Labour of love

22nd November 2002 at 00:00
This picture took 13 years to paint. Tricia Peate explains its creator's passion to revolutionise art.

Revolution swept Europe in 1848, with national boundaries being re-drawn from Germany to Italy. The last massed meeting of the Chartist Movement, which took place in London was attended by two young artists, William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais, who were students at the Royal Academy. Hunt said: "Like most young men, I was stirred by the spirit of freedom of the passing revolutionary time." The young men's shared spirit of intense rebellion instigated a revolt against the standards of teaching at the Royal Academy and its domination of artistic taste and opinion.

Millais was already an accomplished painter at 19; Hunt found academic methods increasingly uncongenial; Dante Gabriel Rossetti was still struggling to master basic techniques and torn between poetry and painting. Rossetti's brother William Michael became secretary to the group. James Collinson, a shy and deeply religious friend of Rossetti, Thomas Woolner, sculptor and poet, and Frederic George Stephens, soon to give up painting to write on art, also joined. Ford Madox Brown was already attempting a clear-cut realistic style with daylight effects: Rossetti asked to be his pupil.

The Brotherhood's battle was "to do battle against the frivolous art of the day" (Hunt). They disliked two kinds: genre painting (enormously popular, but usually trivial pictures of everyday scenes, often sentimental and dark and gloomy in colour), and history painting (subjects from classical history and mythology, modern history, literature and poetry). History painting was perfected by Raphael (1483-1520) and his great Italian contemporaries Michelangelo and Leonardo, and was considered the noblest form of art. All the art academies of Europe, including the Royal Academy schools in London, taught history painting, but by the 19th century students were merely imitating the art of the past. The Pre-Raphaelites turned for the qualities they sought to earlier Italian art "pre-Raphael".

The Brotherhood's aims were summarised by William Michael Rossetti:

* to have genuine ideas to express;

* to study nature attentively, so as to know how to express them;

* to sympathise with what is direct and serious and heartfelt in previous art, to the exclusion of what is conventional and self-parading and learned by rote; and * most indispensable of all, to produce thoroughly good pictures and statues.

Ruskin's book Modern Painters, which criticised most European painting since the Renaissance for its lack of truth to nature, was an important influence. He advised artists to reject convention and to turn to nature instead, to combat the "clear and tasteless poison of Raphael".

By 1852, the Pre-Raphaelites had produced many of their masterpieces, despite hostility from critics and the public, earning the support of Ruskin, who defended them in a now famous letter to The Times in May 1851. But by 1853 the Brotherhood had disintegrated. After 1856, Rossetti and two younger men, Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris, reinvented Pre-Raphaelitism. The movement left no direct followers and all the original members, except Holman Hunt, changed their styles. Their most original contribution, most notably in the work of Ford Madox Brown, was in the convincing depiction of open air light on landscapes and figures.

No artists before the Pre-Raphaelites had ever consistently painted finished landscapes (as opposed to sketches) out of doors. Bright, clear colours, sharply focused detail and an all-over distribution of light became their hallmark, rejecting the contemporary practice of painting dark shadowy corners. Paying great attention to detail, they used wet-white technique - painting over a pure white ground while it is still wet, using virtually transparent colours.

Ford Madox Brown's "Work"

"Work" in the Birmingham Gallery is a smaller duplicate version painted concurrently with the larger one now at Manchester City Art Gallery. It shows how work affects all strata of contemporary society and was inspired by a group of navvies earning their living by honest manual labour as they lay water pipes in Heath Street, Hampstead.

Brown was passionately involved with intellectual and social ideas of the day: the two thinkers standing on the right, included as "brainworkers," represent these ideas. Writer and philosopher Thomas Carlyle (with hat and stick) stands next to the Rev F D Maurice, the Christian Socialist who in 1854 founded the Working Men's College, which pioneered adult education and where Brown, Ruskin and Rossetti taught without payment. An advert for the college is pasted on the left-hand wall.

"Work" began in the studio in June 1852; the background was painted on the spot in July and August, using a specially rigged costermonger's truck to carry a large canvas. FD Maurice posed for Brown, but the portrait of Carlyle is based on a photograph specially taken in 1859. The painting took 13 years to complete, no mean feat of work itself.

Moral contrasts between industry and idleness recall Hogarth, much admired by the Pre-Raphaelites. Brown uses real, living people rather than symbols, with touches of humour, like the nattily dressed Birmingham beer-seller who got a bruised eye in a fight - "vulgar as Birmingham can make him in the 19th century". Look at the dogs: the poor children's mongrel and the navvy's bull-terrier pup eye the rich lady's sleek whippet, red-coated to match his owner's red dress.

Tricia Peate is schools liaison art teacher at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery Information on "Work" is available at www.schoolsliaison.org.uk

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