Saturday, 1 October 2011

Seen in a Different Light

When the sun shines brightly over Manchester it affords an opportunity to appreciate some of the finer qualities of its ornate, Victorian buildings. So did it shine one recent morning as I walked to the city’s main art gallery to see the newly-opened exhibition of the works of Ford Maddox Brown: the rays hit the buildings acutely, lighting up their decorative features and bringing into sharp relief the intricate detailing of stone, brick and terra-cotta. My eyes were drawn, for the first time, to three words embossed above the second storey windows of a grand, commercial, red-brick edifice: HONESTY, PRUDENCE and PERSEVERANCE. A little further up the road one of the Gallery’s buildings, the classical, Italianate stone-built Athenaeum, competed for the moral high ground with its own inscription, carved around the frieze: FOR THE ADVANCEMENT AND DIFFUSION OF KNOWLEDGE. The buildings on this street could not be described as ambivalent.

Nor is ambivalence a feature of the work of Ford Madox Brown. Now recognised as an innovative, pioneering painter his work created a new style which profoundly influenced the young Pre-Raphaelites. He was also an original partner in the firm founded by William Morris in 1861, for which he designed stained-glass windows, textiles, wallpapers and even furniture. But, despite this diversity, the exhibition of multi-faceted art created by him is much more than the display of visual splendour we might expect.

The passionate colours of his painting and the haunting qualities of its subjects may be what first command attention but closer inspection reveals layers of social and political comment implicit in the imagery- an approach which was unique at the time. Two of his most famous paintings, Work and The Last of England, demonstrate this quality most conspicuously but it is to be found in many of his other works as well. In the latter part of his career he worked - and lived for some years - in Manchester where he had been commissioned to create murals for the Town Hall. During this time he participated actively with the life of the city, leaving traces which we may now delight in detecting through the work he left behind and the ways in which it intertwines with local history. As an example, a five-minute walk from the Gallery, there is a statue of President Lincoln. It is there to commemorate his gratitude to the mill-workers of Lancashire for the stand they took against slavery despite their consequent loss of livelihood due to the ensuing blockade of cotton from the southern states. Back in the exhibition hangs a painting which Brown donated to raise funds for the relief of those workers.

The location of the exhibition, placed in a building dedicated to art and craft, in a city built out of monumental social change, reinforces the sense that Brown’s creativity is engaged not only in his art but in design, politics and society as well. On leaving the Gallery I looked up again, respectfully, at the motto on the frieze. A little more knowledge had been advanced in my direction and I felt inspired to play a small part in its diffusion.

The sunlight lasted into that evening, reflecting soft hues of deep, dusky pink from the monumental, 19th century red brick buildings, bouncing back from the 20th century glass towers and soaking into the honey-coloured stone of the classical-themed fantasies to display a tableau of urban development and social change in one great, unstructured son et lumiere. I thought about the inscribed pledge of honesty, prudence and perseverance which proclaimed the values of the incumbent business of an earlier age and compared it with modern-day, bland ‘mission statements’ about customer satisfaction. I began to dream of persuading banks to resurrect the old values and to post them proudly on their web-sites. But then I remembered one of the last works in the exhibition: a portrait of St. Jude – the patron saint of hopeless causes. 

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