Saturday, December 3, 2011
Ford Madox Brown - The Last of England
signed and dated 'Brown 55' (lower right, on the edge of the boat)
oil on panel, painted oval
7¾ x 6 7/8 in. (19.7 x 17.5 cm.)
The Last of England (fig.1) is Brown's most famous work, indeed one of the most famous of all Victorian pictures. It has been called his 'masterpiece', which only begs the question of the status of Work (Manchester Art Gallery). Perhaps The Last of England is the greater picture, Work the greater, or at any rate more comprensive, tract for the times.
Brown described the subject in the catalogue of his one-man exhibition in Piccadilly in 1865:
This picture is in the strictest sense historical. It treats of the great emigration movement which attained its culminating point in 1852. The educated are bound to their country by quite other ties than the illiterate man, whose chief consideration is food and physical comfort. I have, therefore, in order to present the parting scene in its fullest tragic development, singled out a couple from the middle classes, high enough, through education and refinement, to appreciate all they are now living up to, and yet depressed enough in means, to have to put up with the discomforts and humiliations incident to a vessel 'all one class'. The husband broods bitterly over blighted hopes and severence from all he has been striving for. The young wife's grief is of a less cankerous sort, probably confined to the sorrow of parting with a few friends of early years. The circle of her love moves with her.
The husband is shielding his wife from the sea spray with an umbrella. Next them in the backgroud, an honest family of the green-grocer kind... Still further back a reprobate shakes his fist with curses at the land of his birth, as though that were answerable for his want of success... The cabbages slung round the stern of the vessel indicate to the practised eye a lengthly voyage...
Brown's decision to treat this subject is often related to the departure of the Pre-Raphaelite sculptor Thomas Woolner to dig for gold in Australia in July 1852. Brown's friends D.G. Rossetti and William Holman Hunt went to see Woolner off at Gravesend. On the other hand the subject of emigration, 'the great emigration movement' as Brown calls it, was highly topical, and with its miriad opportunities for depicting emotive incidents, inspired many artists. Brown himself had serious thought of emigrating in the early 1850s, a period when personal difficulties and professional disappointment caused him, as he put it in the summer of 1854, to be often 'intensely miserable, very hard up and a little mad'. In a sense he sublimated the matter by painting himself as the man in the picture, his wife Emma as the woman (fig. 2), and their two infant children, Catherine and Oliver, as the child with the green apple and the baby in its mother's arms. Certainly it was only the successful sale of the picture that finally put an end to the question of uprooting the family to seek their fortune abroad.
The present version is the 'coloured sketch' that Brown began just before Christmas 1852, together with a pencil cartoon (fig. 3). The big picture was also started that winter, but when Brown realised that it would not be finished in time for the Royal Academy exhibition in 1853, he put it aside until September 1854, when he took it up again and finally completed it a year later. The sketch and the cartoon were worked on concurrently with an eye to their eventual sale. Brown was working on the sketch in September 1854, April 1855, and June-July 1855. Meanwhile on 27 June, though it was still not quite finished, he had sold it to the dealer David White for £10, White also bought the cartoon for £7 and the big picture for £150, including copyright.
There are significant differences between the painting and the sketch. The sketch is more of an upright oval, and, like the cartoon, it has fewer figures on the left, four rather than the seven seen in the finished work. In both cartoon and sketch, moreover, the woman wears a wide-checked shawl as distinct from the grey plaid seen in the picture. Brown noted this change in his diary on 20 September 1854: 'settled that I would paint the woman in Emma's shepherd plaid shawl instead of the large blue and green plaid as in the sketch. This is a serious affair settled which has caused me much perplexity'.
On the other hand some details that appear in the picture were introduced into the sketch, notably the cabbages 'slung round the stern of the vessel', which are absent from the cartoon. On 13 April 1855 Brown was suffering from a bad cold and had 'breakfast in bed'. However, he noted, 'work about 12 at the sketch of "Last of England", cuttlefished it, scraped out spaces for the cabbages and copied them from the picture and divers till 7pm'. Other differences between the two versions reflect the fact that Brown continued to work on the picture after he had despatched the sketch to White on 3 July. He added strips of wood at the top and sides of the panel in order to open up the composition and show more cliffs, sea and sky. At White's suggestion, he changed the colour of the beach on which the couple are seated from the sandy tone seen in the sketch to green. He also applied some rust to the lifeboat and davit, and added a string attaching the man's hat to a button on his coat.
The dealer David White ('Old White' as he was familiarly known) was regarded with mixed feelings by Brown, but he was his most consistent supporter at this period and it was largely due to him that Brown did not suffer even greater financial hardship. On the same day that he bought the sketch. White also purchased The Brent at Hendon and Carrying Corn (both Tate Gallery) and The Seeds and Fruits of English Poetry (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford), securing the lot for £40.
White sold both the big version of The Last of England and the sketch to B.G. Windus of Tottenham (1790-1867), a coachbuilder who had made a fortune out of a children's medecine called 'Godfrey's Cordial'. Windus had been collecting Turner watercolours since the 1820s, and knew Ruskin well. In fact it was at Windus's house that Turner first thanked Ruskin for the magnificent defence of his work in Modern Painters. But Windus's taste embraced many other English artists and he was a great admirer of the Pre-Raphaelites, owning amongst other things Millais' Isabella (1848-9; Liverpool) and Ophelia (1851-2; Tate). Holman Hunt's Scapegoat (1854-5; Port Sunlight), Brett's Hedger (1859-60; private collection) and Collins's Berengaria (1850; Manchester). In addition to the two versions of The Last of England, he had Brown's Wycliffe (1847-8; Bradford) and Carrying Corn.
On Windus's death in 1867 his collection was sold at Christie's. The sketch for The Last of England was bought for 16 guineas by Tooth. It then disappeared for nearly 130 years, resurfacing at Sotheby's in 1995.
We are grateful to Mary Bennett for her help in preparing this catalogue entry.