Published: MANCHESTER CONFIDENTIAL, 24th June 2008
Focus on Art: "Manchester Under Attack, Thalia Allington-Wood on Ford Madox Brown's strangely calm depiction of war"
Artist: Ford Madox Brown
What and Where: 'Bradshaw’s Defence of Manchester A.D. 1642', Manchester Town Hall
Ford Madox Brown was one of the most important influences on the Pre-Raphaelite movement. Of a slightly earlier generation, Brown was a pioneer in the style and aspirations of the Brotherhood. It was his accuracy in portraying the physical elements and subjects of his work, and the bold use of colour he employed, that captivated artists such as Rossetti, Hunt and Millais.
Wounded men lie face down on the floor or slumped against the bridge battlements with very little expression of pain, and minimal evidence of horrific wounds or blood loss. The sky is pale blue and calm. The river ambles gently under the bridge. Everything feels static and calm despite the obvious confusion of the scene.
It took him a bloody long time to finish. Painting the murals in the delicious and magnificent Great Hall dominated the latter part of Ford Madox Brown’s career. He began work in 1879 and finally finished in 1893. That’s 14 years although he did spend time away completing other work.
Each painting is illustrative of Victorian Manchester and captures different elements of the city's history – from the Romans building Castlefield’s fort, to the expulsion of the Danes, to John Dalton and his gas experiments.
‘Bradshaw’s Defence of Manchester’ was the last painting to be completed and depicts the defence of Manchester from the Royalist assaults in 1642 – the start of the English Civil War. This particular mural probably took Brown the longest, despite it not being his most complex or technically brilliant, as the poor man suffered a stroke and as a result had to paint the image with his left hand. If you look at the green landscape in the back right, it does seem like he’s struggling. Gone are the clearly defined lines and detail we see in the other murals.
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Brown’s mural is typically romantic and full of the glorious English sentiment that characterises much of his work. As he often painted outdoors in natural light, it is interesting to see a painting by him which, due to its setting, must have restricted him to working indoors.
Despite this, ‘Bradshaw’s Defence of Manchester’ still maintains Brown’s characteristic brightness of colour. This produces an unexpected and strange image of war, which we often expect to be gritty and blood-stained. Here, wounded men lie face down on the floor or slumped against the bridge battlements with very little expression of pain, and minimal evidence of horrific wounds or blood loss. The sky is pale blue and calm. The river ambles gently under the bridge. Everything feels static and calm despite the obvious confusion of the scene. The Royalists in the foreground are not aggressive or panicked; two soldiers calmly help a comrade from under his fallen horse, while a young man quietly reloads his gun and observes their struggle without obvious concern. This creates a peculiar and uneven balance in which battle, death and anger contrast with brightness, nature and stillness.
Bradshaw looks a bit lonely
Yes, there he is, Bradshaw, standing ahead of the other gunmen who are shielded by smoke, alone and vulnerable but fending off the attacking troops. Not sure if Mr Brown is being entirely accurate here – one man and his musket would definitely not have been able to hold off all those men. The damn thing would have taken far too long to load if nothing else. In fact, if we are going to pull the historic correctness of the painting to shreds, it wasn’t even Bradshaw who defended the bridge at Salford but Colonel Rosworm. However, Ford Madox Brown is not attempting to perfectly document history. Instead, as can be seen in the other murals, he wants to create a dramatic conception of Manchester’s past.
From the very outset of the English Civil War, Manchester was considered a fierce and loyal Parliamentary stronghold. It was one of the few towns in Lancashire not to support Charles I and thus was a lone but stubborn holder of controversial and dangerous politics. Ford Madox Brown’s Bradshaw; the singular man, standing brave and defiant against a whole group of armed men, fiercely defending his beliefs and home, is symbolic of Manchester as a community. The city that remained unassailable. Heroic and glorified.