Ford Madox Brown: Pre-Raphaelite Pioneer (exhibition review)
To anyone acquainted with Manchester Art Gallery's impressive collection of nineteenth-century art, Ford Madox Brown's painting Work will be a familiar sight. With its absorbing depiction of a congested street scene complete with Irish navvies, street urchins, social philosophers and horse-riding gentry, it amounts to a mid-Victorian rumination on industry (by brain or hand) as the fulcrum of national character. As one of the best known and most celebrated of the artist's pictures, Work--unsurprisingly--featured prominently in an exhibition that the gallery hosted between September 2011 and January 2012, offering a comprehensive survey of Madox Brown's career.
According to the exhibition blurb, Madox Brown was nothing less than a 'Pre-Raphaelite Pioneer,' an epithet which, on closer inspection, is in some need of qualification, since the artist was never an official member of the Brotherhood. This is a point worth making in that it soon became clear, from the wealth and variety of art on display, that Madox Brown's career traced a parallel but subtly distinct trajectory to the whole Pre-Raphaelite pageant. Evidenced not only in Work, but also in other well-known paintings such as The Last of England and An English Autumn Afternoon, is a creative sensibility which took an acute if idiosyncratic interest in life's commonplace charms, vicissitudes and inexorable transience. For that reason, and within the prevalent conventions of his artistic milieu, Madox Brown can often provide a refreshing antidote to the musings of his more tender-spirited contemporaries.
One senses that Madox Brown, unlike some of those contemporaries, does not have to constantly suppress the impulse to chloroform his audience in Arthurian mists. Instead, his is an altogether more vital and loquacious art which, even at its most decorative, rarely gives the viewer an excuse to glaze over in cosy reverie. Such tenacity, which complemented the artist's reputedly plain-spoken manner, may have been informed by the scope and diversity of his artistic education compared with that of his Pre-Raphaelite associates. By his mid-twenties Madox Brown had already received a thorough grounding in European Romanticism at a series of Belgian academies, in addition to his extensive travels in Italy where he encountered works by Early Renaissance masters, which he would go on to unfashionably champion. The Manchester Art Gallery exhibition was particularly illuminating on this formative period, tracing developments in the artist's technique from an early liking for gloomy histrionics to, by the 1840s, a crisply Italianate style that, in its precision and candour, also nods towards Holbein.
Indeed, one of the exhibition's strengths was its pacing, particularly the way visitors were invited to delay the plunge into the years that Madox Brown spent as a Pre-Raphaelite fellow traveller by being presented with a diverse selection of sketches, informal portraits and other associated fragments which incrementally brought the maturing artist into focus. The most absorbing examples amongst this assemblage were the set of drawings that Madox Brown produced in 1843/44 to illustrate episodes from King Lear. The artist would go on to represent scenes from the play later in his career, but never with as much spontaneity and exhilaration as in these earlier attempts, which, with minimal, scurrying pen-strokes, manage to capture a sense of the play's spiralling turmoil. Also on show were several examples of Madox Brown's more meditative draughtsmanship, ranging from strikingly naturalistic drawings of his new-born children through to chalk studies for several of the finished paintings found elsewhere in the exhibition, all of which evoked a sense of his adeptness in a variety of media.
It was, however, with paintings such as The First Translation of the Bible into English, in which John Wycliffe is shown reading from the New Testament to an assembled gathering, that Madox Brown's mature style began to develop. With its fresco-like clarity of tone and figuration, this and similar works of the late 1840s prompted the young Dante Gabriel Rossetti to ask Madox Brown to take him on as a pupil. That request in itself says much about the future course of the relationship between Madox Brown and his younger Pre-Raphaelite associates. If never exactly playing the role of éminence grise to the likes of Millais, Holman Hunt et al, nevertheless Madox Brown was fundamentally important in providing an example of what could be achieved by reviving the lucidity of early Italian masters such as Giotto and Piero della Francesca, and combining it with the angular sincerity of the Northern European Renaissance. Not that the influence was all one way, however. The Pre-Raphaelites' assiduously detailed approach to filling their canvases, inspired by Ruskin's advice to "go to nature....rejecting nothing, selecting nothing and scorning nothing," was also adopted by Madox Brown to augment his own propensity for meticulous compositional richness. In doing so, he saw no reason to limit his purview to religious or literary subjects, so that in An English Autumn Afternoon, an ordinary Victorian couple, in the best Ruskinian manner, look out upon a quotidian Hampstead landscape. Given this, it is a little ironic to learn that Ruskin himself thought the scene an ugly subject and despairingly asked Madox Brown why he had painted it, to which the artist caustically replied, "because it lay out of my back window."
What Ruskin made of the lovingly detailed cabbages that hang from the ship's railing in The Last of England is anyone's guess. This painting, perhaps the best known of the artist's entire output, is another instance in which Madox Brown brought his painstaking approach to bear on contemporary subject matter: in this case a pensively mute couple who, along with their more animated fellow passengers, are emigrants sailing into an unknown future. This, however, is no romantically intrepid scenario. The couple share an air of sullen resignation, whilst the sneering, raucous faces glimpsed behind them emanate a particularly unsettling mood of casual malice; an attitude, or disposition, which became an occasional thematic contrivance in several other of the artist's works. (See, for example, the somewhat eerie Stages of Cruelty with its contrapuntal tableau of spurned lover and vicious dog-beating child.)
Madox Brown's willingness to pursue the implications of naturalism at the expense of artistic decorum--to, in effect, corporealise his subjects and thereby strip away the artifice--takes a curiously rococo turn in The Pretty Baa-Lambs. For the purposes of the exhibition, this painting was given its own substantial wall space, the better to focus the viewer's attention on the blazing sunlight that suffuses every aspect of the pastoral scene. For this picture, Madox Brown dispensed with his normal practice of making preliminary outdoor landscape studies, on which he would base his later studio work. Instead, he stayed outside and arranged his models in situ to complete the scene. By adopting this approach he managed to vividly replicate the heightened chromatic intensity of a cloudless summer day, in the process giving the central Fragonard-like female figure a notably un-romanticised heat-flushed face.
This attempt to accurately render landscape's often-intense luminosity was repeated to intriguing effect in a series of smaller scenes such as Carrying Corn and Walton on the Naze, which the artist produced in the 1850s. Here Madox Brown employed a similarly immersive handling of colour to that used in The Pretty Baa-Lambs to achieve a strikingly diffuse, even proto-Impressionistic, result. Like other examples of his lesser-known work, such paintings serve to emphasise the scale of Madox Brown's versatility, which, as the exhibition demonstrated, also encompassed impressive designs for stained glass and furniture.
Unsurprisingly for an exhibition held in Manchester's main art gallery, the series of murals that the artist created for the city's new Town Hall constituted the subject of the final section. Between 1879 and 1893, Madox Brown worked on these murals depicting scenes from (or in some way related to) Mancunian history. Since the originals remain on display in the nearby Town Hall, visitors were instead presented with sketches and studies that charted Madox Brown's developing compositional ideas. Interesting though these were, it is questionable whether the work that Madox Brown produced for the city fathers actually qualifies as a fitting conclusion to the whole exhibition--chronologically perhaps, as Madox Brown's last major commission, but it would be disingenuous to claim that these murals rank amongst his major achievements. There is an air of expediency about them and, in the later examples of the twelve that he produced, a noticeable reduction in technical capability that was probably due to the artist's deteriorating health in old age. There is a comic strip quality to most of them, as if the artist had made a conscious effort to revisit and pastiche his earlier history canvases. However, it is as well to remember that these murals were intended to promote a sense of communal continuity amongst the general Manchester public, rather than satisfy the artistic discernment of a private collector or gallery audience; perhaps that is why didacticism won out over finesse. On balance, however, you could certainly say that Manchester Corporation got its money's worth.
Ultimately, though, and taken as a whole, the works on show in this exhibition constituted a weighty argument for considering Madox Brown one of the most important nineteenth century English artists, and this notwithstanding his oft-rehearsed associations with the PRB. That being so, does the tag line 'Pre-Raphaelite Pioneer' help or hinder our understanding of his importance? It is well established that he was a key artistic influence on the Brotherhood's earliest endeavours, but the pioneering nature of his involvement with them does not end there. In the way Madox Brown traced an irregular orbit around his associates' enclosed world, periodically entering their refined atmosphere to influence (and be influenced by) them; in the way he set about developing and vitalising the sub-genre of what we now broadly recognise as 'Pre-Raphaelitism' by applying it to contemporary subject matter; and in the way, in so doing, he showed that it did not need to be mired in cloying sensual inertia, he can indeed be dubbed a Pre-Raphaelite pioneer. However, as this exhibition showed in abundance, artistically Ford Madox Brown was also much more than that.--Mark Jones
Frances Spalding's Prunella Clough: Regions Unmapped
Prunella Clough: Regions Unmapped Frances Spalding (Ashgate 2012)
There is a remarkable irony in the fact that this fine biography and reassessment of Prunella Clough is published at the same time as the critical storm over the merits of the master artistic entrepreneur Damien Hirst. While Hirst has made a career out of almost mass-produced works, which he signs and sells for extraordinary sums, the artistic path followed by Clough is diametrically opposed. She was born Cara Clough-Taylor in 1919 but later changed her name in an attempt to distance herself from her wealthy bourgeois background. She enjoyed a substantial private income throughout her life, which meant that she was never fully reliant on selling her work or earning much from her teaching. Thus she was able to pursue her artistic pathway without the need to please critics or patrons, with the consequence that this book, which chronicles her life and work, can clearly chart her development from tentative teenage drawings, to the confident industrial landscapes for which she is best known, to the experimental later abstract works which are amongst her most moving pieces.
Frances Spalding is one of our most respected art historians, and she has enhanced Clough's reputation further with this sympathetic and well-researched work. The text is organised chronologically, allowing the reader to easily follow the stylistic developments, and the author is adept at linking together significant events in the artist's life with particular works. Of course, this is a relatively common way of charting any artist's career, but in this case it would have been quite difficult, since Clough was notoriously reluctant to ever reveal herself to the outside world other than through her art. Drawing on private journals and letters, Spalding lets Clough's voice penetrate the biography, so that we can better understand what drove this uniquely talented artist. As the reader becomes more familiar with the illustrations which support the text, it becomes increasingly apparent that Clough was not an artist who acquired a particular style and then ruthlessly exploited it. Her focus changed over time, and her ability to work successfully with a range of styles is striking.
It was only as Britain began to emerge from the darkness of the Second World War that Clough decided to become a full-time artist. Her first public exhibition was in 1947, at the Leger Galleries in London. Spalding describes the gallery's difficulties with bad weather early in the year, causing a delay of two weeks so that the show finally opened on 25 March. Clough shared the exhibition with Walter H. Nessler, the German colourist who had escaped Nazi Germany and fled to Britain before the war. On display were fourteen of her works, of which she sold only three or four. Spalding draws attention to one particular work which was included in the exhibition, Nets and Anchor, 1946. This is one of the more successful early works, with inanimate tools as its subject. Although a fisherman is clearly visible in the background, our focus is the coiled rope wrapped around an old rusting anchor, while a red buoy lies on the net that the fisherman is hauling. There is a hint of romanticism in the distant figure: the stoic fisherman who battles the forces of the sea to to provide food for war-torn Britain. However, the real subject of the painting is the working materials that allow the fisherman to master the elements. The solid anchor, the thick rope, the rusty marker buoy, the net itself; these are the dependable tools of men at sea and, as such, link the formal arrangement of the picture with the activities that they represent. This was to become a theme of Clough's work throughout the 1940s and 50s. The picture was also significant in another way. It was purchased by the painter David Carr, who was to become a life-long friend and a considerable influence upon Clough's work. Spalding explains in some detail the development of their relationship and, again, it is fascinating to see how her paintings and lithographs during this period explore the relationships between inanimate objects and their functionality in the workplace, while her correspondence with Carr is full of references to what he termed 'machine painting.'
She clearly caught his enthusiasm for the mechanical, as for the next ten years or so her work is dominated by industrial landscapes and machinery. Of course, such subject matter was not unusual in the mid twentieth century. Many artists had come to the conclusion that machines and their environment represented the height of modernity. Indeed, this view can be traced back as far as the French Impressionists with Monet's railway stations and Caillebotte's cast iron bridges, then forward to the Italian Futurists with their love of speed and flying metal, and the machine designs of Leger. However, it is the way Clough portrays such industrial scenes that makes her art so appealing. These visions are not heroic--they do not worship the might of heavy industry—nor do they romanticise the landscape which they inhabit. They seem to occupy a kind of middle ground, where the impersonal machine-dominated environment meets an artist who is able to represent human construction in an accurate, yet sensitive way.
This is best demonstrated on pages 124 and 125, where there are two pictures which illustrate this point well. First there is Cooling Tower II, from 1959. It should be remembered that in the 1950s these vast constructions were appearing for the first time, and so would have been easily recognised as a contemporary subject, modern in every way from their purpose (cheap energy to drive the new household machines) to the materials from which they were made (enormous concrete sheets). The tower fills the canvas surface almost to its full height, while the setting into which this structure fits is delicately painted but unrecognisable as a location that we could visit. The giant, dehumanised tower blends in with the yellowing landscape, and there is a clear harmony between the two. It is as if Clough wants us to recognise that although these massive structures may seem intrusive and out of place, they occupy the real world and can be assimilated within it.
On the opposite page there is a pencil, watercolour and chalk drawing from 1955 of great beauty. Again the subject is industrial, Entrance to a Factory, yet the details of the building are indistinct, the edges blurred in shadow. A curved roof occupies the central space with a tall tower behind and asymmetrical shapes on either side. The shaded blocks of colour, blue-grey with touches of yellow and orange, merge to create a ghostly and slightly ethereal scene. Clough is able to portray a seemingly ordinary industrial landscape and fill it with a sense of wonder and mystery. Later in the book, when discussing the first major exhibition of her work at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1960, Spalding quotes from the catalogue introduction by Michael Middleton. The final sentence seems to sum up her work in this period. He wrote: "Prunella Clough, it seems to me, feels deeply the need to recreate the visible world that is common to all of us, to see it freshly and to make us aware of it in all its unexpectedness."
From the late 1950s onwards, her work underwent a radical transformation. After visiting exhibitions by Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, Clough became increasingly conscious of the potential strength of more abstract forms. One work in particular, Brown Wall, 1964, demonstrates how her art was changing. A mottled brown mass occupies the central space, edged by familiar coloured concrete walls. Within the solid central block is a floating diamond of yellow and dark orange. It seems to be drifting through a darker brown door which looks like the entrance into another space altogether. As many great abstract works are able to suggest, here is a vision of a distant dimension which we can only glimpse fleetingly. Mass moves, light resonates, and shadows fall over shapes which are scarcely of this world.
That Prunella Clough was one of the most interesting and innovative English artists of the late twentieth century is surely unquestionable. This fine book is to be recommended for the sensitive and thoughtful way in which it reconstructs her biography, allowing the reader to trace the artistic changes which derived from her search for new expressive forms. Taken as a whole, her work is both varied and sustained, and forms a collection in which the theme of searching is ever present. Notoriously reluctant to self publicise, and exhibiting infrequently, Clough is an artist who should be highly regarded for what she achieved throughout her life. This book is a pleasure and a revelation--enjoy it if you can.--Paul Flux