reading his Translation of the Bible to John of Gaunt, which was painted in the first days of 1848. Critics have underlined this work’s “severe linearity of style, symmetrical composition, cool fresco-like colours with little tonal contrast” (Newman and Watkinson 34). Medievalism also meant the inclusion of several items of furniture in the Gothic style: a splendid see-through lectern, a throne and bench for John of Gaunt and his wife, an elaborately carved stone balustrade in the background. For these elements Brown was helped by his friend Thomas Seddon, who lent him Henry Shaw’s book entitled Specimens of Ancient Furniture drawn from existing authorities (London 1836).
- 17 Hunt I, 126.
- 18 Hunt I, 122.
17By dint of long sessions of frantic work (which could last as much as eighteen hours a day), Brown managed to have his painting ready for the Royal Academy. Exhibited in April 1848, Wycliffe’s archaism was to have a strong influence on the soon-to-be-created Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. At first, Brown’s younger colleagues found it hard to appreciate this new austere style. William Holman Hunt disliked what he had seen of The Seeds and Fruits while it was still a work in progress: “this “Chaucer” design failed to represent the unaffected art of past time, and it stood before me as a recent mark of academic ingenuity which Pre-Raphaelitism in its larger power of enfranchisement was framed to overthrow”17. When the PRB was formed in September 1848, it may not have been easy to find a common denominator between those young artists who knew what they hated, but had still no clear idea of what they would choose as their ideal form of beauty. Admiration for the Nazarenes was certainly not a common point, since Hunt would later ridicule the German painters “who set themselves to imitate all the child-like immaturities and limitations of the German and Italian quattrocentists”.18
18Wycliffe was Brown’s first painting in his “English style”, and contemporary critics thought it was “designed with a view to its execution in fresco”. The Athenaeum added that Brown should “be induced to make some abatements of punctilious accuracy in the costumes—unfitted to the severity of historical treatment—in certain particulars which are the accidents of a bygone time, and when so much insisted on, subject their author to the imputation of pedantry”.19
19By 1850, Brown had become a total devotee of medieval art, and his text “On the Mechanism of a Historical Picture” strangely conflates the organic metaphor with the ideal beauty of medieval buildings: “It is a feeling for proportion, ever varying from an infinity of conflicting causes, that balances the picture as it balances the Gothic edifice; it is a germ planted in the breast of the artist, that gradually expands by cultivation”.20 But strangely enough, once he turned into a faithful adept of the Pre-Raphaelite doctrine, he practically gave up painting medieval subjects. This is perhaps to be related to a different interpretation of medievalism which was most certainly known by Brown.
20Published in March 1850, the third number of The Germ opened with an etching by Ford Madox Brown inspired by King Lear and included the second part of “The Subject in Art”, an article by John L. Tupper whose first part had appeared in the January number of the magazine. According to Tupper, artists should not avoid contemporary subjects, and he illustrated his point with a medieval example: “How many a Troubadour, who recited tales of king Arthur, had his incidents furnished him by the events of his own time!”.21 If one admires medieval art, one should not recycle its subjects, but on the contrary, find their equivalents in modern life. Tupper was definitely against “troubadour” painting:
Why teach us to revere the saints of old, and not our own family-worshippers? Why to admire the lance-armed knight, and not the patience-armed hero of misfortune? Why to draw a sword we do not wear to aid an oppressed damsel, and not a purse which we do wear to rescue an erring one? . . . Why to love a Ladie in bower, and not a wife’s fireside?22
21Brown may have felt a pique was intended at his own Oure Ladye of Saturday Night, with its archaic title (1847), and he soon followed Tupper’s advice, with a painting entitled An English Fireside in the Winter of 1854-55. Tupper’s motto could be thus summarized: modern artists should be emulating the spirit of medieval art, instead of imitating its forms. For Tupper, medieval art was morally, not aesthetically, superior to any other art.
That the maximum of physical beauty does not constitute the maximum of Fine Art, is apparent from the facts of the physical beauty of Early Christian Art being inferior to that of Grecian art; whilst, in the concrete, Early Christian Art is superior to Grecian. Indeed some specimens of Early Christian Art are repulsive rather than beautiful, yet these are in many cases the highest works of Art.23
22From then on, Ford Madox Brown’s art lost some of the formal characteristics which could bring it visually closer to medieval art. Nevertheless, Brown was still involved in other attempts at recreating the Victorian ideal of Gothic beauty, through his friendship with another of his young pupils, William Morris.
- 24 Newman and Watkinson, 134.
23The firm of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Co. was created in January 1861 and contributed several items to the International Exhibition of the following year. Morris’s firm “gave Brown a welcome outlet for his gifts, boosted his output significantly and increased his income”.24 In 1862 Brown designed and decorated a book-case, probably commissioned by Major William Gillum, an important patron of Morris and Co.: the object itself has disappeared, but we know that Brown had planned a set of seven modern subjects, illustrating the life of an English officer’s family from 1810 to 1860, depicted on gilded panels, in a rather curious mixture of medievalism and modernity. In the same year, Brown also resorted to gilded panels for a more obviously medievalizing piece of furniture.
24Brown’s friend Thomas Seddon had a brother who was an architect and designer. John Pollard Seddon (1827-1906) was the author of a book of Gothic ornament (1852) and had been a member of the Medieval Society since 1857; towards the end of his life, as the Diocesan Architect for London, he conceived the plans of the Imperial Monumental Halls and Tower, a huge mausoleum next to Westminster Abbey, which would have dwarfed Barry’s Houses of Parliament into insignificance had it ever been built. In 1861, John Pollard Seddon designed an oak cabinet to hold his architectural drawings, and as soon as William Morris founded his “Firm”, he asked Morris to decorate it. This item of furniture, known as King René’s Honeymoon Cabinet, was to be ornamented by Brown, Burne-Jones, and Rossetti. In 1898, Seddon wrote a book describing the cabinet, and he credited Brown with its decorative scheme. The allegories of the fine arts on the four main panels (Architecture, by Brown; Painting and Sculpture, by Burne-Jones; Music by Rossetti) were surmounted by smaller pictures of medieval craftsmen engaged in embroidery, pottery, weaving and woodwork. In Seddon’s own words, the decoration included
cusped arches and corbels at the top, with their spandrels enriched with the armorial bearings in circles, and delicately diapered surfaces and borderings, like those in the medieval manuscripts [Morris] was so fond of; and lastly, by preparing guilt backgrounds for the figures themselves, decorated with diapers of black lines and dots to secure a harmony of treatment throughout.
The idea was to “realise the unity of the several fine arts and their accessories”.
25Following a personal habit, Brown reused his drawing of King René being kissed by his queen to create several works of art: a watercolour, several oil versions, stained-glass windows, etc. The project of King René’s Cabinet was to revive the ideal collaboration of medieval artists. It must be remembered that, for William Morris, the attraction of the Middle Ages was mainly social. He considered Ruskin’s The Nature of Gothic as one of the founding texts of British socialism, with its essential link between aesthetics and the ethics of labour. In 1851, already, when A.W.N. Pugin had organised the “Medieval Court” for the Great Exhibition in the Crystal Palace, his ambition had been to suggest a period in which labour and art were in harmony, thanks to the influence of the Church.
26The same ideal may still have guided Morris at the end of his career, some twenty-five years later. In 1887, to mark Queen Victoria’s fifty years of rule, Manchester organized a great Royal Jubilee Exhibition. A temporary building was erected, made of glass and cast iron; Brown, who was then completing his work on the frescoes of the Manchester Town Hall, was commissioned to paint a series of monumental figures to decorate the spandrils of the central dome: eight colossal figures, depicting “Energy as symbolised by figures of the various manufactures and pursuits of the nation”.25 Weaving, Shipping, Spinning, Commerce, Corn, Wool, Iron and Coal were not represented as disembodied allegories; Brown decided to have them represented by living men and women: Weaver, Fisherman, Spinner, Merchant, Harvester, Sheep Shearer, Farrier and Collier. Strangely enough, in this this typically “modern” structure, using the architectural principles formulated by Paxton in 1851 with his Crystal Palace, Brown decided to paint medieval characters. His “Spinner” is no more than a “medievalisation” of the English Fireside . . . with the posture of the child taken up from Take Your Son, Sir; his “Merchant” is more distinctly medieval, with his hat and slippers, his cathedra and lectern.
27Once an adept of medievalism, Brown became one of the ancestors of Art Nouveau, as can be seen through the second of his works inspired by Wicliffe. When a series of murals was commissioned for the Manchester Town Hall, one of the subjects finally agreed by the local authorities was Wickliffe’s Trial, which would prove “the most ambitious and perhaps the most successful of all the twelve [frescoes]”.26 With its swirling draperies and central void in the composition, we are very far from the symmetry and care of the Wickliffe reading his translation painted some forty years earlier. This is a perfect example of Brown’s late manner, a kind of prefiguration of the Art Nouveau curvilinear style, which he adapted even to medieval subjects. In 1873, he designed some stained-glass windows for St. Editha’s church in Tamworth (Staffordshire). “King Athelstane gives away his sister / Edita who is married to Sigtrig / the king of Northumbria; the bishop’s nuptial benediction”. For the same church, Burne-Jones designed his “Seven Days of Creation”, a work typical of the Aesthetic Movement. A new generation of Pre-Raphaelite artists had appeared, with only the faintest links with the “naive” medievalism of the initial Brotherhood.
A very excellent example of how Madox Brown deliberately forced himself to adopt a particular style is afforded by the picture of the death of Sir Tristram. This, as he avows, is intended to imitate, or to account for, the style of missal illuminations and illustrations. For this reason the scene is a room with windows on all sides, which provides an effect of light which might, as I have said, account for the entirely artlessly arrived at lighting of the mediaeval workers. In the early days of his work of this kind he strove to render his designs “mediaeval” in appearance, but gradually his sympathy with the mediaevalists among his friends gave way before the drift of his own individuality, and his work became once more intensely personal.27
28This last sentence is indeed an excellent way to summarize Ford Madox Brown’s ideological evolution, from a patriotic valuation of feudal Britain to a totally free interpretation of the Middle Ages, through a more social appreciation of medieval art. This combination of nationalism and Aestheticism shows how medieval beauty could be an infinite source of inspiration for Victorian artists.