Saturday, 17 September 2011

Art in Manchester

Ford Madox Brown: Pre-Raphaelite Pioneer
Manchester Art Gallery
24 Sept-29 Jan

Ford Madox Brown (1821-1893) painted in the meticulous, naturalistic style of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. But instead of recreating a lost medieval past, he painted the present as it was - mundane, unglamorous and telling a story more interesting than the Morte d'Arthur. In his masterpiece, Work, three muscular workmen take centre stage. The well-dressed gentlemen and ladies in the scene are pushed to the margins, and the ladies hold their skirts away from the hole the men are digging in the middle of a road in Hampstead (for the new sewage system). The workmen are brightly lit, while the gentry are in the shadow of a tree, a sunshade or a hat brim. The genteel lady is handing the workmen a tract warning against the evils of drink. The ragged figure on the left (with a strange resemblance to comedian Alan Davies) is a seller of wild plants, described by Henry Mayhew in London Labour and the London Poor.

The man with his mouth open is a waiter from a nearby pub who has brought the workmen some beer - and a newspaper. In the foreground is a family of gypsy children, the eldest girl wearing a cast-off adult's dress in a fashion about ten years out of date. At the right, leaning on the fence are the writer Thomas Carlyle and a well-known social reformer. Behind them a country family - come to London to look for work - have sat down on the verge to rest. In the distance a procession of men with placard urge us to "Vote for Bobus!". At the bottom edge of the frame the gentleman's whippet faces off with the gypsies' mongrel.

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