Into The Frame: The Four Loves of Ford Madox Brown by Angela Thirlwell
|Into The Frame: The Four Loves of Ford Madox Brown by Angela Thirlwell|
|Reviewer: John Van der Kiste|
|Summary: A biography of the Victorian painter and the four women in his life, his two wives and his ‘secret passions’.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 304||Date: February 2010|
|Publisher: Chatto & Windus|
Ford Madox Brown, born in 1821 in Calais of a Scottish family, raised in France and Belgium before settling in England, was one of the foremost Victorian artists. Throughout his career he was closely associated with the Pre-Raphaelites, and shared many of their same ideals, style and subject matter, though he never officially became a member of the group.
He married twice, firstly to his cousin Elizabeth Bromley. Her health was always delicate, and after she had given birth to two children, one of whom died as a baby, they went to spend a winter in Rome for the sake of her health. It was to no avail, and as they were crossing Paris on their way back home, she died of tuberculosis at the age of 27.
The grieving widower took a second wife seven years later. Her name was Emma Hill, and although she was working-class unlike him, it proved a reasonably happy marriage despite her severe drinking problem. She was more robust than the first Mrs Brown, and though her exact age was never known, she reached her mid-fifties or possibly early sixties, dying in 1893, three years before him. Both wives appeared regularly in his pictures and drawings. Emma is very much the focal point of one of his most famous, ‘The Last of England’ (included in the plates and shown on the jacket), portraying a determined, grim-faced couple husband and wife sailing in a boat across the channel, with a stormy sea and the white cliffs of Dover behind them. The husband, naturally, is the artist himself. She and their daughter, a babe in arms, are also at the centre of the rather sugary ‘Pretty Baa-Lambs’.
However, in later life he had platonic relationships with two other women, both of whom were of the same generation as his daughters. One was the Greek beauty and artist Marie Spartali, the other was the poet, novelist and biographer Mathilde Blind. He was clearly very attached to Spartali, writing her a book of poems which he never published. She made a loveless marriage with William Stillman, a journalist, and then went to live abroad, leaving Brown with the companionship of Blind, who shared his interests in history and supporting radical causes in Victorian England.
This book is partly a biography of Ford Madox Brown, and it deals in some detail with his career, his exhibitions and his most important paintings. For example, three pages are devoted to his masterpiece, ‘Work’, which Thirlwell rightly suggests was perhaps the most ambitious English picture of the 19th century. Considerable light is thrown on his personal relationship with the leading Pre-Raphaelite painter and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who came to stay for a rather long time, much to the chagrin of Emma who found him extremely irritating.
Yet, even more than this, it is a portrait of the four very different women who shared his life, how they influenced his work and how he immortalized them thus. In retrospect Emma, Marie and Mathilde were all ‘new women’, although it was a term not generally recognized until the end of the 19th century.
The illustrations have been very well chosen. Black and white pictures are integrated with the text throughout, complemented by eight colour plates including several of his most famous works. I was particularly struck by the first, and one of the lesser-known, a very early family portrait of his in-laws, the Bromleys, with a pensive (and already ailing) Elizabeth in one corner. As a look into the Victorian art world, and to some extent a look at the role of women in 19th century England, this is recommended as an excellent read.
I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to the Bookbag.
If you enjoy this, for a look at contemporary painting in France and the artists behind it, may we recommend The Private Lives of the Impressionists by Sue Roe.
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