Ford Madox Brown was born in April 16, 1821, and was the grandson of the medical theorist John Brown, founder of the Brunonian system of medicine and the son of Ford Brown, who served as a purser in the Royal Navy, including a period serving under Sir Isaac Coffin and a period on HMS Arethusa, and Caroline Madox, of an old Kentish family.
Brown’s education was limited, as the family frequently moved between lodgings in the Pas-de-Calais and relatives in Kent, but he showed artistic talent in copying of old master prints. His father initially sought a naval career for his son, writing to his former captain Sir Isaac Coffin.
The family moved to Bruges in 1835 so Brown could study at the academy under Albert Gregorius. Brown then moved to Ghent in 1836 to continue his studies under Pieter van Hanselaere.
In 1837, he moved to Antwerp to study under Gustaf Wappers. He continued to study in Antwerp after his mother’s death in 1839.
Ford Madox Brown married twice. His first wife was Elizabeth Bromley, his first cousin through his mother’s sister Mary. They were married in Meopham in Kent in April 1841, shortly before his 20th birthday and less than a year after the sudden death of his sister Elizabeth. They lived in Montmartre in 1841 with Brown’s invalid father who died the following summer.
Their first child died young as an infant in November 1842. Their daughter Emma Lucy was born in 1843 and the family moved back to England in 1844.
They travelled to Rome in 1845 to alleviate the illness of his wife, who was suffering from consumption (pulmonary tuberculosis). She died in Paris in June 1846, aged 27, on the journey back to England from Rome.
Emma Hill became a frequent model for Brown from 1848. She became his mistress and they shared a house in London, but social convention discouraged him from marrying an illiterate daughter of a bricklayer.
Their daughter Catherine Emily was born in 1850 and eventually they were married at St Dunstan-in-the-West in April 1853. Ford also leased a house in Fitzroy Square.
Their son, Oliver Madox Brown, born in 1855, showed promise both as an artist and poet, but died of blood poisoning before his 20th birthday. The death of Oliver was a crushing blow for Brown, and he kept a room for his son’s belongings as a shrine.
Another son, Arthur, was born in September 1856. Brown used Arthur as the model for the baby held by a ragged girl in the foreground of Work, but he died aged only ten months old in July 1857.
His daughters Lucy and Catherine were also competent artists. Lucy married William Michael Rossetti in 1874, while Catherine married Francis Hueffer in 1872.
The Tate Gallery holds an early example of Brown’s work, a portrait of his father. He first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1840, a work inspired by Lord Byron‘s poem The Giaour (now lost) and then completed a version of The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, with his cousin and future wife Elisabeth Bromley as one of his models.
He painted Manfred on the Jungfrau, inspired by Lord Byron‘s poem Manfred while he was in Paris.
In 1843 he submitted work to the Westminster Cartoon Competition, for compositions to decorate the new Palace of Westminster. His entry, The Body of Harold Brought before William, was not successful.
His early works were, however, greatly admired by the young Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who asked him to become his tutor. Through Rossetti, Brown came into contact with the artists who went on to form the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.
Though closely linked to them, he was never actually a member of the brotherhood itself, but adopted the bright colours and realistic style of William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais.
He was also influenced by the works of Holbein that he saw in Basel in 1845 and by Friedrich Overbeck and Peter Cornelius, whom he met in Rome in 1845–46.
Brown struggled to make his mark in the 1850s, with his paintings failing to find buyers, and he considered emigrating to India.
One of his most famous images is The Last of England, painted from 1852 to 1855, which was sold in March,1859 for 325 Guineas. It depicts a pair of stricken emigrants as they sail away on the ship that will take them from England forever and was inspired by the departure of the Pre-Raphaelite sculptor Thomas Woolner, who had left for Australia. The husband and wife are portraits of Brown and his second wife Emma.
Brown’s most important painting was Work, which he begun in Hampstead in 1852 and was shown at his retrospective exhibition in 1865. Thomas Plint advanced funds to enable Brown to complete the work, in anticipation of obtaining the finished painting, but died in 1861 before the painting had been completed.
In this painting, Brown attempted to depict the totality of the mid-Victorian social experience in a single image, depicting ‘navvies’ digging up a road (Heath Street in Hampstead, north London) and disrupting the old social hierarchies as they did so. The image erupts into proliferating details from the dynamic centre of the action, as the workers tear a hole in the road – and, symbolically, in the social fabric. Each character represents a particular social class and role in the modern urban environment.
Brown wrote a catalogue to accompany the special exhibition of Work. This publication included an extensive explanation of Work that nevertheless leaves many questions unanswered.
Brown’s concern with the social issues addressed in Work prompted him to open a soup kitchen for Manchester’s hungry and to attempt to aid the city’s unemployed to find work by founding a labour exchange.
Brown found patrons in the north of England, including Plint, George Rae from Birkenhead, John Miller from Liverpool and James Leathart from Newcastle.
By the late 1850s he had lost patience with the poor reception he received at the Royal Academy and ceased to show his works there, rejecting an offer from Millais to support his becoming an associate member.
He founded the Hogarth Club in 1858, with William Morris, Edward Burne-Jones, and his former pupil Rossetti. The club reached over 80 members, including several prominent members of the Royal Academy, but Brown resigned in 1860 and the club collapsed in 1861.
From the 1860s, Brown also designed furniture and stained glass. He was a founder partner of William Morris‘s design company, Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co., in 1861, which dissolved in 1874 with Morris continuing on his own. He was also a close friend of the landscape artist Henry Mark Anthony.
Brown’s major achievement after Work was The Manchester Murals, a cycle of twelve paintings in the Great Hall of Manchester Town Hall depicting the history of the city.
Brown would be 72 by the time he finished the murals. In total, he took six years perfecting the murals, which were his last major work.
Brown died in Primrose Hill, north London, in Otober 6, 1893. He is buried in the St Pancras and Islington Cemetery in East Finchley.
He was given a secular funeral and the funeral oration was delivered by the American Moncure D. Conway, the secularist after whom Conway Hall was later named.