Work Is Art

I’m just back from seeing the Ford Madox Brown exhibition at  Manchester Art Gallery. Unfashionable but essential.

Ford Madox Brown, (1821 – 1893), was a Pre-Raphaelite who stood out by depicting ordinary people (eg ‘Work’, 1852-65). This ensured he was out of the pop charts to this day. Talk about the path of most resistance. It’s bad enough being an outcast in your own lifetime, but being an outcast throughout history as well?

His painting ‘The Last of England’ (1855) shows him defiant and middle class to the bitter end. The white cliffs of Dover are to his right, so I presume he’s heading off in a huff for Paris. Like countless artists before him, he would have found the bars and cafes very agreeable indeed.

I like Ford Madox Brown. There’s humour in his work and he wasn’t scared of anything. He arrived in Manchester as the working classes were seizing the day and he couldn’t help but notice. At the same time, Marx, Engels and Dickens, were also noticing. Capital was anything but.

Marx, Engels and Dickens were much more successful than Ford Madox Brown. His failure was his lack of leadership. He didn’t go far enough. He never made it absolutely clear where he stood giving his supporters constant cause for concern and his enemies a weakness to exploit. That crucial lack of confidence and self-doubt is evident in almost everything he painted, but none more so than in ‘The Last of England’. Why present your worst face to your enemies and a sense to your supporters that you may quit and leave them leaderless? Artistic suicide.

I also like the Newlyn painters. They did the same sort of thing as Madox Brown in a new era almost half a century later. They were British through-and-through and never did paint themselves heading off in a huff. Walter Langley would be a good example. A supporter of radical Socialist politics, and founder of the Newlyn school of plein-air painters, he portrayed fishermen looking chuffed to bits as they went about their work (Between the Tides, 1901).

As is the way with anything provincial and outside the fashionable norm, the art establishment condemns Langley in terms equivalent to, “a legend in his own lunchtime”, or, ‘essential to that school of painting of which we do not speak’.

Caroline Fox and Francis Greenacre, in “Walter Langley”, Painting in Newlyn 1880-1930, London, Barbican Art Gallery, 1985, pp 62-65, dismiss Langley with a sneer: “vital to the image of the Newlyn school” and “consistent in style and substantial in output”. A bit like a sausage factory then.

Go and see these painters in Manchester Art Gallery and Penlee Art Gallery, Penzance. It’s free.

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