Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Bite 66: Ford Madox Brown - The Last of England, 1855

The Last of England, 1855, oil on panel, 83 x 75 cm
A baby clutches its mother's hand. The mother in turn holds tight to her husband's. He holds his hand to his chest. Lost in anxious thought they gaze uncertainly toward their future: Australia, many months travel ahead of them. The White Cliffs of Dover, England, are behind them. They struggle to leave.

Ford Madox Brown, in one of his most successful paintings, brings the small yet momentous moment between emigrants leaving their home, probably for good, to the viewer with profound and touching intimacy. The entire circular composition is centred on the couple and their child - only evidenced by a small hand. We feel their fear and apprehension, the mystery of the unknown, of what must now surely come.

Brown states, "To ensure the peculiar look of light all round which objects have on a dull day at sea, it was painted for the most part in the open air on dull days."

More brightly lit the woman's face is the key here. Her heart is still with her home, she has great uncertainty and fear for her child, and her husband. Taking hold of his hand she offers support as much as needing it. She realises that she must work to keep them together in their great voyage. The stiffly blowing ribbon, her firm lips and hard-set eyes attest to her strength. We see this is a strong-willed woman with determination, as well as fear, in her eyes. 

My grandmother emigrated from Yorkshire to Australia many decades ago. In two weeks I will retrace that journey, in a way, returning from New Zealand to England, where all my grandparents were born.