The other day I went to Manchester to see the Ford Madox Brown exhibition at the Manchester Art Gallery. The exhibition opened on September 24th and runs until January 29th 2012 and I strongly recommend you make the effort to visit the city and take in this superb show which displays 140 public and private works from this talented 19th century painter. I have already featured two of Ford Madox Brown’s paintings, The Last of England (June 15th) and Manfred on the Jungfrau (July 21st), the former I saw when I visited the Birmingham Art Gallery and the latter which I had hoped to view when I went to Manchester a few months ago had been withdrawn from the gallery for some restoration work prior to this new exhibition. Both of these works are on show at the current Manchester Exhibition.
I will, in the coming months, review more of Ford Madox Brown’s works, which I saw at the exhibition, but I need to space them out a little otherwise I will be accused of featuring one artist too often.
Like most people, I had seen many of Ford Madox Brown’s paintings before, in books or on the internet, but what I had not realized was that he had completed many portraits of which a number were on display at the exhibition. However, there is nothing more true than the saying “you cannot please all the people all the time” for as I researched today’s blog and was still buoyed up with my admiration for Brown’s portraits, I came across the Daily Telegraph’s art critic’s, Alastair Smart, view of the exhibition and his assessment of some of the paintings, especially his portraiture. He wrote:
“…Despite the show’s claims to the contrary, Brown’s portraits and biblical dramas aren’t up to much either: his figures are just too awkward in facial gesture, one toothy contortion after another…”
How disappointing to read that when I was still so enthused with what I had seen. I loved his small portraits. I did get some consolation however when I re-read the opening line of his article which stated quite bluntly:
“….First, a confession: I utterly loathe the Pre-Raphaelites. Oh, what a mawkish, melodramatic and clichéd bunch…”
The journalist did however go on to qualify his bold statement by saying that he realized Ford Madox Brown was not a member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood but countered that by telling us that he did have a close association with the three founder members. Guilty by association ? Having said all that I will not be deflected from my proposed look at two of Brown’s small portraits, which I loved, even if the knowledgeable art critic disliked them.
For My Daily Art Display today I am featuring two portraits, The Irish Girl and The English Boy as they were hung next to each other at the exhibition and in some ways they are connected. It was the coming together of these “two old friends”, who were separated forty-seven years ago. The man, who commissioned the paintings, was a Leeds stockbroker called Thomas Edward Plint, who was a patron of Ford Madox Brown, and an important Pre Raphaelite art collector. In 1850, he had commissioned Brown to paint Work, and out of that commission came the painting, The Irish Girl, which also happens to be featured on all the exhibition publicity material. To my mind this is a beautiful and haunting painting. This small (almost 28cms square) oil on canvas work was completed by Brown in 1860 and is normally to be found exhibited at the Yale Centre of British Art. The Yale Center for British Art, which is in New Haven, Connecticut, is a public art museum and research institute for the study of British art and culture. It was presented to Yale University by Paul Mellon who was in the Class of 1929 at Yale. The Centre houses the largest collection of British art outside the United Kingdom.
In comparison to the portrait of the young English boy the young girl looks slightly nervous and somewhat troubled. She has real beauty. There is nothing idealized about this portrait. Her haunting loveliness is plain to see and yet the difference between her and the English boy could not be starker. Unlike the boy, she looks worldly–wise. Her jet black hair, her dazzling brown eyes and her painted red lips are all part of her exquisiteness. She has tilted her head a little to one side and her eyes focus on something off to the side. When Ford Madox Brown was looking for Irish models for his painting Work he came across this young girl selling oranges and couldn’t pass up the opportunity to paint her portrait. We see the fingers of her hand appearing from inside her red paisley shawl which is tightly wrapped around her and the colour of which complements the colour of her lips. Between her fingers, she is gently holding a sprig of cornflowers.
The portrait which hung next to the Irish Girl was entitled The English Boy and was the companion piece to the Irish Girl. In this case the young child depicted was no stranger to Brown. It was his five year old son, Oliver, and this too was painted in 1860. It is slightly larger than the Irish Girl, measuring 39cms x 33cms. This portrait is owned by the Manchester Art Gallery, which acquired it in 1932. Although a companion piece to the Irish Girl they couldn’t be more different. In this portrait, the young child stares straight at us with a self-assured gaze. It is a deadpan expression and we wonder what is going through his mind. His cheeks are slightly flushed and this colouring in some way matches the red shawl and lips of the Irish Girl. He wears a white smock over a red checked dress and on top of his head, sitting at a slightly jaunty angle, is a brown straw hat. In his hands he clutches on tightly to the popular child’s toys of the time, a top and whip. The way in which he holds the toys in some way reminds us of royal paintings where the subject holds a sceptre and orb.
Despite what our knowledgeable journalist would have us believe I don’t find these portraits in any way awkward in facial gesture. I find them to be simply fascinating studies of two young children.