Tris­tram Hunt’s favourite paint­ing

Country Life Every Week - - Contents - Tris­tram Hunt is the di­rec­tor of the Vic­to­ria & Al­bert Mu­seum

The di­rec­tor of the V&A chooses ‘the most so­cially con­scious of all English 19th-cen­tury paint­ings’

That ex­u­ber­ant scholar timothy hil­ton, bi­og­ra­pher of John Ruskin, has de­scribed Work in his book The Pre-raphaelites as ‘the most fully so­cially con­scious of all English 19th-cen­tury paint­ings’.

Like Ruskin, Ford Ma­dox Brown was slightly older than the painters of the Pre-raphaelite Brotherhood—of which he is of­ten, mis­tak­enly, thought to have been a mem­ber—and knew Europe first­hand. he was born in Calais, where his par­ents moved in the in­ter­ests of econ­omy af­ter his fa­ther’s naval re­tire­ment. Later, the fam­ily lived in Bruges to en­able the ar­tis­ti­cally gifted Brown to study at the academy. his train­ing was com­pleted in Ghent and an­twerp.

three years in Paris, largely spent copy­ing in the Lou­vre, were fol­lowed by spells in Basel and Rome, in vain to save the life of his young bride, a cousin. af­ter her death, he set­tled in Eng­land.

the Brotherhood had no com­mon pur­pose, but Brown did know them —Ros­setti was briefly his self­ap­pointed pupil—and he shared some of their aspi­ra­tions. these were en­cour­aged, ar­tic­u­lated and cham­pi­oned by Ruskin: truth to Na­ture, day-lit ef­fects, moral em­pha­sis. art and work should be in­di­vis­i­ble, with all work, artis­tic or other­wise, of equal moral merit; artis­tic value could even be mea­sured by the labour in­volved in achiev­ing fac­tual truth.

Work pro­claims this. It was specif­i­cally in­spired by thomas Car­lyle’s Past and Present, the au­thor shown in the paint­ing with hat and cane. as Brown said, London navvies in­stalling sewage pipes were ev­ery bit as worth a pic­ture as ‘the peas­ant of the Cam­pagna, or the Neapoli­tan laz­zarone’.

No­tice, too, the rich mounted cou­ple and, eas­ily missed, the home­less sleep­ing in the shade. heath Street, hamp­stead, is still recog­nis­able to­day—as are the in­equal­i­ties Brown ex­posed.

Work, 1852– 65, by Ford Ma­dox Brown (1821–93), 64½in by 88in, Manchester Art Gallery

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