Already twenty-seven at the time the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was founded, Ford Madox Brown was from its inception an important associate and acted as a mentor to its members. He gave lessons in oil painting to Dante Gabriel Rossetti, at the younger artist's request, and contributed an essay on historical painting to the group's magazine The Germ (1850). His remarkably frank and detailed diary affords many insights into the life and work of the Pre-Raphaelite circle.
Born in Calais on April 16, 1821, the son of a ship's purser, Brown studied in Bruges, Ghent, and Antwerp (under Gustave, Baron Wappers [1805-1874]) before moving to Paris, where he lived from 1840 to 1844; he married his cousin Elisabeth Bromley there in 1841. His first exhibit at the Royal Academy was in the same year, and he submitted cartoons, without success, to the competitions of 1844 and 1845 for fresco paintings in the new Palace of Westminster. By this time settled in London, he travelled in the winter of 1845-46 to Switzerland and Rome, where he visited the studios of the German "Nazarene" painters. Elisabeth died in June 1846, leaving him with an infant daughter.
Meeting Rossetti and William Holman Hunt in 1848, Brown adopted many of the traits of Pre-Raphaelite painting, and his own work became associated with theirs in the minds of the critics and public alike, beginning with Chaucer at the Court of Edward III (National Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney), shown at the Royal Academy in 1851. This had taken more than five years to complete. Brown's perfectionism being such that his production of major works was far slower than that of his contemporaries. His most ambitious paintings – Work (1852-1863, Manchester Art Gallery), The Last of England, and English Autumn Afternoon (the latter two, 1852-1855, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery) – all took many years to complete, leaving the artist often in a state of anxiety and financial insecurity. A retrospective exhibition in 1865 brought some good reviews but few sales.
His second marriage, to Emma Matilda Hill, was in 1853, when their daughter Catherine was already two years old; a son, Oliver (Nolly), died in 1874 aged only nineteen, having already shown talent as a painter and writer. In the same year, his elder daughter Lucy married William Michael Rossetti. Brown, a founding member in 1861 of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Company, for which he designed stained glass and furniture, also turned his hand to book illustration and even stage scenery: his love of Shakespearean subjects led to a commission from Henry Irving to dress his 1892 production of King Lear at the Lyceum Theatre. From 1878 on, he was occupied for more than ten years with a cycle of twelve large paintings for Manchester Town Hall, which he managed to finish not long before his death in London on October 6, 1893.
Biographical source: 'Waking Dreams: The Art of the Pre-Raphaelites from the Delaware Art Museum' exhibition catalogue
'Self-Portrait' by Ford Madox Brown