Ford Madox Brown (1821-1893), The Last of England, 1855, oil on panel, 75 cm x 82.5 cm, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.
As winter approaches and the days get shorter, darker, colder, windier and wetter, I feel a certain affinity with the couple in Ford Madox Brown’s The Last of England. The thick coats, extra layers and the ominously fragile looking umbrella all foretell the joys of winter which we have to look forward to over the next few months. However, as much as the scene might remind us of our own wind-swept selves, we should be grateful we are not in the position of Brown’s own wife, Emma, who was the model for the woman in the painting and was asked to sit for the work in all weathers – including the snow. Although never an actual member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Brown worked in line with the Pre-Raphaelite commitment to accurately recreating the natural world and, perhaps unluckily for his wife, believed that painting in outdoor conditions would enhance the beauty and truthfulness of his pieces.
The painting was inspired by the emigration of a fellow artist, Thomas Woolner, who left England for the sunny shores of Australia in 1852. With the couple’s hands firmly locked together and the woman clasping the hand of a small baby, they look united and almost unaffected by the winter elements, impervious to their present discomfort and resolutely focused on the future prospects of a new life in a sunnier climate. Perhaps the painting can offer a degree of inspiration, as although it’ll be cold, windy and wet for a little while to come, winter will be followed by the re-emergence of the sun (albeit a little less sun than the painting’s subjects would have found in Australia). LW
For everything Ford Madox Brown, check out our book Ford Madox Brown: Pre-Raphaelite Pioneer, which recently accompanied a retrospective at Manchester Art Gallery. Oh, and look what we decided to use as the cover.