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Course: Europe 1800 - 1900 > Unit 4

Lesson 2: The Pre-Raphaelites and mid-Victorian art

Ford Madox Brown, The Last of England

Ford Madox Brown, The Last of England, 1855, oil on panel, 82.5 x 75 cm (Birmingham Museums Trust). A conversation with Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris. Created by Smarthistory.

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Video transcript

(soft music) - [Narrator] We're in Birmingham looking at one of the most famous paintings by Ford Maddox Brown. This is "The Last of England." - [Narrator 2] Brown was associated with the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and that group sought to create a kind of painting that, as the art critic Ruskin said, "Involved truth to nature." And in this painting of an immigrant family on a ship leaving England, we can really see Ruskin's idea of truth to nature. - [Narrator] You can see it in the careful handling of the light that you would find on a bright, but overcast day, and the way that that light infuses different kinds of surfaces. - [Narrator 2] Making this truthful to what this looked like was important to the artist. He painted portions of it outdoors. In fact, there's a passage from his diary where he is happy that it's very cold, 'cause that allows him to paint the way that one's skin turns a bit blue in the cold. - [Narrator] And you can see that in the right hand of the man in the foreground. - [Narrator 2] There was a wave of immigration in the 1840s and 1850s, where many people sought a better life in the United States or in Australia. And Brown himself thought about immigrating to India. It's important to remember that the decade before this, was called the hungry forties. A decade of tremendous conflict between the classes, widespread unemployment, of strikes, of people going hungry. And so this kind of hardship would lead one to think about leaving one's home country to have a better life for one's family. - [Narrator] The seriousness of the situation of the primary figures could not be more directly expressed. - [Narrator 2] Although we're meant to read them as a typical middle class couple forced to take this voyage, they are modeled after the artist himself, and his wife, Emma. - [Narrator] You can just make out the hand of the child that she holds under her wrap. And in fact, just the turn of the child's head, and the child's sock peeking out. In a sense, we also have references to the tradition of religious painting. This is, in some ways, a representation of the holy family, and the artist has created almost a halo-like series of concentric circles that surround the woman's head. Her braids, her ribbon, and her bonnet. - [Narrator 2] We're also looking at Brown's ideas, and Victorian ideas of the way that men and women differently experience the world. She has got her family, therefore all she needs. And I think that that's, for me, most poignantly shown in the hands, the child's hand that grips its mother, but also her gloved hand, which holds her husband's hand so tightly, that his fingers get squished a little bit together. And so you feel her reliance on him. He is the strength of the family. He is what keeps the family together. - [Narrator] So this painting is a product of 19th century ideas of patriarchy, of family, and of gendered roles. - [Narrator 2] And this is also a commentary on the problems faced by artists in the mid-19th century. - [Narrator] But this is also a painting that's meant to invite close looking, because the artist has lavished on it not only tremendous attention to the light, but also to the textures, to the complex environment of a small ship where people are forced together. And, in this case, where people of different social classes are brought together. - [Narrator 2] Brown has made it very clear that the couple are slightly higher in class than the other figures behind them. We see what he described as a grocer's family, the little girl eating an apple, a man smoking a pipe, and then two men who look slightly drunk. One who's shaking his fist as he looks at the white cliffs of the shoreline of England, a man who Brown described as shaking his fist at his country, and blaming his country for not providing for him. Behind that, a figure who's unloading groceries onto the boat. So this kind of chaotic group of figures who are coming together. - [Narrator] The level of detail is tremendously precise. The enormous amount of time that the artist took to render this oil on panel is evident in the fabric of the woman's cloak, of the man's coat. You can make out the individual droplets of water on the rope or on the cabbages that the passengers will eat during their journey, or the way in which the spray from the waves are gathering in droplets on the outside of the umbrella. And then there's the way in which the woman's ribbons are being whipped around by the wind, and a series of beautiful compositional echoes. You see an arc made by the string that ties the man's hat to his button, so that the wind won't make off with it. That arc is echoed by his shoulder, echoed again by the pipe, echoed again by the arm that holds the life raft in the background. There are a series of formal relationships that the artist has carefully constructed in order to make sure that the image remains unified for all the chaos that he's displaying. - [Narrator 2] And my favorite passage is the tassels on her gray, woolen chal, which are painted with such care. And this reminds us of this pre-Raphaelite principle of truth to nature, of painting what one sees, moving away from the academic style, which generalized forms, which used loose, open brushwork, which relied on academic formulas that had been in place since the Renaissance. - [Narrator] And so we're left with this image of this family that is facing a cold, dark, windy, storm-tossed sea, trying to protect themselves from this weather just as they're trying to protect themselves from the economic storm that they found themselves in in England. (soft music)