Lot 301: Ford Madox Brown (1821-1893)


February 19, 2003, 12:00 AM EST
London, United Kingdom
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Description: The Ascension oil on canvas 361/2 x 171/2 in. (92.8 x 44.5 cm.) PROVENANCE Bought from the artist by Henry Boddington, and still in his possession in 1911. LITERATURE F.M. Hueffer, Ford Madox Brown: A Record of his Life and Work, London, 1896, pp. 434 (as 'Sketch for Ascension competition'). Teresa Newman and Ray Watkinson, Ford Madox Brown and the Pre-Raphaelite Circle, London, 1991, pp. 19, 22-3, pl. 73. Kenneth Bendiner, The Art of Ford Madox Brown, Pennsylvania, 1998, pp. 11, 103, 109, 117, pl. 9. EXHIBITION Manchester, City Art Gallery, Autumn Exhibition, 1911. London, Maas Gallery, Pre-Raphaelitism, 1970, no. 5. Brighton, Brighton Art Gallery, Heaven, Death and the Victorians, 1970. Virtue Rewarded, 1988-90, no. 35. A Brush with the Millenium, 2000, no. 2. NOTES This highly-finished sketch dates from 1844, and was submitted by Brown to a competition for an altarpiece of this subject in St James's Church, Bermondsey. The contest was won by John Wood (1801-1870), an artist now largely forgotten but well-known in his day for his portraits and historical subjects. Wood's altarpiece remains in the church to this day. The sketch was painted in 1844 when Brown was living with his Bromley in-laws at Meopham in Kent. Following his marriage in 1841, he and his wife had settled in Paris, where his first major historical work, The Execution of Mary Queen of Scots, was exhibited at the Salon the following year; but he had recently returned to England to prepare submissions for the competitions which were being held to find artists capable of decorating the new Palace of Westminster. He was to contribute three cartoons in all, Adam and Eve, The Body of Harold brought before William the Conqueror, and The Spirit of Justice. Brown's works at this early period betray a number of influences, including Rembrandt, Hogarth, Fuseli and Delacroix. All tended to be interpreted in the light of his own strong predilection for quirkiness and eccentricity, values which distinguished his work till the end. In the Ascension he evolves a three-tier composition which evidently owes much to Baroque prototypes, but the wildly exaggerated poses of the angels to either side of Christ, and the figures of the Virgin and the disciples on the ground, are unmistakably Fuselian. Similarly wilful, some might say ludicrous exaggerations are found in Mary Queen of Scots, William the Conqueror, The Spirit of Justice, and other works of this period. It is perhaps not surprising that Brown did not win the Bermondsey competition, or that the Ascension was rejected when he submitted it to the British Institution in 1845. A group of eight studies for the Ascension is in the Birmingham Art Gallery. One is illustrated in Hueffer, op. cit., following p. 447, and this and another are reproduced in Newman and Watkinson, op. cit., pls. 22-3. The Ascension was one of a number of early works that were bought towards the end of Brown's life by his Manchester patron, Henry Boddington. Brown encountered Boddington when he was living in Manchester in the 1880s, painting murals in the Town Hall, and he executed a group portrait of the Boddington fmaily shortly before he returned to London in 1887.
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