How To Read Paintings: The Last of England by Ford Madox Brown
A work of art about the hopes and fears of migration, in the Pre-Raphaelite style
This is one of those works of art that grows richer the more you look at it. A story unfolds, and with it, your sense of connection with the work deepens.
A husband and wife are sat side by side, gathered beneath a wind-warped umbrella. They are on the outer deck of a boat. Her pink scarf is rippling across them, whipped by the sea breeze. The pale-green waves race towards the side of the boat relentlessly.
The expressions of the voyagers are stern, stubborn, steadfast.
The first impression of the work is rather forbidding, but first impressions don’t last. Painted by the English artist Ford Madox Brown, The Last of England depicts a family leaving the shores of their home country on a journey of migration. The white cliffs of Dover — the port of departure — are receding into the distance behind them.
They are a family of at least three: husband, wife, and if you look very closely, the suggested form a child — inside the wife’s shawl — whose hand clutches onto its mother’s between a gap in the material. These two hands holding each other are echoed in the hands of the husband and wife clasped nearby.
Ford Madox Brown painted this work between 1852 and 1855. It was not an easy time in the artist’s life, since his professional success was faltering and his circumstances were dominated by poverty. He was considering his options. In 1852 he saw his friend and Pre-Raphaelite sculptor, Thomas Woolner, leave Gravesend harbour and emigrate to Australia. Brown also considered emigrating in an attempt to alleviate his circumstances — himself to India. He described himself at the time as “very hard up and a little mad.”
During the 19th century, Britain had one of the highest rates of emigration of all European countries. People were travelling to the colonial territories of the British Empire. Many of those leaving were farmers, labourers and craftsmen from traditional trades; many emigrated in family groups. Brown himself, by no means insensitive to the social conditions of the country at the time, wrote, “The educated are bound to their country by closer ties than the illiterate, whose chief consideration is food and physical comfort.”
Brown never did emigrate from Britain. In the painting, he depicts himself and his wife on an imaginary journey to some undisclosed land. At the front of the boat a row of cabbages dangle — the passengers’ sustenance during the journey. The journey promises to be long and arduous.
Brown described the painting in a catalogue entry for a 1865 exhibition:
“In order to present the parting in its fullest tragic development, [I] singled out a couple from the middle class, high enough, through education and refinement, to appreciate all they are giving up, and yet dignified enough in means to have to put up the discomforts and humiliations incident to a vessel.”
Other families are on the boat too, all tightly packed onto the ship’s deck. A father smokes a pipe, a child eats an apple, a mother and son huddle together for warmth. All of these details are crammed into the narrow left-hand margin, lending the atmosphere a convivial yet hectic feel. The dinghy painted in the background gives a clue as to the hopes (if not expectations) of those aboard: its name, Eldorado, refers to the mythical “city of gold”.
The work is painted in a circular composition known as a tondo. The word tondo derives from the Italian rotondo, meaning round. Many Renaissance artists used the circular composition in their works, including Botticelli and Michelangelo, a technique which they revived from Greek precedents. Brown appears to have wished to renew the technique for his own times.
Above all, Brown’s work revels in precisely painted details. One of my favourites is the piece of string that the man has used to tie his hat to the button on his coat — presumably to stop it from blowing away should the wind catch it. Beneath the rim of the hat, the man’s expression supplies a strong sense of his inner feelings. Brown wrote: “The husband broods bitterly over blighted hopes and severance from all that he has been striving for.”
Brown was also a master of painting different textures. Just looking across the clothes of the main couple, one finds an extraordinary description of various fabrics, from the woven fabric of the woman’s shawl to her silk headscarf, from the shabby fur of the man’s coat to the leather tarpaulin they use as a blanket, not to mention the materials of the boat, sea and sky.
It is through these graphic details that the viewer can further empathise with the family’s experiences, and in doing so, turn the work from a comment on social classes into a distinctively vivid image of fear and hope, regret and perseverance.
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