Spirit of Justice by Ford Madox Brown

Spirit of Justice by Ford Madox Brown (1845)
I am returning to the artist Ford Madox Brown and for My Daily Art Display today I am taking a look at one of his earliest works, which he completed in 1845 when he was twenty four years of age, and which is entitled Study for Spirit of Justice.  Before I look in detail at the painting and the reason why the artist painted the picture let me go over with you the early life of the artist and his ancestors.  Much of the information regarding Ford Madox Brown’s family tree comes from a biographical volume written by his grandson, Ford Hueffer, later known as Ford Madox Ford, entitled Ford Madox Brown, a record of his life and works, which was published in 1896.  I also have to acknowledge the work The Ancestry and Families of Ford Madox Brownby W.D.Padden,  a professor of English Literature at the University of Kansas. Ford Madox Brown’s  paternal grandfather, John Brown, was the son of a common labourer and an active member of the Seceders, a strict Scottish sect, linked to the United Secession Church,  which followed the 18th century Secession movement from the Church of Scotland, and which later became the United Presbyterian Church of Scotland.  He, like his father, followed the strict doctrines of the sect but that all changed when he went to the University of St Andrews in Edinburgh and he began to see the failures and flaws of some of the sect’s doctrines.   After his university studies Ford Madox Brown’s grandfather became a doctor and was also the author of many medical books as well as holding down the position as a university lecturer.  He appears to have been a very colourful character as it was reported that during his lectures he would take vigorous mouthfuls of a mixture of whiskey and laudanum in order to achieve a suitable degree of inspiration.  Doctor Brown married Ford Madox Brown’s grandmother, Euphemia, in 1765 and the couple went on to have twelve children of whom eight survived the father. Ford Brown, Ford Madox Brown’s father, was born in 1780.  He became a purser in the Royal Navy in 1800 and remained sea-going in the military for fourteen years before taking a shore-based post.  A year later in April 1815, Ford Brown married Caroline Madox.  Caroline was the daughter of Tristram Maries Madox, who was a member of Her Majesty’s Bodyguard of the Honourable Corps of Gentlemen at Arms.  Their role was to act as guards or attendants to the sovereign on state occasions.   Biographical notes on the couple state that they lived on the continent “for reasons of thrift”.  Their first child, a daughter Eliza Coffin Brown was born in 1819 and two years later on April 16th 1821 their first son Ford Madox Brown was born in Calais.  Ford Madox Brown’s father had to retire from the Royal Navy in 1834 following a stroke.  Ford Madox Brown’s mother died in Calais in 1839 when the artist was nineteen years old and his sister died the following year aged just twenty one.

Ford Madox Brown and his family had moved around the continent quite a lot, probably due to the nature of his father’s work and he received his formal art education at various academies.  In Bruges he studied under the Belgian neo-classicist painter Albert Gregorious, and later was a student of the Flemish painter Pieter van Hanselaer at Ghent both of whom were former pupils of Jacques-Louis David.   From Ghent he went to study in Antwerp for three years where his teacher was Gustav Wappers, the leader of the Belgian Romantic School.  The standard of his art education was high and more importantly to his family, much cheaper than if he had studied in Paris.   In 1840 after the deaths of his mother and sister, he and his father moved to Paris.  His father died there in 1842 and was buried at Montmarte.

So to My Daily Art Display’s featured painting.  In London, the old Houses of Parliament had been destroyed by fire in 1834 and a new Houses of Parliament at Westminster were built. Competitions were held for appropriate designs (‘cartoons’), with a number of leading artists commissioned to take part.   To organise and oversee this project, a Royal Commission had been appointed in 1841, the President of which was Queen Victoria’s new consort Prince Albert.   In all there were three annual competitions and Ford Madox Brown decided to enter a work for the third and final one in 1845.  The competition rules were that each artist would submit a full sized cartoon (preparatory drawing) with specimens of fresco or other techniques suitable for murals.  The design of their submitted work had to be scenes from British History or Literature or personifications of abstract representations of Religion, Justice and the Spirit of Chivalry.

Before us we see the Study for Spirit and Justice, a pencil, watercolour and bodycolour work, the preparatory drawing of which he submitted to the adjudicators of the competition.  It measured 5 meters x 3meters which was to be the actual size of the mural if it was selected.  His reasoning behind his submission was that it reflected patriotism and it highlighted his sympathy with the oppressed.  In it we see Anglo Saxons defeated by foreign invaders and abused by a rich baron.  In the foreground we have a lone grieving widow, clutching her baby with another of her youngsters holding on to her skirt.  To the right of her, we see her parents who are unable to help her.  She is appealing to Justice against the oppression of the wicked but powerful Baron.  We see the baron on the left in his armour with his deceitful advisor whispering advice.  Above them are more armed barons who are there to administer justice and further back we have the bishops and peers who represent the Lords Spiritual and the Lords Temporal and who are an allegorical representation of the House of Lords.    At the top of the painting we see the blindfolded woman – Justice.  To her right we have the figures of Mercy and Erudition and to her left we have Truth and Wisdom.

Ford Madox Brown’s submission did not win a prize but nevertheless it was well received by the artistic community,  both artists and critics alike,  and a picture of his cartoon actually appeared in the competition catalogue.  Benjamin Robert Haydon, the English historical painter and writer was dismissive of the result of the competition stating:

“…The only bit of fresco fit to look at is by Ford Madox Brown.  It is a figure of “Justice” and exquisite as far as that figure goes…”

The young Dante Gabriel Rossetti loved the work and cut out the picture from the catalogue and had hung in his room.

It is an interesting work and one which would have looked good on one of the walls of the Houses of Parliament, but sadly it was not to be.